(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) Searching for a religious angle to “This Town …,” Mark Leibovich’s tell-all on the money-grubbing, social-schmoozing hypocrisy in Washington, D.C.? How about Matthew 23, verses 27 and 28: (27) “Woe unto you, (pols, lobbyists and journalistic elite), hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. (28) Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” OK, maybe 28 is a stretch. I’m not sure too many “outwardly appear righteous unto men.”
OK, let’s look for “This Town’s Utah angle, and its Mormon legislators in D.C. Our lone Democrat, Rep. Jim Matheson, gets no mention. Ditto for Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart. The last Utah GOPer, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, has a personal “pissed-off” email leaked by a congressional staffer with a case of arrested development. Among Utah’s senators, Sen. Orrin Hatch is described as a source of unintentional humor. Sen. Mike Lee gets a quick mention of having knocked off Sen. Bob Bennett. The former Senator Bennett, by the way, is kind of trashed in “This Town.” He serves as an example of former senators who stay in Washington and take cushy corporate jobs for their unique ability to get a powerful member of Congress on the phone. Bennett became a “senior policy adviser” for Arent Fox, a major law firm. Bennett, when asked about pols “cashing in” after their time in Congress, offers this wonderful quote, “Is their anything in the Constitution that forbids me from earning a living?” (There’s another Utah link. Peter Watkins, a former spokesman for the Bush II administration who runs a communications firm in the Top of Utah, snags a mention.)
Leibovich’s book is a fun, gossipy Kitty Kelley-ish read that allows us smug non-D.C. readers to feel superior to the social roaches in our nation’s capitol, who slum a few years in Congress and the administration before taking far more profitable jobs in the private sector, often lobbying for causes they once opposed. One example is Rep. Richard Gephradt, for decades a liberal lion, who Leibovich says tub-thumped against unions after he left Congress. The Obama administration saw many of its high-level staff scurry off to become corporate voices for BP, Goldman Sachs and other mega-firms. Another incident involves a high-level aid to first lady Michelle Obama who left the White House’s fit kids campaign to tub-thump the interests of sugary breakfast cereals. You throw more money at the majority of creatures in the nation’s capitol, and they will switch long-cherished positions. It’s that simple.
As Leibovich notes, industry spent $3.47 billion lobbying the federal government in 2009. It pays off. These major financial and oil firms can earn several billion dollars a year. The money spent spent on lobbying and “public affairs” has tripled since Sept. 11. With that much cash, it’s easy to pick off those in Congress and the administration lusting for salaries several times higher. With apologies to Tom Wolfe, “golden crumbs” fall off the corporate cakes, and former senators, congresspersons, SEC lawyers or White House staffers, eagerly gets on all fours, scooping up the “crumbs.”
Have you ever wondered why major financial firms, or megafirms such as BP, usually escape scandals and accusations of lawbreaking relatively unscathed? It’s because they have the better talent. The lawyers for the firms have already graduated from government service. The lawyers for the government are putting in time hoping one day to get a job with the firm they’re tangling with, either in court or in their SEC offices. The better side wins.
This is bipartisan amorality, fit as application for the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. But it’s also human nature, and no one should claim moral superiority to Sen. Bob Bennett or Rep. Richard Gephardt unless they are so tempted. Legalized greed is difficult to resist.
There’s always been a political and corporate elite in Washington D.C., hopscotching from one to the other. What’s more recent is that journalists have now joined the club. In the Washington D.C., that Leibovich describes, the ability to snag 500,000 households to watch a news show on MSNBC makes its hosts multi-millionaires, sages in “Politico,” frequent mentions in a daily email blast called “Playbook,” must-haves at parties, and in the case of Joe Scarborough, fodder as a vice presidential candidate.
As Leibovich notes, punditry, no matter how ragged the source, is now “journalism’s highest calling.” There are hordes of relatively attractive “political operatives” to fill the 30 or so opinion shows on cable TV that need guests seven days a week. Before Watergate, as Jack Germond and the late Robert Novak have noted, a D.C. journalist could not hopscotch back into journalism after working for a pol or as a corporate flak. Those days are gone.
And there is a comedy to Leibovich’s time of outrage on the Washington elite. It is that he, as a New York Times Magazine Washington correspondent, is part of the elite. Reading through the petty but wittily described outrages, it’s easy to imagine the subjects secretly pleased they were mentioned in the book. Leibovich notes this, spurning an index so subjects would have to read his book to find themselves. The Washington Post, however, has provided an index (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/outlook/this-town-unauthorized-index/).
There are some interesting anecdotes of D.C. political events. The best is the death and funeral of former diplomat Richard Holbrooke. His funeral provided an opportunity for the Clintons, champions of Holbrooke, to diss the Obama administration, no fans of Holbrooke, through their eulogies. Another anecdote depicts the rise and fall … and rise of an emotionally immature staffer to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. The staffer leaked congressional emails to “This Town” author, Leibovich, who seems rather unconcerned about the ethics of all this.
Every two years, we witness candidates who promise to change the way Washington works. As Leibovich describes it, Washington has changed. Four decades ago, 3 percent of former federal legislators became lobbyists. Today, half of former senators and 42 percent of former representatives become lobbyists. The increase in “golden crumbs” has led the charge. There will be more books, penned by insiders, mocking the insiders. Personally, I prefer fiction, where the guilty can be permanently gored.
This is a scatter-shot book. If you love politics, or read Vanity Fair, you’ll love it. Social, political, or corporate, it’s all about the golden crumbs. Those who slum well enough in the D.C. minor leagues, fighting for the “good” causes, can eventually get rich tub-thumping for the “bad” causes.