I don’t give a [expletive]
As of 2011, as many as 305 former lawmakers were working as lobbyists in Washington, and hundreds more employed as “senior advisors” essentially serving the same function—facilitating the essential relationships between interests and policymakers at great benefit to the interests, and to the great remuneration of the facilitators. And among the things you learn in Mark Leibovich’s This Town, the money flows are entirely bipartisan. “One way or another, almost every engine of new wealth in the region has derived from the federal government, or at least the desire to be close to it.”
According to Mark Leibovich, the last dozen years has seen a tripling in the amount of money funneling into the DC area in the service of lobbying and public affairs consulting. “‘Politics’ has become a full-grown and dynamic industry, a self-sustaining weather system all its own. And much of that energy is directed inward.” By inward, Leibovich means a synergistic confluence of industries—lobbying, consulting, media, Washington flakery—in which personalities with the proper outsized ambitions evolve upward as their Brand carries them into ever more lucrative positions of power. This creates a culture which, by Mr. Leibovich’s description, pulses with Gatsby-esque venality and artifice.
“People move within The Club all the time, especially in these lucrative Washington days in which the so-called revolving door has been so lavishly greased. Journalists become People on TV or go into public relations or lobbying; politicians and staffers become lobbyists or consultants or commentators; lobbyists . . . run for office or go back into the government to “refresh their credentials,” or earning power, before taking their rightful place back in the retainer class.”
What has gotten lost in the maelstrom of upward mobility in This Town, is any public-spirited notion of how government ought to work. Instead, according to Leibovich, Washington operates by the simple principle of “My Brand Uber Alles.” Positions of power and influence are merely the opportunities in which one can successfully market their brand to move one more step up in the bizarre food-chain of the Washington pecking order.
“Quaint is the notion of a citizen-politician humbly returning to his farm, store, or medical practice back home after his time in public office is complete.” In today’s Washington “people achieve a psychic fusion to their public personas and their professional networks. The essence of self becomes lost, subsumed in a flurry of Playbook mentions and high-level name-drops. Self becomes fused with brands, and brands with other brands.”
Leibovich argues that the emergence of this gilded age of Washington appeared to coincide with the arrival of Bill Clinton in the nineties. Big Wall Street money became a dominant player with the appointment of the financial titan Robert Rubin as Treasury Secretary. In addition, the Clinton administration introduced a new generation of status-acquisitive staffers who leveraged time “in service” to achieve lucrative careers in the financial services, despite having no skill set relevant to the industry. Rahm Emanuel famously went on to work at Wasserstein Perella serving in the capacity of “relationship banker.”
DC’s love affair with the financial industry opened into a ménage-a-trois with popular culture. “Clinton also represented a killer hybrid of pop culture cachet. He was telegenic, young and willing to discuss his underwear on MTV—and, of course, had a titillating penchant for Big Trouble in his personal life. All this lent Clinton a box-office allure. Hollywood types started showing up at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. . . . The dinner has sold out every table since 1993 at a price, in recent years, of about $2,500 per, and the spectacle has festered into a glitzy cold sore of pre-parties, after-parties, and live television coverage from the red carpet.”
The resulting offspring of this confluence of industry, politics, and pop-culture has produced a wide range of hybrid permutations of all three partners: the celebrity operative (Carville-Matalin, Stephanopoulos), the cable news partisanship industry (Fox, MSNBC), the Hollywood revisionist/fictional political thriller (West Wing, Game Change, House of Cards), and the reality challenged political self-promotions industry (any consultant living in DC)—all of which has in the ensuing decades created a political atmosphere in DC having very little to do with the real business of governing, and more about massaging reality to fit whatever narrative serves your brand best. Sometime in the nineties Washington experienced what could be described as a reverse Copernican Revolution: With the right personality and media presence public perception can be made to bend around the planet “Me.”
This is not to say that there are no countervailing voices in Washington. There are critics, and Mark Leibovich deftly highlights his profile of Washington decadence by including in his narrative three contrasting alternative critiques of the culture embodied by three anti-This Town personalities: Tim Russert, Barack Obama, and Tom Coburn. As I will explore in my next post the fate of each of these personalities shows how in the end This Town always wins, either by rolling you or enrolling you.
Forfare Davis lives in Southern California with his wife and two children. He blogs for First Things. You can follow Mr. Davis on twitter @Pseudoplotinus.