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Mark Leibovich on ‘the people who think they run your country’

Because Washington's favorite topic is itself, "This Town," Mark Leibovich's acid portrait of life in the capital, has been a top topic of conversation in recent weeks (The Washington Post's review is here). But does "This Town" really capture this town? I spoke with Leibovich this morning, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.this town

Ezra Klein: Define “This Town” for me. What is it? Who’s in it? Where does it end?

Mark Leibovich: “This Town” is meant somewhat ironically, in that knowing, winking way people use it here. But “This Town” is official Washington. It’s political Washington. It’s not the Washington that clogs New York Avenue. It’s not the Washington that lives in Gaithersburg. It’s not the Washington that accounts for most of the population. “This Town” refers to the people who think they run your country.

EK: That gets to one of my issues with the book. It’s great fun to read, even though you feel like you need a shower every five pages. But I also kept wondering whether the people really mattered. You make a lot of Tammy Haddad, for instance, who’s a PR person and inveterate networker. But there are no problems of governance that are traceable back to Haddad. A lot of this seemed to be about the people who wield power in Washington’s social world rather than in its political world.

ML: I agree that of all the figures in the book that got more than a few pages, Tammy might be the one ornamental character in here. I don’t think her business or the parties she throws or the media contracts she gets are central to the economy. But people like Bob Barnett and Mike Allen and “the formers” who decide to settle into this place to get extremely rich cashing in on their time in office are central to how today’s political class sees itself.

So in the case of Bob Barnett, he’s someone who often refers to himself semi-jokingly as the doorman to the revolving door. That’s the core of what today’s supposedly public servants think about, which is, what is coming next? Or take Trent Lott. He’s kind of an emblematic character. He was a very powerful office holder and he’s now trading on it in a very lucrative way. I would plead guilty on Tammy. But Mike Allen is very influential, particularly a few years ago, in the derivative market that is new media.

EK: It seemed to me that there were two groups of characters in the book that are worth separating out. One group is what we might call “the political-communications complex”: That’s Mike Allen, who writes about politicians, and Kurt Bardella, who’s a press secretary for a politician, and Haddad, who does PR for people involved in politics, and Barnett, who represents political talkers, and so on. And then you have the other thread of the book, which is about what public servants, or some public servants, do when they retire.

But to focus on the political-communications complex for a minute, to me, a lot of their power is an illusion that’s fed by the coverage they give each other, but that's ultimately misleading in terms of how Washington works. The only Hill staffer in the book really is a press guy, but the press guy is not the staffer making decisions in the room. He's just the guy who gets quoted in the story afterwards.

ML: I agree with you. But though this’ll sound Clinton-esque, it depends on how you define what it means to matter. Do you define it in terms of what will get people jobs and set policy? The reason I think this matters is an entire sub-economy of this communications complex is created around this noise. This is what politicians care most about. They are much more likely to have close relationships with their communications director than their policy advisers. They’re much more likely to read their press clips than go over their constituent notes.

One of the reasons for doing this book was to shine a light on the absurdity of this complex. I’m not a prescriptions guy. I don’t include a chapter with bullet points of suggested solutions about how Washington can work better. But I do think people outside of Washington need to be shown the lie of this world in addition to focusing on and thinking about the real structure.

EK: There are some interesting tensions in different parts of this town. The political-communications complex, by and large, loves big, bipartisan ideas like Simpson-Bowles. You could definitely get Tammy Haddad and Bob Barnett and Mike Allen to agree on that. But Simpson-Bowles isn’t going anywhere in Congress. There’s a bipartisan world of elite Washington that’s proving completely powerless against the partisan world of elected Washington.

ML: The book ultimately doesn’t focus on that part of the dysfunction. One point I do try and make is that the divide you’re describing in this part of Washington is very good for business. No one gets paid if immigration passes tomorrow. There’ll be less for pundits to yell about. We have settled into in this town a notion of yelling and disagreement as being a default position that’s ultimately very good for business.

EK: One part of Washington that felt absent to me is, for lack of a better term, “good Washington.” There are a lot of congressional staffers who work long hours for not that much pay because, rightly or wrongly, they think they’re making the world a better place. Or you’ve got people like Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who really is listened to inside the political system, and really does get up each day thinking about how to help poorer Americans. And these people have a lot of pull, too, but they don’t really appear in the book.

ML: I plead guilty to that. One of the reasons I tried to amplify the part of Washington I did is that in its amplification the absurdity of this world is clearer. But this is not a book about the Robert Greensteins. This wasn’t even really a how-it-works book. I was trying to do something different.

EK: Related to that, I’m curious for your reflections on the way we in the media give people a distorted sense of power because some people in power talk to us and others don’t. I always think back to following the White House Flickr feed in 2009 and 2010, and realizing that Phil Schiliro, the director of legislative affairs, was in basically every picture of President Obama deliberating over anything. But you never heard about him in the press, because he didn’t talk on-the-record to anyone ever. 

ML: We’ve all been on deadline. We all know when we need to reach someone who is more reachable. People like Rahm Emanuel or David Axelrod or Anita Dunn are all people very much of this political game. I tried to make the point that certainly in the case of Axelrod or Gibbs or even David Plouffe, that kind of coverage is a market commodity for them. Gibbs has made $2 million in speaking fees alone since leaving in 2010. And in the 2012 campaign, a lot of the Obama infighting was about who could get the highest profile because they knew they weren’t going back to the White House and they had speaking deals and TV deals to get.

EK: One theme of the book is all the promises Obama made in 2008 about how he’d change Washington, or at least avoid being corrupted by it, only to go back on his word later. So they said they wouldn’t hire lobbyists, for instance, and then made a bunch of exceptions. Some of this is just straight promise-breaking. But some of it seems to be that they, like a lot of other politicians, really just made a bunch of analytical mistakes about how this place worked and how much it could be changed.

We in the press cover that as a gotcha, and so then other politicians run making the same promises and swearing that this time they really won’t break them, but at some point, it seems to me that both politicians and the press need to learn from all these failures and stop being taken in by these theories.

ML: I think a more pragmatic approach wouldn’t get someone elected. If you had the next Obama come up and say I know how Washington is, I know I need to make compromises — that wouldn’t fly. Change and hope are incredibly powerful.

One of the criticisms of the book is I indict the Obama administration but Obama himself is largely absent from this thing. I put the president, myself, no matter who it is, in a separate and unknowable class. It’s a job that’s so much bigger than one normal person can do. I don’t think it’s a contradiction to point out where they said nevermind to some of these promises and also to say that Obama probably still believes a lot of those promises.

EK: You do a really nice job detailing the many different Obama aides who went on to work as lobbyists or advisers for corporations that, at the least, seem in tension with the Obama agenda, like Treasury’s Jake Siewert going right to Goldman Sachs. I’m always curious about the boundaries of those judgments. So what jobs do you think are morally okay for people to take after they stop working in the White House or on the Hill?

ML: I think they all must go home to their farms and till the fields all day like George Washington would’ve suggested. No, look, I agree. If I were leaving the White House or leaving Senator So-and-So’s office, I don’t know what I would do. But if I were the king it would be really cool to have a 10-year trial period in which people in government had a 10-year moratorium on having anything to do with their public service.

I do think for as cynical as some people are reading this book to be, it does come in my case from a place of, if not idealism, then a hope that it could be better. Even now, after having covered politics for many years, I wished Chris Dodd meant what he said when he said he wouldn’t lobby, and I wish the Obama administration kept their word that they weren’t going to opt out of the campaign finance system. It wears you down.

EK: Related to that is the pathetic and unseemly sides of the jobs people actually have in official Washington. I always think of these new members of Congress who are so excited to come here and think they’re going to be so powerful and influential, and then they get here and they spend all their time begging people for money over the phone and then they go to their actual job and leadership just tells them how to vote.

ML: Every time I read the story of the boiler rooms where everybody is fundraising for four hours a day it depresses me to no end. I pity them. I pity everyone.

EK: But they could change it. They could pass campaign-finance reform or something. And it’s the same with Congress not working. Everyone there hates the fact that Americans loathe them and that they get nothing done, but not enough of them want to take the risks necessary to actually change it.

ML: I think the system, as it’s set up, rewards cowardice. And cowardice pays ultimately very well. It pays in the form of reelection, in the form of a good job after reelection, in the form of remaining in the favor of your base and your leadership. It’s very quickly rewarded.

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