The American public has been characterized in many ways, not all of them flattering. They have been called gullible, ill informed and even stupid. We speak of the "electorate" but far too few of us vote. And often those who do vote cast ballots that are contrary to their own best interests. The majority of us know shockingly little about the people we put into office, not to mention the issues that confront us as a nation. That may not make us stupid but it hardly gives one confidence in informed or intelligent voting. Just as we buy into those instant diets that will make us svelte with little or no pain or sacrifice, we look for leaders with whom we can imagine sharing a beer or, yes, a glass of wine. The pal-worthy criterion prevails across all demographic groups and probably to an equal degree.
Now those who follow my posts know that, while highly critical of low voter turnouts and how poorly many of us are schooled on the issues, I don't think the public at large is stupid. Complacent absolutely, misinformed (often purposefully led in that direction) sure, but not stupid. Perhaps what gives me so much confidence is that according to the most recent Gallup polling, only 10% of Americans have "great or quite a lot" of faith in Congress. That's down from 42% in 1973. Americans have a very good sense of what's going on, and of course equally what's not. So Mark Leibovich, in his new book This Town, tells a story that somehow only confirms what we already know or fear.
The bottom line of Leibovich's tale is that Washington, whom everyone there refers to as "this town", is plagued by a deep-seated corruption (my words not his). In the old days the word corruption conjured up an image of cash laden envelopes, which abounded across the land. But this is corruption of a different kind, one that makes the other seem petty, if not inconsequential, in comparison. In today's Washington, when work is done and "public service" is ended, few ex-office holders go home. They stay and begin a second career, often as seven figure a year lobbyists. That's good, because Washington is a money town and not having enough of it makes you an outsider. If you have any doubt just ask the real locals who are struggling like so many Americans beyond "the beltway".
In a sense, there are two Washington’s — and that's probably always been true — one well-healed, well partied and well positioned; the other relatively anonymous and largely overlooked. Leibovich writes of the former and few of those whose portrait he paints come off well. It is a This Town that didn't suffer through the great recession but thrived, often feeding from the very trough of the nation's despair. With bank and other interests at risk, lobbyists were super busy and former Senators and Congresspersons were in particular demand —particularly well paid. And through all the despair, the lavish parties went on, for sure places to celebrate but equally, if not more so, to be seen, and to be noticed.
No where better or more suitable to make or renew connections than at an event like the late Tim Russert's memorial (with which Leibovich begins) or at the now overblown White House Correspondents Dinner. That once modest get-together has now morphed into a star-studded extravaganza attended by Washington's elite and a large dose of national celebrities including the icons of Hollywood. It is also a command performance of our presidents who are expected to show their lighter comedic side. Leibovich tells us that Obama's act was threatened when it looked like the Special Forces might be moving in on Osama bin Laden on a Press Club Saturday night. What a relief that the mission took place on the following day. Next year's dinner will be on May 3rd, mark your calendar.
The pull of the rich and corrupt ways of This Town is powerful and almost no one, including the press, is immune from being sucked in. Leibovich is careful to plead guilty. They too, especially the big stars, are invited to the parties as the author was to one at Ben Bradley and Sally Quinn's Georgetown home — the bookend of Russert's memorial. To be sure, they are often there to cover the moment, and they do, but we're a long way from the days when reporters, even the stars, often lived from paycheck to paycheck never straying far socially from their local bar. This is a time when the likes of a Bob Woodward or Tom Friedman are more concerned about how to invest their riches than whether they'll have the ware with all to send their kids to college. NBC's Andrea Mitchel, perhaps in part because she's married to Alan Greenspan, is part of the regular social scene, but she's hardly alone in that.
Leibovich's book as about what makes This Town tick and in the end it's all about wealth and, yes, greed. He writes about today, but of course the character types and the motives he describes are not new to the place. Tammy Haddad (a name you might not know) may be today's party major domo, but let's not forget the millionairess Pearl Mesta who in an earlier era was dubbed "The Hostess with the Mostess". So, too, have their been ambitious Congressional staffers whose sheer chutzpa and ego got them into trouble. Kurt Bardella (another unfamiliar name), whom the author describes as the "ankle-biting young flack for Representative Darrell Issa" epitomizes today's version. There are, no doubt, countless others like him on the Hill and in across town.
We bemoan the fact that bi-partisanship has ceased to exist in Washington. But have no fear. In This Town former Democratic and Republican office holders routinely partner in big moneymaking lobby firms. Covering all the bases, they are not dependent on which party is in control at any given time. It's a new take on the recession-resistant business model. And look for the senator who cries loudest about lobbyists and you're sure to find the fastest one to enter their fold. Trent Lott, Evan Bayh and Chris Dodd are prime examples and Haley Barbour is one of the masters. But perhaps no one really tops Bill Clinton. Here is a man who didn't even own a home when entering the White House and now is a multi-millionaire. While remaining a charismatic figure and doing many good things, his riches ultimately derive from having been president. The veteran actor Dennis Haysbert tells us in his deep sonorous voice that "we're in good hands with Allstate". Reading This Town sadly makes me feel that we are not in such great hands with the people running our national capital, in and especially out of office.
The oft-used adage that we have "the best government money can buy" runs much deeper than Citizens United and the big dollars spent on getting people to that town. True, part of what we're seeing can be attributed to the fact that elected officials on the Hill continually need to raise funds for the next election, something that starts with their victory speech for the one just passed. It is also sad but true that in some ways we're better served by an already super wealthy — a Michael Blumenthal or Darrell Issa — than the yet to be really rich people who now hold public office, elected or appointed. Former retail magnate Herb Kohl didn't have to move into lobbying when he left the senate. He already owned his soul, no need to sell it.
We need far more than election, tax or immigration reform in this country. We need a fundamental reform of the system. It's not only a matter that corruption prevails, but that it's so engrained that the players have forgotten what the word means. Attribute it to money if you will, but a doing so is probably too simplistic. The fact is that the town that Leibovich so brilliantly paints is embodies massive conflicts of interest. It is a way so embedded that it's hard to see a way out. For sure, we would all like to see it change, but let's not hold our collective breath. Don't ask why the bankers haven't gone to jail after 2008. You know why and it's not pretty with plenty of guilt to spread around. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we don't move forward with the government we want, but with the we you have. Despite all claims to the contrary, bi-partisanship is alive and well in that town on the Potomac. Don't expect that to change any time soon.