Authors: Mark Leibovich
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Politics
ALSO BY MARK LEIBOVICH
The New Imperialists: How Five Restless Kids Grew Up to Virtually Rule Your World
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Copyright © 2013 by Mark Leibovich
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
This town : two parties and a funeral—plus plenty of valet
parking!—in America’s gilded capital / Mark Leibovich.
1. Political culture—Washington (D.C.) 2. Politicians—United States. 3. United States—Politics and government. I. Title.
JK1726.L45 2013 2013009796
GLOBE TURNER / GETTY IMAGES
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To my family
im Russert is dead. But the room was alive.
You can’t work it too hard at a memorial service, obviously. It’s the kind of thing people notice. But the big-ticket Washington departure rite can be such a great networking opportunity. You can almost feel the ardor behind the solemn faces: lucky stampedes of power mourners, about two thousand of them, wearing out the red-carpeted aisles of the Kennedy Center.
Before the service, people keep rushing down the left-hand aisle to get to Robert Gibbs, the journeyman campaign spokesman who struck gold with the right patron, Barack Obama, soon to be the first African-American nominee of a major party. If Obama gets elected, Gibbs is in line to be the White House press secretary.
Gibbs is the son of librarians, two of the 10 percent of white Alabamans who will support Obama in November. “Bobby,” as he was known back home, hated to read as a child and grew up to be a talker, now an increasingly hot one.
He keeps getting approached in airports and on the street for his autograph. He is a destination for a populace trained to view human interaction through the prism of “How can this person be helpful to me?” Gibbs has become potentially whoppingly helpful. People seek out and congratulate him for his success and that of his candidate, especially at tribal gatherings like this, a grand send-off for the host of
Meet the Press
Next to Gibbs presides another beneficial destination: David Axelrod, a Democratic media consultant and kibitzing walrus of a mensch who orchestrated Obama’s run to the 2008 Democratic nomination. Known as “Axe,” Axelrod is a sentimental RFK Democrat whose swoon over Obama is unrivaled even by Gibbs’s. (
Gibbs once called Axe “the guy who walks in front of Obama with rose petals.”) Noting the big run on Gibbs and Axelrod, a columnist for Politico
told me they were the new “it guys” at the service, and of course they were, in part for devising a communications strategy predicated on indifference to this very onrushing club of D.C.’s Leading Thinkers.
Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski are mobbed as well; they can barely get to their seats: assaulted with kudos for the success of
, their dawn roundtable on MSNBC and a popular artery in the bloodstream of the Leading Thinkers. People keep pressing business cards into the cohosts’ palms, eager to get themselves booked, or their clients booked, or their books mentioned, just once, by Joe or Mika. “A new low, even for Washington tackiness,” Mika will lament of the funereal hustle. But it’s important to be part of the conversation, anyone would understand. You seize your moment when it comes.
Bill and Hillary Clinton walk stiffly down the left aisle. Heads lurch and the collective effects are unmistakable: that exotic D.C. tingle falls over the room, the kind that comes with proximity to Superpowers. Bill and Hill. They are given wide berth. It had been a tough stretch. Hillary has just conceded the Democratic nomination. It ended an epic primary saga in which Bill had disgraced himself, making unpresidential and maybe racially loaded remarks about Obama. Neither Clinton is in a particularly good “place” with Washington at the moment, or with the media, or with the Democratic Party—or, for that matter, maybe with each other.
Bill’s top post–White House aide, Doug Band, is keeping a list on his BlackBerry of all the people who screwed over the Clintons in the campaign and who are now, as they say, “dead to us.” Some of them dead are here at the Kennedy Center. There is a running joke inside Clinton World about all the bad things happening to the Clinton crossers. Ted Kennedy, who pivotally endorsed Obama in January, is now dying from a brain tumor. (After Kennedy’s endorsement, which came months before the tumor was discovered, his colleague Lindsey Graham asked Kennedy if he could inherit his Senate hideaway office. Why? “Because the Clintons are gonna kill you,” Graham joked.) John Edwards, who also endorsed Obama, was busted for cheating on his dying wife; his disgrace is now in full spiral. The state of Iowa, whose Democratic voters slapped a humiliating third-place finish on Hillary in January’s caucuses, was devastated by biblical floods in the spring.
Now, true to her stoic and gritty precedent, Hillary is keeping her smile affixed like hardened gum and sending out powerful “Stay away from this vehicle” vibes. Ignoring the vibes, an eager producer for MSNBC’s
beelines toward her, introduces herself to the Almighty, and prepares to launch a Hail Mary “ask” about whether the senator might possibly want to come on
“It is a
to meet you,” Clinton responds to the eager producer, while the smile stays tight and she keeps right on walking. 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.
But the Clintons are pros at death and sickness. They show up. They play their assigned roles. They send nice notes and lend comfort to the bereaved in that warm and open-faced Clinton way. They are here with empathetic eyes to pay respects, like heads of Mafia families do when a rival godfather falls. Washington memorial services have that quality when the various personality cults convene: Bill and Hillary walking a few feet away from Newt and Callista Gingrich and right past David Shuster, the MSNBC host who has just been suspended by the network for saying the Clinton campaign “pimped out” Chelsea by having her call superdelegates. (Shuster has been barely heard from since. To reiterate: Don’t mess with the Clintons!) Bill and Hill, who appear not to have reserved seats, find two several rows back next to Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, the current one.
Not far from the Gibbs and Axe receiving line, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell walks in with her husband, the conservative monetary oracle and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. One of the most dogged reporters in the city, Andrea adores her work and her friends, but mostly adores Alan. He is a prime Washington Leading Thinker who even when being blamed by many for running the economy off a cliff can always be seen on Andrea’s arm doing his courtly old dignitary thing at D.C. social events. If Washington was a comic book—and it sort of is—Greenspan would be in the background of every panel.
A few rows from Alan and Andrea sits Barbara Walters, the luminary TV interviewer and Chairman Greenspan’s former girlfriend. Back when Alan and Andrea were first dating, during the George H. W. Bush administration, they attended a dinner to honor Queen Elizabeth at the British embassy. In the presidential receiving line, Bush introduced Andrea to the queen. “
Your Majesty, this is one of our premier American journalists,” the president said, then turned to Mitchell and said, “Hello,
.” Bush sent a personal note of apology to Andrea the next day.
At the memorial service, Barbara sat over near Ken Duberstein, a vintage Washington character in his own right, who did a brief stint as the White House chief of staff during the checked-out final months of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Duberstein and Mitchell are old friends. Jews by religion and local royalty by acclamation, they once shared a memorable
Yom Kippur—the holiest night on the Jewish calendar—at a most sacred of Official Washington shrines: the McLean, Virginia, mansion of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, and his wife, Haifa. Dick and Lynne Cheney were also there. It was such a coveted social function. Andrea and Ken felt pangs of Jewish guilt but ultimately could not say no to this most holy of obligations. “In the end, we both decided that the Lord and our parents would somehow understand,” Andrea later explained in her book,
Now a lobbyist, Duberstein has been riding the D.C. carousel for years, his Rolodex flipping with billable connections. He is an archetypical “former.” That is, a former officeholder who can easily score a seven-figure income as an out-of-office wise man, pundit, statesman, or, if you would be so crass (and a true statesman never would be), hired gun. “Formers” stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold-plated toaster.
Duberstein is often referred to in these words: “It isn’t exactly clear what Kenny does.” You know you’ve made it in D.C. when someone says that—“It isn’t clear what he does”—about you. Such people used to have an air of mystery about them. You assumed they did something exotic, like work for the CIA. Now you might assume the Kuwaiti government or someone is paying them a gusher to do something not terribly virtuous. They would prefer not to discuss their work, if you don’t mind, and you have to respect their discretion. Ambiguity pays well here.
Duberstein is a regular at Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s and talks constantly on the phone to his close friend Colin Powell, and even more constantly to everyone else about what “Colin was just telling me.” Like most formers, Duberstein sits on many boards and loves to read his name in print or pixel—except, God forbid, if someone identifies him as a mere “former Reagan administration official,” not Reagan’s “former chief of staff,” in which case he will feel denied his full former bona fides and often complain. The standard line on Duberstein is that he spent six and a half months as Reagan’s chief of staff and twenty-four years (and counting) dining out on it.
As John McCain was securing the Republican nomination,
Duberstein made inquiries about running his theoretical transition team, according to several campaign aides. That would be a perfect assignment for someone of Duberstein’s ilk, someone with an intuitive sense of who all the GOP usual suspects to populate an incoming administration will be. Duberstein denies ever lobbying for the transition job, but the McCain team was not interested in his services anyway, and eventually Duberstein wound up endorsing Obama, just after Colin did.
Duberstein keeps shaking hands and waving and looking mid-sentence over your glistening head to see who else is in the vicinity. He wears a big welcoming smile, which he relaxes, at the appropriate time, into an expression of grave distress over the loss of Timothy John Russert.
• • •
he ceremonies began this morning, June 18, first the funeral proper at the church in Georgetown, then the public memorial at the Kennedy Center. They are sweet, sober, and starstruck services that give Russert his full due and, more important, affirm everyone—by their presence—as worthy in the pecking order.
All of the most important people in politics and media are in the same room,” the columnist Anne Schroeder Mullins will later write in Politico, the emerging company-town organ for Political Washington, or “This Town,” as people here refer to the place, with bemused faux disgust and a wry distance—a verbal tic as secret handshake. “And if you’re there, too,” Schroeder Mullins concludes, “you’re a player among them.” When you read that, it is impossible not to feel reassured at this precarious moment.
The showing today testifies to the man who died, Russert, the bold-faced impresario of the longest-running show on television and the most powerful unelected figure in the country’s most powerful, prosperous, and disappointing city. A buoyant part of This Town was being put to rest today, an era interred with him at Rock Creek Cemetery after President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura spent forty-five minutes with the family at St. Albans for the wake.
And the gathering is itself testament to The Club, that spinning cabal of “people in politics and media” and the supporting sectors that never get voted out or term-limited or, God forbid, decide on their own that it is time to return home to the farm. The Club can be as potent in D.C. as Congress, its members harder to shed than ten-term incumbents. They are, in effect, the city fathers of This Town. They are not one-dimensional and are certainly not bad people. They come with varied backgrounds, intentions, and, in many cases—maybe most cases—for the right reasons. As they become entrenched, maybe their hearts get a bit muddled and their motives too. Not always: people are complicated, here as everywhere, and sometimes even conflicted (enough sometimes to see therapists, though we don’t discuss that here, don’t want to scare the vetters). But their membership in The Club becomes paramount and defining. They become part of a system that rewards, more than anything, self-perpetuation.
When seen together at tribal events like this one at the Kennedy Center, the members of The Club nourish the idea that the nation’s main actors talk to the same twelve people every day. They can evoke a time-warped sense of a political herd that never dies or gets older, only jowlier, richer, and more heavily made-up. Real or posed, these insiders have always been here—either these people literally or as a broader “establishment.” But they are more of a swarm now: bigger, shinier, online, and working it all that much harder.
While so much of the nation has despised Washington, a gold rush has enthralled the place. It has, in recent years, become a crucible of easy wealth, fame, forgiveness, and next acts. Punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling, accompanied by a mad dash of “self-branding,” to borrow a term that had now fully infested the city: everyone now hell-bent on branding themselves in the marketplace, like Cheetos (Russert was the local Coca-Cola). They gather, all the brands, at these self-reverential festivals, like the April White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, whose buffet of “pre-parties” and “after-parties” now numbers more than two dozen—because a single banquet, it is clear, cannot properly celebrate the full achievements of the People Who Run Your Country.
The insider swarm has been known by various names: “Permanent Washington.” “The Political Class.” “The Chattering Class.” “The Usual Suspects.” “The Beltway Establishment.” “The Echo Chamber.” “The Echo-System.” “The Gang of 500.” “The Gang of 600.” “The Movable Mess.” “The Club.” “This Town.”
This is the story of This Town in a time of alleged correction. “Change elections” keep convulsing the local order, the pundits say. There was one in 2006; there would be another in 2008 and another in 2010, and probably more in the coming decades. The nation’s leaders keep throwing out the word “Washington” as a vulgar abstraction. Nothing new here: the anti-Washington reflex in American politics has been honed for centuries, often by candidates who deride the capital as a swamp, only to settle into the place as if it were a soothing whirlpool bath once they get elected. The city exists to be condemned.