“This Town” – A Review of Mark Leibovich’s Washington Expose

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Washington: Hollywood For Ugly People

The full title of Mark Leibovich‘s expose is This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking in America’s Gilded Capital. “This Town” being local slang for what those inside the Beltway refer to when speaking of the town that was created on a miserably humid swamp. After perusing This Town, those of us who live elsewhere are likely to refer to citizens of This Town as swamp rats, if not worse.

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Liebovich is the ideal person to write an expose on This Town. As the Chief National Correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and a long time resident of Swamp City DC, he knows Washington as well as any. It is also clear that he relishes the gossip that makes up any city, but is taken to new lows in This Town. When it comes to Washington gossip, Liebovich is an absolute yenta.

This Town coverThe Prologue begins, “Tim Russert is dead.” This, of course, referring to the late host of the legendary NBC News program “Meet The Press.” The opening scene is Russert’s funeral at the Kennedy Center. Liebovich artfully describes how he saw Tim Russert as one of the most powerful people in This Town. Because of the exulted status, everybody who was anybody in This Town had to be there to canonize their beloved friend. This included all political groups, many sitting next to people they truly hated, in some cases paying tribute to a man they really did not like either.

As Liebovich points out, “Hillary has a memorial service to attend: the memorial service of a man she and her husband plainly despised and who they believed (rightly) despised them back.” Liebovich uses Russert’s funeral as a comedic opportunity to get his expose off to a lively start (no pun here just could not come up with a better word). If you are a gossipmonger, you will love this book. It is an unending line of who said what about whom.

On any given day not much really happens in Washington. However, with the advent of cable television and the 24-hour news cycle, there is an unending need for material that can substitute for real news.

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It is cable news that has given rise to talking heads by the dozens. In the absence of real news, rumors, speculation and gossip take center stage. If some guy (pardon the gender reference) puts on a suit and tie and sounds right, they must be representing somebody. If it happens that a former member of Congress occupies that suit, that’s a bonanza.

Just like anywhere else, This Town centers around money. The difference, however, between This Town and any other town is the magnitude of the money. The most relevant issue underlying Liebovich’s expose is the institutionalization of the money class. Prior to the Reagan administration, Washington power brokers consisted of a few individuals at just a couple of DC law firms. Names like Clark Clifford, James Baker and Vernon Jordan often were forces to contend with if you needed to get something done.

However, the increase of corporate lobbying money that has been literally thrown into the Washington mix over the past thirty years is nothing less than corrupting. In the past, Congressmen put out to pasture tended to return to their hometowns and resume private lives. Today, it has become ever more commonplace for senior members of Congress to resign their position to become a lobbyist.

Estimates vary–between 160 and 412 former members of Congress are registered lobbyists. This includes only the group that has followed the rules, but excludes all unregistered types that refer to themselves as consultants or advisers.

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Christopher Dodd

Former Senator Christopher Dodd is a shining example. You will remember that Dodd was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. After the housing market crash in 2008, so did Dodd’s re-election prospects. After a series of denials Dodd took the $1.2 million per year position as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, one of Hollywood’s foremost lobbying groups.

It is easy to pick on Dodd, but there are many more examples of former members of government that have reaped far more and whose integrity in doing so is far lower than Christopher Dodd. Actually, Dodd took far more money from Wall Street while he was busy doing little in Congress.

It is disturbing when considering the amounts of money at stake here. We are talking mega bucks. Before reading This Town, my closest exposure was the shock of learning that the 2012 presidential race blew an appalling $6 billion. That money came from some place, and that means from sources that buy the favor of a candidate. Even more alarming, Liebovich reveals that nearly $5 billion was spent in 2011 for lobbying by corporate and special interests. With $11 billion properly spent, hell, we might have been able to buy peace in the Middle East! After all, we spend about $1 billion annually on Egypt, and that worked okay until recently.

So What Is So New?

Is there anything really new in This Town by Mark Liebovich? Several years ago anyone with any civic interest was reviled by Jack Abramoff’s behavior that was memorialized on film and paper. If anything, the Abramoff scandal was far more offensive because of the arrogance of his criminal activity and the Native Americans that he defrauded.

There are two things new to chalk up for the author. First, he exposes the human weaknesses of the Obama administration. Remember, these were the guys that appealed to the Gen Y’ers on the basis of their lofty morals. After a 2008 campaign as a Washington outsider that was committed to shaking up the old establishment, the current administration has far too many examples of being seduced by This Town’s institutionalized money game. For a play-by-play account of the decent of the Obama administration, download the book.

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The details present a depressing outlook for those of us that once believed in the Lone Ranger, Mr. Wizard and the tooth fairy. What is perhaps the most relevant is the permafrost of our Federal Government. Odds are that if lobbyists are doling out $5.0 billion annually, half is being spent in favor of any given issue with the other half opposed to the same cause. Gun control is a classic case in point, but far from the only deadlock in This Town. It seems to be everywhere, and it is one of the big reasons the public has so little respect for the chumps that they elect to office.

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The conventional wisdom on Wall Street at one time was, a stalemate in Congress was good if only because it removed uncertainty from the investment future. Having prospered under those conditions, I appreciate the benefits. However, that was a time long ago when conditions were separated from the present by light years. So the second key point to This Town is to remind us all that there is damn good reason that public opinion of Congress is so low. There are days when A-Rod and Bernie Madoff run higher in the opinion polls.

Congress Needs To Act

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Mark Leibovich

As most of us know, the direction and magnitude of the United States economy over the last five plus years has been set by the Federal Reserve monetary policy. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman and chief architect has driven interest rates to historic low levels. If you were lucky enough to be able to borrow directly from the Fed (sorry neither you nor I are) the cost is near zero. But things inevitably will change. If not done correctly, this change could be very damaging to those of us who are part of the 99%.

With Bernanke’s term as Fed Chairman coming to an end in December, a new Fed Chairperson will see things differently. What that may mean for interest rates is anybody’s guess. Since I have always been conservative, I predict that interest rates will not go any lower. (Wow, now that took courage right?)

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In his recent remarks to Congress, Bernanke made a basic but critical challenge. Congress needs to act. Congress needs to get together on fiscal policy since the options for monetary policy are now very limited. What is implicit in his statement is that fiscal policy is the critical piece to the economic puzzle for the next 5 to 10 years. Simply put, if Congress doesn’t start working together, we are all screwed.

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Job formation is one of the most critical issues. No genuine recovery can last in the absence of job creation and the boost that it creates for spending. We have previously noted the number of discouraged citizens who have given up and dropped out of the labor force. The actual unemployment is historically high given the length of the economic recovery. Finally approximately 70%-75% of the jobs created have taken place in the lowest wage brackets, restaurant workers and similar $8-$10 per hour positions. Low interest rates may help but will not remedy this situation. Sound fiscal policy is the hope and perhaps the only answer.

Put in this context, Mark Liebovich’s amusing expose of This Town is not the least bit amusing. It is scary. If the net sum game of $6 billion in campaign spending once every four years and $5 billion in special interest spending each year only serves to feed the swamp rats, then there is only one solution. We should all buy residential real estate in Georgetown and build a bomb shelter in the basement.