‘This Town’: quid pro quo makes the world go round

thistownBack before the age of 24/7 political news coverage, there was a very lucrative genre of juicy, inside-Washington novels, starting with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Advise and Consent” in 1959.

Allen Drury’s blockbuster spent more than a year on the bestseller list, and inspired both a Broadway stage adaptation and a movie. Former journalist Drury went on to write a whole series of increasingly nasty (and conservative) exposes/novels about the inner-workings of D.C.

Growing up I had a great time reading Drury and Washington novels by another ex-journalist — Fletcher Knebel — who wrote about attempted coups (“Seven Days in May”); what would happen if a president lost his mind (“Night of Camp David”); and the somewhat sordid process of picking presidential candidates (“Convention”).

I didn’t realize how much I missed those tawdry page-turners until I raced through New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich’s new book, “This Town” (Blue Rider Press), which is one of the most appalling but irresistible accounts of life in Washington to come along in years.

Opening at the funeral of “Meet The Press” host Tim Russert in June 2008 (below) — where the media and political “mourners” don’t hesitate to exploit an extraordinary networking thistown2opportunity — and taking us through the re-election of Obama last year, “This Town” is simultaneously hilarious and sickening.

Leibovich takes many notable D.C. blowhards down several notches — especially the hopelessly compromised NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell and her husband, ex-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan (above) — but nearly everyone we meet comes off badly.

“This Town” shows us that notions like political parties and objective journalism have become hopelessly old-fashioned as everyone — pol and reporter alike — focuses on the money that can accrue from cynical bi-partisanship. Everyone pretends they hate “Washington” while they are digging in their heels for long-term financial benefits, ranging from $50,000 speaking gigs to multi-million dollar lobbying opportunities.

In a chapter called “Suck-Up City,” Leibovich takes us to the October 2008 debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin where insiders were buzzing about more pressing matters: “Andrea (Mitchell) was in the midst of a rough moment because a lot of people were blaming her husband, Alan Greenspan, for the financial collapse. His free-market, Ayn Rand-influenced policies while running the Federal Reserve were not looking good now. His image had been ‘tarnished,’ said the Wall Street Journal.”

“Not only that, but some of those uptight media-ethics types, at places like the Columbia Journalism Review, were ‘raising fundamental questions’ about how Mitchell could possibly cover the major story of the day for NBC without running up against questions of Greenspan’s culpability and legacy.”

Leibovich shows us how this sort of conflict of interest doesn’t really matter within contemporary Washington, where “opposing” politicians, and the reporters, columnists and TV personalities who cover them, are all on the same page.

Presidents come and go, one party or the other is in power — briefly — but the real business of the town — getting rich and famous — never stops.

It’s a terrific book, but how will Leibovich continue to play out his role as a D.C. insider after blowing the whistle on so many of the people he works and socializes with?


Joe Meyers