All parasites aboard! A rip-roaring tour of America’s ‘town’1/8/2014
What better place to start a book about parasites than a funeral?
And that’s where Mark Leibovich introduces us to his take on Washington, D.C. — at memorials for newsman Tim Russert, where members of the political-media establishment jockey for camera time and proximity to power in the sort of celebration of unapologetic unseemliness that bleeds off the pages of “This Town.”
The New York Times ranks the 368-page book one of the top 50 non-fiction works of 2013.
It is in a word, outrageous. And in two more, really good.
Depending on mood and angle, you’ll laugh or cringe as Leibovich, who covers politics for The New York Times Magazine, chronicles the antics of Washington’s denizens. Conservatism? Liberalism? They don’t stand a chance against the establishment, which separates into teams for sporting fun to make the country think there is divided government, real debate. Silly people. The establishment forever nourishes itself.
The former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff said the best way to gain influence with elected officials and their staffs is to casually suggest that they join your firm after their service on the Hill is complete.
“This Town” covers an array of familiar political names. But the most fascinating chapter is about a twenty-something congressional press secretary who turns himself into the most effective media operative in Congress through sheer audacity.
“Who the hell is Kurt Bardella?” starts the chapter. He was California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa’s flack. Bardella wrote glowing emails to journalists about their work — and they responded. And he went to them seeking career advice, always an effective way to grease the career skids, notes Leibovich.
In a controversial strategy, Bardella actually CC’d email exchanges between himself and other journalists to Leibovich for the book. It’s a triumph of hubris over ethics.
In “This Town,” I learned a new term to describe something I’ve experienced (on the receiving end) at gatherings — the “Washington, D.C., scalp stare.” It’s when you look over the head of the person you are talking with to scout out potentially more important people with whom to schmooze.
The big takeaway from “This Town”: The best category in which one can land in the nation’s capital is that of a “former” — a member of Congress or political operative or celebrity journalist. That means you are truly establishment, existing off reputation and relationships more than anything resembling productivity.
It’s why funerals in Washington are different than in Des Moines.
In 1974, “This Town” reports, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Today, 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do. (Reading the book inspires passion for banning the revolving door altogether. No member of Congress should ever be allowed to lobby. Talk of term limits is mere diversion.)
“It is one parasite feeding off another parasite feeding off another parasite,” U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says in the book. “The reason you attach yourself to someone else is so you can gain something yourself. Parasites don’t attack our intestines because they like the environment. That’s just the milieu in which they advance their livelihood. That might sound a little harsh. But in Washington, if you can’t be connected, you can’t gain anything.”
And the connected, empirical data show, get to live better than the rest of the nation.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that five of the counties or county-equivalents nationwide with the highest median household income in 2012 were located in Northern Virginia in suburban around Washington, D.C. Among them were Arlington County, at $99,255, Fairfax County, at $106,690, Falls Church (an independent city), at $121,250, Loudoun County, at $118,934, and Stafford County, at $95,927. Falls Church and Loudoun also had among the lowest poverty rates in the country.
Yes, the D.C. culture feeds itself. But in the end, whether you read “This Town” or the Census, its cloud-clearing obvious that Americans outside The Beltway are the ones being eaten alive. CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.