Read part one here.
“Those institutions and reporters were never as good as their reputations. . . . It was largelyand this was true for decadesa small group of middle-aged, left-of-center, overweight men who decided how all of us should see politics and governance.”
Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Politico, was opining about the annoying nostalgia that still persists in DC regarding the older generation of journalists. In Mark Leibovich’s book, This Town, VandeHei’s Politico has an ambivalent presence in the Reality Distortion Culture of DC. “Speed, information, gossip, and buzz” VandeHei celebrates as the journalistic premiums of the “New World Order,” and Politico has set the standard on all these fronts, becoming a kind of political ESPN meets TMZ in the Beltway, and its star contributor, Mike Allen, This Town’s Hedda Hopper.
If Washington is a town turned inward, then it is Politico that has managed to intensify the magnitude of the town’s concavity. As Mark Salter, former Chief of Staff to John McCain, is quoted as saying, “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel. . . . It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news. It’s self-promotion.”
But to the author, Politico proves to be useful in one particular way. As the professional cynics of The Beltway, they’re very good at taking the measure of the sanctimonious, among whom can be included the Old Journalistic Guard and the present occupants of the White House. Leibovich deftly highlights his profile of Washington decadence by including at the center of his book the embodiment of the Old Guard, Tim Russert. It is in fact the funeral of the late host of Meet the Press that begins the book. Up until the time of his death, Russert was the defining persona of a generation of journalists influenced by politics before the great disruption of the 1990’s when Russertian professionalism began to be displaced by a new media-politics of self-promotion.
Journalism before the 1990’s was heavily influenced by the archetypal examples of Woodward and Bernstein. “The triumphs of Woodward and Bernstein and the killer persona of Ben Bradlee defined a sector of Washington at its romantic best, even while the city, during Watergate, exhibited her disgraceful worst.” As delusional as it may seem, the journalist saw himself as set apart from the decadent mechanics of the Beltway, muckraking and exposing the darker underbelly of the machine. To some, like Russert, what happened to journalism in the ’90s was a regrettable setback to the industry. “The cable news boom of the 1990’s . . . created a high-profile blur of People on TV whose brands overtook their professional identities. They were not journalists or strategists or pols per se, but citizens of the green room. Former political operatives sought print outlets, not so much because they wanted to write, but because it would help get them on TV.” As Tom Brokaw comments later in the book, “The media is now less concerned with being in tune with America than they are with promoting their own brands and worshipping celebrities. It’s all ‘Look at Me,’ ‘Look at Me,’ ‘Look at Me’.”
This argument would be more compelling if VendeHei’s assessment of the older generation of journalists wasn’t in fact so dead on. If Leibovich’s account in This Town is true, everyone is flogging their brand, the only difference is some know it to be true about themselves and others, like the inner circle of the Obama Administration, don’t.
A big part of the persona of the 44th president and his administration was that it wasn’t going to play by the rules of this town. But Leibovich relates how bit by bit, “Change we can Believe In” gradually faded along with the 2008 campaign. Within weeks of taking office, Senior Staffer David Plouffe would be monetizing the election victory with a mega publishing deal, dealing with the same questionable access facilitators that on the campaign trail he was decrying by name. By 2010, in defiance of a central tenet of the Obama campaign, there would be a mass exodus of Obama administration staffers at all levels into lucrative lobbying positions inspiring a quote from a senior White House official that “We’re lapsing into self-parody.”
“What’s notable about this administration,” Politico Editor in Chief John Harris is quoted as saying, “is how ostentatiously its people proclaim to be uninterested in things they are plainly interested in.” In other words, when it comes to capitalizing on one’s success “Yes We Can” takes on a whole new cynical meaning.
Ambitious self-promotion in the capital is certainly nothing new. What Leibovich’s book suggests is that, along with the convergence of unprecedented levels of wealth via the consulting/lobbying industry and serial interbreeding with the media and entertainment industries, ambition in This Town has achieved such a critical density that the business of responsible governing has become an orphan.
It should not surprise us, then, that when the most significant product of policy making to come out of Washington in decades was finally unveiled, the product looked less like the glossy promotional image promised, and more like something produced from Mary Shelley’s dark imagination: Obamacare is a Frankenstein for our times.
What we have in Mark Leibovich’s book is a clarifying explanation of why we are where we are. But be assured, Washington DC isn’t broken, Washington DC is behaving as one should expect it to behave when so much power and wealth are so concentrated. It attracts exactly those personalities that we should expect it to attract, and it produces exactly those sorts of policies that one would expect from these personalities. And it is Leibovich’s profile of the kind of personality This Town attracts that ultimately unifies the book as we will explore in my next and final post on This Town.
Forfare Davis blogs for First Things. You can follow Mr. Davis on twitter @Pseudoplotinus.