Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post.
Over the course of my two decades as a Washington reporter, I’ve read plenty of self-important, condescending pieces about the nation’s capital. But none has annoyed me quite as much as Sam Youngman’s essay in Politico Magazine.
Perhaps it’s because there have been so many stories mocking our nation’s capital in the past year, from those inspired by Mark Leibovich’s best-selling “This Town” to David Brooks’s perplexing “The Thought Leader” column this past week. It is cool to make fun of Washington’s superficiality and detachment from the rest of America — even if most of the stories doing so appear in publications that cater almost entirely to the nation’s, and the capital’s, elite.
Youngman’s essay, published online Wednesday night and titled “Take This Town and Shove It,” recounts how he crashed and burned as a reporter in his 20s and early 30s, covering national politics for first the Hill and then Reuters, going into rehab in between and finally seeking refuge in his home state of Kentucky, where he now works as a political reporter.
I am a proud Washingtonian, born and bred here, who chose to return to my home town (the District, not the suburbs) after college and raise a family here. Aside from brief stints in Mexico City, Seoul and New York, I have devoted my career to covering the federal government — whether it’s Congress, the White House or environmental agencies — and how the acts of policymakers here affect our country and other nations. I have been a political junkie since the fourth grade, when I held an election between my cat Jake and a friend’s dog to replace Cy Vance as secretary of state because I disapproved of his handling of the Iran hostage crisis. (My opponent tried to bribe our classmates with Jolly Ranchers; Jake still won.)
I don’t have a problem with reveling in Washington politics, even if others see it as a character flaw. One of the most memorable exchanges I had with a lawmaker took place in the late 1990s, when I was sparring with Rep. John Linder, a Republican from Georgia, at a breakfast event. When I mentioned that I was from D.C., he retorted, “So that’s what’s wrong with you.”
There are plenty of people who come here to climb the social and professional ladder — including, by his own account, Youngman. Many of them have drunk to excess, as Youngman says he did during his time here; it’s led to some of our most colorful congressional scandals. And people have been simultaneously sucking up to Washington insiders and decrying that insider culture for decades.
In fact, it can’t get more insider than what Youngman did this past week: take to the pages of Politico, one of Leibovich’s main targets in “This Town,” to bash the culture of This Town! To see Youngman create and then smack around a stereotype of an insider Washington journalist, and do so in the very publication that exemplifies that insiderness, is a little much. So was having to read all those tweets from Washington reporters about the story Wednesday night, praising it for its bold and honest telling of what’s wrong with our profession. (I’m just positive that they’re all planning to quit their jobs and move back to their home states after the holidays.)
It would not be Washington without my acknowledging that I am friends with some of the people involved in this episode, including Politico Magazine editor Susan Glasser and Leibovich. But they are real friends, not the kind of “Washington friends” mocked in Youngman’s piece. We’re far more likely to have meals together in each other’s homes and talk about our families than to share drinks at a famous watering hole and obsess over who’s up and who’s down.
In his book, Leibovich makes a point of admitting that he is part of the scene he’s criticizing; Youngman instead celebrates the idea that he has escaped this city and, with that new freedom, feels empowered to condemn us all for supposedly having little idea or concern about the struggles of everyday Americans.
But Youngman — who, bizarrely, admits at the end of his article that he holds out hope of returning to Washington — completely misses the point of what it means to be a journalist here. Many of the best journalists I know here are devoting their careers to covering the people in power and how their decisions affect our lives — all of our lives, whether we live in the District or in Lexington. That is the beauty of Washington reporting, if it’s done right.
Several years ago I wrote about an Environmental Protection Agency study slated for Jacksonville, Fla., in which officials were going to examine the impact of toxic household chemicals on families with children, but they weren’t going to warn them that the chemicals were dangerous. The study was scrapped. This fall I co-wrote articles explaining the key management decisions that contributed to HealthCare.gov’s botched rollout, as well as some of the project’s ongoing technical difficulties. These stories matter; they have real-world consequences.
I still haven’t flown on Air Force One, as Youngman did. Like him, I’ve attended briefings in the Roosevelt Room — though I’ve devoted my time there to watching PowerPoint slides and trying to decipher administration officials’ spin, not being wowed by the scenery.
I think it’s sad that Youngman concludes that, after a while, “there wasn’t a single Washington story I wanted to cover.” How is that possible, when there are so many critical decisions made here?
And that’s what I like about Washington. Many journalists and the officials they cover moved to this town because they care about the ideas and the policies that help shape the world we live in. It’s why my parents moved here nearly half a century ago, and it’s why I have stayed.
I don’t recall having a snappy comeback to Linder when he hurled his insult, but if I saw him now, I know what I’d say: No, Congressman. Being from Washington is part of what’s right with me.
Review of “This Town” by Mark Leibovich
The unauthorized “This Town” index