Washington's Wild Week
It’s been a rough, tension-filled time in Washington DC lately. The present government shutdown will probably be with us for a while, as there is nothing on any table anywhere that even vaguely resembles ‘negotiations.’ Worldwide, markets and governments are starting to get nervous. The concern everywhere is that the October 17th debt ceiling deadline will just be another ‘do-nothing’ situation for Congress, as pathetic a display of partisan politics as is the current brouhaha. But on the positive side, we have a book report for you!
This article first published October 13, 2013
|Jim McTague, in his “DC Currents” column in Barron’s on October 7th, pretty well summed up the current impasse over federal funding:
“The conventional wisdom was that Republicans and Democrats would bury their bombast and resolve the budget fight before moving on to resolving the debt-ceiling battle. Instead, the intractable battle of will has gone on and on, conflating the budget fight and the debt-ceiling fight. That, in turn, has increased the odds of a debt default by the U.S. Treasury. The fanatical, small-government, free-market- loving Tea Party faction of the House Grand Old Party is engaged in a dangerous game of fiscal chicken with the equally fanatical big-government, welfare-state-loving Senate wing of the Democratic Party. Default looms, and neither side will blink.”
Things are gloomy in Washington right now, not to mention tense. And not just about the federal shutdown. DC is still on nervous edge after the September 14th shooting of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, located only half a mile away from the Capitol building.
So, on Thursday, when Miriam Carey, a 34-year old woman with a history of mental illness, drove her car into barricades at a remote entrance to the White House area, and set off a police chase in the most security-rich environment in the Western world, the Capitol froze. For nearly 30 minutes the entire area experienced the terror of the unknown threat. Inside the Capitol and in nearby Senate and House office buildings, members of Congress, along with several thousand employees, were alerted with sirens and told to ‘shelter in place.‘ For many, it was the longest half-hour of their lives.
The next day, a man stood in the middle of the National Mall, which stretches out in front of the Capitol, gave a crisp military salute toward the Capitol building, doused himself with gasoline, and struck a match. On Saturday, he died in a hospital of his burns.
“In a testament to the strange and chaotic week it had been in Washington,” wrote Justen Jouvenal and Mark Berman in a Washington Post website article after the man’s self-immolation, “a group of tourists snapped photographs of themselves in front of the police tape near the scene, with the Capital looming in the background.”
Anyone who attempts to understand this madhouse which is our nation’s capital, and how its culture works, and why its surrounding communities make up one of the wealthiest megapolises in the country, will find this book helpful in explaining the ways of upper-level Washington DC to the uninitiated. Its title is This Town, subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral – plus plenty of free parking – in America’s Gilded Capital.” The funeral referred to is that of Tim Russert, of Meet the Press fame. The flyleaf of this book starts out:
“Big Ticket Washington Funerals can make such great networking opportunities. Power mourners keep stampeding down the red carpets of the Kennedy Center, handing out business cards, touching base. And there is no time to waste in a gold rush, even (or especially) at a solemn tribal event like this.
Washington –This Town- might be loathed from every corner of the nation, yet these are fun and busy days at the nexus of big politics, big money, big media, and big vanity. There are no Democrats and Republicans anymore in the nation’s capital, just millionaires. That is the grubby secret of the place in the twenty-first century. You will always have lunch in this town again. No matter how many elections you lose, apologies you make, or scandals you endure.”
Liebovich’s book makes great sport of Washington’s ways. He details the social side of Washington’s heavy hitters, which is always tied to the business side. He marks and documents the hollow promises from Washington’s ‘big dogs, ‘ and the changes of mind and plans that inevitably follow - just wait a short while.
From Page 56:
“Politics often boils down to an exercise of knowing your priority and constituencies, neither of which are static. “It’s sort of an accepted rite of passage that a … candidate can talk bad about Washington without anyone in Washington accusing him of being a hypocrite afterwards,” said Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Sooner or later, the key constituencies of Washington “all know that he will come to them,” said Fitzwater, listing these constituencies as lobbyists, lawmakers, and the ephemerally dreaded “special interests. ‘”
He explores and exposes vast egos at work and play, entourages and vanities that would put the Court of Versailles to shame, and the ethos of self-branding, celebrity, and jolly celebrations among the members of the Club. Many of these characters (the fabulous Tamster!) and their stories are fascinating, especially those who are less known outside the Beltway. He quotes Michael Kelly, who, in a New York Times magazine article in 1993, wrote:
“What happens in the political world is divorced from the real world. It exists for only the fleeting historical moment, in a magical movie of sorts, a never-ending and infinitely revisable docudrama. Strangely the faithful understand that the movie is not true – yet also maintain that it is the only truth that really matters.”
Leibovich details how the process of cashing out works - the urge among many of Washington’s elected elite, Cabinet officials, and staffers to finally monetize their government experience, usually through a ‘revolving door’ into a lobbying group or government consultancy. But the word 'revolving' barely begins to explain the often-seen process in Washington of personal career metamorphosis from elected official, to respected commentator, to talking head on TV, perhaps some paid speech-giving and/or consulting, and then back to "public service." Repeat if necessary.
On May 23, 1780, John Jay - American statesman and patriot, the first chief Justice of the United States, an author of the Federalist Papers, among other numerous distinctions - wrote in a letter to his friend and fellow lawyer Robert R. Livingston about his plans after public service:
“I am approaching the age of Ambition without being influenced by its Allurements. Public considerations induced me to leave the private walk of life; when they cease, I shall return to it. Believe me I shall not remain here a moment longer than the duties of a citizen may detain me; and that I look forward with pleasure to the day when I shall again follow peaceably the business of my profession, and make some little provision for my family, whose interest I have so long neglected for public concerns. My conduct moves on fixed principles, from which I shall never deviate; and they will not permit me to leave the unfortunate part of my family destitute of my care and attention longer than higher duties call me from them. “
Back when John Jay wrote those words, the area that we now call Washington, District of Columbia, was just a fetid swamp. Today, as the federal government spends an ever-growing share of All The Money In The Country And More, Washington DC has become a fast-moving stream of cash, much of which spills up onto the banks of the Potomac and nearby environs.
In 2013's This Town, Mark Leibovich tells us that “You still hear the term “public service” thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that “self-service” is now the real insider play.” Many of the members of Permanent Washington spend their lives striving to become, at least in D.C., famous. After that effort, becoming rich is the easy part.
In conclusion to this book report: If you want an entertaining, informative, humorous, and yet, ultimately, frightening and infuriating read about the strange ways of the tribe that runs our country, and those who, in the way of making a living, suck up to the whole lot of them, then This Town is for you. Of course, since it's already been out a few months, those who consume, produce, or are the subjects of political gossip, have already read this book. As the author explains on the back flap,
WARNING: This Town does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book.