‘This Town’: Who comes off worst in Mark Leibovich’s takedown of insider Washington?

July 3, 2013
(Blue Rider Press)
(Blue Rider Press)

So who comes off worst in “This Town”?

There are some sharp-eyed digs at the rich and famous in Mark Leibovich’s new takedown of grasping, incestuous Beltway insider culture, a copy of which we obtained in advance of its July 16 publication. Barack Obama, in too-cool-for-school style, telling all his admirers at the 2004 convention that he just wanted to take a nap. Andrea Mitchell shmoozing over dinner with David Petraeus, whose resignation scandal she had just covered. David Axelrod hitting up journalists who cover him for charity contributions. Chuck Schumer at a funeral, “head bowed, conspicuously biting his lips, squinting extra hard for full telegenic grief effect.”

Oh! And can you believe the talking points in praise of Valerie Jarrett that the West Wing circulated to staffers while the New York Times was working on a profile of her? Choice bullet point: “Valerie is someone here who other people inside the building know they can trust. (need examples).”

But the most scathing assessments from Leibovich (a New York Times reporter and former Washington Post colleague of ours) are of people who are famous only within the intimate confines of D.C.’s media-political complex — folks whose names probably won’t ring a bell for even the most devoted “Morning Joe” groupies outside the Beltway. (**See also: “This Town,” review of Mark Leibovich book)


Duberstein (The Washington Post)

Ken Duberstein: Ronald Reagan’s last White House chief of staff and “a vintage Washington character in his own right. . . riding the D.C. carousel for years, his Rolodex flipping with billable connections,” though it’s often said of him “it isn’t clear what he does,” Leibovich asserts — not an unusual condition among Washington “formers.” Leibovich writes that Duberstein “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,’ and loves to read his name in print. Finally: “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.”

Tammy Haddad (Rebecca D'Angelo for The Washington Post)
Tammy Haddad (Rebecca D’Angelo for The Washington Post)

Tammy Haddad: The veteran cable-news producer turned all-round multi-media consultant/event planner and “full-service convener of the Washington A-list” is a recurring character in the book. The “towering in-your-face presence” is described somewhat fondly as a relentless networker whose great skills are name-dropping and sidling up to power. Leibovich casts a spotlight on her quickly-cultivated friendship with David and Susan Axelrod: Soon after they came to town, Haddad “became a tireless promoter and fundraiser” for their epilepsy charity “though she had no personal connection to the disease” — and then “acquired a coveted mantle of her own: someone who had ‘connections to the Obama White House.’” In one of the book’s most vivid anecdotes, Leibovich describes a book party Haddad hosted for the son of Michelle Obama’s chief of staff Susan Sher: “At one point, Tammy rushed over to me and the guy I was talking to and announced ‘ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! I JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE WITH HER DAUGHTER!. . . Now, c’mon, come meet the novelist.’”


Bob Barnett (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Bob Barnett: The Williams & Connolly lawyer, known for brokering big book-deals and media rollouts for the city’s A-listers, is described as “a signifier of Washington’s special tolerance for conflict of interest,” since he sometimes wrangles business deals with people he has also represented. Leibovich calls him “tireless in his self-promotion” and “mercenary in his allegiances”; he lobbied hard for a position on the team prepping Obama for the 2008 debates, though the campaign was suspicious of allying with such an entrench Washington insider. In the postdebate “spin room,” the author recalls, “the only person Barnett appeared to be spinning for was himself.”

(We called, but no response yet from Duberstein, Haddad or Barnett)

But wait, there’s more! Scads of other inside players, big and small, get more briskly sideswiped. Walter Isaacson, the Aspen Institute president, “always blows right past” the author at parties en route to the more important folks, “and if he greets me at all, he calls me ‘Matthew,’ which I’ve never bothered to correct because Walter is so smart, for all I know my name IS Matthew.” . . . Ed Henry, the Fox News correspondent, is teased for his giant wedding cake, made to look like the White House, and is portrayed as eagerly sucking up to the French ambassador’s deputy in hopes of an invitation to the elite Vanity Fair/Bloomberg party. . . Though White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tried to pretend he was only vaguely familiar with Hilary Rosen after the strategist dissed Ann Romney, Leibovich recalls seeing them dance together at a super-cozy party thrown by lobbyists for “Meet the Press” producer Betsy Fischer.

But the cruelest part of all? The 386 pages of “This Town” features no index. For Beltway players horrified by the idea they might be mocked — or even worse, left out — the only way to find out is to read it.

RELATED: A few more bold-faced names dished by ‘This Town’

RELATED: Are you in This Town? The Unauthorized Index.

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Amy Argetsinger · July 3, 2013