Many years ago, I convinced the now-shuttered Chicago Daily News to send me from Chicago to Washington to join the paper's D.C. bureau.
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What was I thinking?
I certainly should have known better. I'd already fled the place once.
You see, I grew up in the nation's capital. But (she said defensively) as soon as I was out of school and on my own, I left D.C. — I thought for good — and relocated to a real city: Chicago.
But Washington, the epicenter of the intertwined trifecta of power, politics and media, siren-songed me back. And it was another 15 years before I fled again to Chicago, this time, really, truly for good.
People still ask me how I could bear to leave the glamour of the White House beat, of being called on by name at presidential news conferences, guest-bloviating on TV and the rest of the Washington Stations of the Cross. I tell them it was a decade and a half of temporary insanity.
But from now on, I can answer that question by simply directing them to the new book by The New York Times Magazine's' Mark Leibovich, "This Town."
Although I've been away from Washington since early in Bill Clinton's first term, I can tell you that nothing has changed. It's just gotten worse.
That's my conclusion after reading Leibovich's hilarious report on the capital and the politics-media cohort that constitutes "The Club." Think cesspool.
It's striking, the utter absence of sincerity in Washington. People are defined not by their character, decency or values but "by their proximity to other people and institutions." No wonder Leibovich considered titling the book "Suck-Up City."
Leibovich's "This Town" groans with delectable morsels, naming names of those who embody "the capital commandments of self-interest, self-importance, self-enrichment and self-perpetuation."
The Obama family's First Friend Valerie Jarrett was suspected of "earpiece envy" — of asking the president for her own security detail when White House wise man David Axelrod got Secret Service protection.
And you've got to love the confidential (not anymore) White House talking points memo titled "The Magic of Valerie," circulated in the West Wing as a sort of aide-memoire as a New York Times reporter was working on a profile of Jarrett. One bullet point: "Valerie is someone here who other people inside the building know they can trust. (need examples.")
Chris Matthews, one of D.C.'s pluperfect egos, "begged himself onto political shout fests" until he snagged his own TV megaphone, MSNBC's "Hardball." "Washington puts the 'me' in 'media,'" concludes Leibovich.
But, speaking of me-dom, in a town filled "with self-appointed larger-than-lifers," the late longtime Washington foreign policy fixture Richard Holbrooke "represented its platonic ideal."
"'The Ego Has Landed,' White House aides would tap out to each other on their BlackBerrys when Holbrooke entered meetings."
As for the book's title, it is with "bemused faux disgust and wry distance" that insiders refer to Washington as "This Town." That the disgust is "faux" is abundantly obvious since the place is populated with "people who've been around the business (of politics) forever, who never go away and can't be killed." Political strategists and Maker's Mark pitch duo James Carville (D) and Mary Matalin (R), anyone?
Indeed, a goodly number of the government and media personalities whom Leibovich so ably ridicules were there when I arrived in D.C. during the Jimmy Carter administration. They're still there.
They include former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who announced in 2010 that he wouldn't run for a sixth term. He told Leibovich there was no way he would join the legions of "formers" who become lobbyists, paid huge sums to influence their ex-colleagues on behalf of deep pocket clients.
"No surprise how this story ends," writes Leibovich. Soon after leaving the Senate, Dodd signed on (for $1.2 million) as Hollywood's top lobbyist, head of the Motion Picture Association of America. "Formers stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold-plated toaster," Leibovich writes.
A particularly gooey slab is big cheese Ken Duberstein, a Washington figure for generations. "The standard line 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."
Early on when I started reporting from Washington, Chicago Daily News bureau chief Ray Coffey assigned me to write a long profile of the city. "Do it now," he said — in case I became inured to the strange folkways of the capital. Or co-opted. Or both.
My story concluded that D.C. is the most puffed up, self-important city (I should have written "so-called city") in the nation (I should have written "universe"). While the rest of the country suffered unemployment, plummeting home prices and such, D.C. hardly flinched, then or now. Business is always booming in Washington.
The D.C. party buffets, as Leibovich chronicles in James Beardian detail, are always amply piled with "Maine lobster poached in court bouillon … citrus salmon toasts … baby prime-beef burgers drizzled with truffle oil" and so on.
This is a place where a measure of a news organization's prestige is a high-profile television star or political sex-scandal figure landed as a guest at the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner, an orgy of self-congratulation and conflict of interest.
There, most of the guests are engaged in "the D.C. scalp stare" — where conversational eye contact is in short supply as partygoers scan the room for anyone more important to suck up to.
Leibovich reminds us of the Washington Post's Dana Milbank's observation, "If Washington's political culture gets any more incestuous, our children are going to be born with extra fingers."
While the book is delightful for its skewering of the famous and powerful, its larger point is that good intention is no match for the lure of the Washington payoff — and that includes the Obama crowd.
Those working on the Obama transition in late 2008 were required to sign a "no ego, no glory" document. At the time, it seemed unnecessary, Leibovich writes.
But soon Obama staffers were peeling off right and left for what can only be termed cashing in on their White House service in the whirling revolving-door culture.
"Eventually that message was lost, or was at least weakened as the Obama change brigades became sucked up into the tentacles of Suck-up City."
"Scores of administration officials had by 2010 left the administration for K Street jobs, without anyone so much as pointing out that they were defying a central tenet of the Obama political enterprise."
"Somehow we have all changed," longtime Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told a meeting of Obama staffers at the end of Obama's first term, according to the book.
"Or maybe Washington just changed us."
Postscript: Earlier this year, Gibbs was hired as a consultant to MSNBC. A fews months later, Gibbs and another former Obama spokesman, Ben LaBolt, opened a communications consulting firm — in Washington.
Tribune columnist Ellen Warren, a former White House correspondent, insists that she has spent all her good years in Chicago.
Highlights from 'This Town'
•At Tim Russert's 2008 funeral, where the book begins, New York Democratic Sen. Charles "Schumer nods over at a bank of cameras outside Holy Trinity (Catholic Church). He is so lens-happy, even by senatorial standards, that Jon Corzine, a former senator and governor of New Jersey, once compared the futility of sharing a media market with Schumer to sharing a banana with a monkey. 'Take a little bite of it and he will throw his own feces at you,' Corzine lamented in a speech at the National Press Club — thankfully not a dinner speech."
•It was a typical D.C. media/politics confab, the 2010 gathering to celebrate the 40th birthday of Betsy Fischer, executive producer of Meet the Press (Tim Russert's star vehicle). The site was the home of well-connected lobbyist Jack Quinn, whose "third and much younger wife" Susanna — an "emerging socialite" — was given to bragging that she and Michelle Obama shared the same makeup artist. "Everyone at the party seemed to be congratulating someone on a recent story, book deal, job, show, speech, or haircut."
•"Never before has the so-called permanent establishment of Washington included so many people in the media. They are, by and large, a cohort that is predominantly white and male and much younger than in the bygone days of pay-your-dues-on-the-city-desk-for-ten-years veterans for whom the elite political jobs were once reserved. … Today's Washington media has also never been more obsessed with another topic that has long obsessed the Washington media: the Washington media."
•"When Bill Clinton was preparing to nominate (the Washington Post's Sally) Quinn's husband, Ben Bradlee, for a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the president quipped thus to his aides: 'Anyone who sleeps with that bitch deserves a medal!'"
•Republican talking head Bay Buchanan, sister of two-time failed presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, "might have entered the world in a spin room, after being conceived in the back of a satellite truck and gestated in a green room, to be hatched from a quivering egg incubated under warm TV lights into the welcoming obstetric hands of Wolf Blitzer."
By Mark Leibovich, Blue Rider Press, 400 pages, $27.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun