There’s a new nonfiction book out that some of you might be interested in. It’s called “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking …” Its author is Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine.
The book opens with a sort of morbid, sort of insider-political-baseball glimpse into a June 18, 2008 memorial service for a widely respected Washington, D.C. figure — Tim Russert of Meet the Press fame.
Leibovich used the television newsman’s funeral as a vehicle for introducing a host of D.C. elites, some household names, others not so much — at least not yet anyway.
This Town is a humorous, sometimes silly, but really a sort of nausea-inducing look at the Washington establishment — the word “gilded” is even on the book’s cover, describing the nation’s capital and the elite who squish between its social pillars always looking to climb higher.
Leibovich’s own New York Times Magazine recently published a piece by Frank Rich about the book, and others that described Washington’s unique fish bowl. Rich calls This Town not just an indictment of D.C., but of the Democratic Party establishment, too. “The Stench of the Potomac” is the headline.
See, while the rest of us are red or blue — or living in red or blue states — Washington is green. Green because it is the place where undisputedly Republicans and Democrats seem to be able to work side by side to get things done.
No, not in Congress — God forbid the jackals in the GOP actually learn to compromise. Not in the Senate either.
No, where the elite of these two bastions of dysfunction seem to put aside those differences that seem so insurmountable on C-Span is on K Street.
It’s here that former elected officials and ex-appointees and political hacks work together, blue or red, usually on behalf of some powerful corporate interest — G.E., AT&T, Wall Street banks, you name it — typically to the detriment of, well, us.
The revolving door culture in American politics is worse now than it’s ever been.
Rich, citing Leibovich, lists a few for us.
“The starry list includes, among many others, Peter Orszag (director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, now at Citi), Jake Siewert (the Treasury Department counselor turned chief flack for Goldman Sachs), and David Plouffe (the campaign manager and senior presidential advisor who did consulting for Boeing and General Electric). In a class by herself is Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director ‘who was instrumental in helping Michelle Obama set up her ‘Let’s Move!’ program to stop obesity in children’: She signed on as a consultant with ‘food manufacturers and media firms to block restrictions on commercials for sugary foods targeting children.’”
Public service as a leg up instead of as a helping hand is nothing new.
Actually, along with Rich’s piece is a great excerpt from a 1951 book titled “Washington Confidential,” by journalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. This was the age of innocence: “The average lobbyist doesn’t bother with run-of-the-mill Senators and Representatives, who are in the bag without much trouble. He sets his sights on the key characters like committee chairmen and floor leaders, and even they can be snared at little cost, though naturally to corral a chairman means an even heftier bill to the employer.”
Ahh, the good ‘ol days.
Back in 1951, lobbyists either lobbied Democrats or Republicans, rarely both. Today, top lobbying firms hire the best and brightest from both parties.
Rich uses the example of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, formed in 2000. “Quinn is Jack Quinn, who had been Clinton’s White House counsel, chief of staff to Al Gore, and before that a Eugene McCarthy–George McGovern Democrat. The Gillespie is Ed Gillespie, a principal drafter of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and a former aide to Dick Armey, the House majority leader famous most recently for walking away with $8 million in severance from the ostensibly populist tea-party organization he ran, FreedomWorks.”
But how did all this come about? Well, money in politics is out of control. You know it and I know it, but the people we elect to run this country actually benefit from that and so no matter what, won’t do anything about it.
Robert Kaiser’s 2009 book “So Damn Much Money,” says lobbying as a full-time industry really only began to take shape in the 1970s, after Watergate. Kaiser reported that between 1976 and 2006, the cost to win a seat in Congress rose fifteenfold. Rich writes that this fact is how corporate money became empowered: Money used to pay for lobbying politicians during this period increased from tens of millions of dollars to billions of dollars each year.
Rich cites a recent article in The Atlantic, which reveals some other striking figures from this same time period, namely that in 1974 only about 3 percent of retiring members of Congress ever became lobbyists, but today it is roughly half.
That’s really pretty shocking.
Oh, and don’t be shocked, but during this same time period, that whole income inequality issue you might have heard about lately took hold during this same 40-year time period.
It’s so bad that in a column last week by Henry Blodget in Business Insider — key words BUSINESS INSIDER — the writer actually suggested that companies have become so greedy, and employees viewed more like “costs” than assets these days, that it’s time to embrace labor unions! Why? Because the greed and avarice is sooooo bad, that it actually threatens the very economic health rich people need to stay rich! Go figure.
Blodget writes, “In this country, we have the painful juxtaposition of the highest corporate profit margins in history, combined with one of the highest unemployment rates in history. We also have the lowest wages in history as a percent of the economy. That’s not good for the economy … because rich people can’t buy all the products we need to sell to have a healthy economy (they can’t eat that much food or drive that many cars, for example).
“And it’s also just not right.”
Maybe Blodget should take his case to Washington.
Take the letters in the first word in Leibovich’s title, rearrange them and you get a better name for his book — “Sh*t Town.”
Because unless you’re on your way to Congress or just got a job as a White House aide — or your daddy, sister, brother, best cousin, or grandma did — like everybody else, blue or red, you’re probably up a similar smelling creek, or soon will be.