BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
MARK LEIBOVICH: If you can sell yourself as someone who knows how Washington works, someone who has these relationships, someone who can get on the phone and get the president of the United States to pardon, you know, your fugitive client, that's a very, very marketable commodity. I mean, if you see-- if you are seen as someone who knows how this town works, someone who is a usual suspect in this town, you can dine out for years. That's why no one leaves.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Whatever you’re doing these last days of summer, stop, take some time, and read this book. I promise, you will laugh and cry and by the last page, I think you’ll be ready for the revolution. The title is “This Town,” an up-close look at how our nation’s capital really works. I can tell you, it’s not a pretty picture.
Here’s just one example. Three men on a summer’s day in Mississippi – why are they smiling and what are they really up to? Yes, that’s former President Bill Clinton on the right and on the left, his Best Friend Forever, Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, fundraiser supreme for both Bill and Hillary, and the personification of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.
Smack in the middle – that’s Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He made a fortune lobbying for corporations – especially for the tobacco industry-- then went home to serve two terms as governor of Mississippi, and couldn’t wait to get back to Washington where once again, he’s gun slinging for the big boys.
So why did these three DC desperadoes ride into a small Mississippi town? Seems that when Barbour was governor, he offered McAuliffe a very attractive state package of price and tax subsidies for a plant there to build electric cars for his GreenTech Automotive company. McAuliffe also tapped his politically connected network for more than $100 million in capital with the help of Hillary Clinton’s brother, Tony Rodham, whose company, Gulf Coast Funds Management, shares office space with GreenTech and raised money from overseas.
They held a big shindig for GreenTech’s grand opening last year, and that’s where this picture was snapped of three very happy crony capitalists. Unfortunately, back in Virginia, where GreenTech is based and McAuliffe is running for governor, the company has produced few jobs and is under investigation into whether McAuliffe and Tony Rodham made improper use of a federal program for foreign investors.
Mark Leibovich was there in Horn Lake, Mississippi, covering the triumvirate of McAuliffe, Barbour, and Clinton as they charmed the locals. He’s the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and the author of This Town, which has everyone who’s anyone in Washington talking. What a tale it is. Mark Leibovich is with me now.
BILL MOYERS: Mark Leibovich is with me now. Welcome.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Hi Bill. Good to be here.
BILL MOYERS: I've read your book twice. It's fun to read. It's eye opening. I learned a lot from it. And yet, at the core of it, there's a tragic story. Do you see that?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Absolutely. I didn't see it fully as I was writing it, but I see it in how people outside of Washington have reacted to it. The tragic story is that what has grown up in this city that was supposedly built on public service is this permanent feudal class of insiders, of people who are not term limited. Of people who never leave and never die, figuratively never die. And who are there and who are doing very, very well for themselves, very, very well for Washington, and not very, very well for the United States.
BILL MOYERS: Can you frame the historical moment in which you're writing?
MARK LEIBOVICH: I would frame it really over the last ten, 15, maybe 20 years you've had this explosion of money in politics.
BILL MOYERS: Gold rush, you call it.
MARK LEIBOVICH: It's a gold rush. People now come to Washington to get rich. That was never the defining ethic of the town, certainly 30 years ago. There is now so much money. It is now the wealthiest community in the United States. It is home to seven of the wealthiest ten counties in the United States. And frankly-- it is-- I mean, the power is obviously going to be very alluring.
There are going to be some idealists who's going to be the make-a-difference types. But ultimately this has more in common with Silicon Valley, with Hollywood, than with Wall Street. Which is a rush to cash in. It is a rush to somehow take from this big entity, this big marketplace, some kind of reward, as opposed to doing something that will reward the country.
BILL MOYERS: What's stunning is how disconnected Washington is, the political Washington that you write about, from the lives of everyday people. Is it because of this gold rush?
MARK LEIBOVICH: When you look at the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country, which people talk about. I mean, there's a shorthand, "Well, Washington is out of touch," right? People don't fully know what that is made of. I mean, I think you see intuitively on TV or when you visit Washington, that people don't talk and deal with people the way most Americans talk and deal with each other.
I mean, there's a language of obsequiousness, a language of selling, a language of spin. But most-- but look-- it is a wealth culture. These are people who are doing very, very well. It's true in the demographics, it's true in the sensibility.
BILL MOYERS: The people you write about in here seem very comfortable with this town.
MARK LEIBOVICH: They do. I mean, it's been very, very good for them. I mean, it's-- look, this town has worked for a lot of people, a lot of very good people, a lot of very bad people, and a lot of very mediocre people. But these are-- a lot of this book is filled with profiles of people who have made this town work for them.
BILL MOYERS: What do the readers out across the country tell you about the picture you have reported?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Well the disconnect, it's interesting, Bill, has been very much displayed in the reaction of the book. I mean, I think in Washington you have had a very carnival like reaction to the book. It's, like, "Oh, who wins? Who loses? What are the nuggets? Will Leibovich be cast out? Will he not be invited to lunch with party X or Y again?"
So you have a very silly and shallow read inside the bell way, which is titillating I guess in its own way. And if it gets people to buy the book, great. Outside of Washington you have a truer sense of the outrage. You have a sense of an education. You have a sense of, "Oh my goodness. I've known Washington has been something I've been disappointed in. But I didn't know it looked like this. I didn't know it had come to all of this just this-- incredible contempt for what they are supposed to be there for." Contempt for what their constituents are, i.e., us.
BILL MOYERS: You say political Washington is “an inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in the club.” And you talked about the club. "The club swells for the night into the ultimate bubble world. They become part of a system that rewards, more than anything a system of self-perpetuation."
MARK LEIBOVICH: Self-perpetuation is a key point in all of this. It is what you're going to-- how you're going to continue. I mean, the original notion of the founders is that a president or a public servant would serve a term, couple years, return to their communities, return to farm. Now the organizing principle of life in Washington is how are you going to keep it going? Whether it's how you're going to stay in office, you know, by pleasing your leadership so that you get money, by raising enough money so that you can get reelected by getting a gig after you're done with Congress, after you're done in the White House, by getting the next gig.
BILL MOYERS: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it ain't.
MARK LEIBOVICH: No, it isn't. And look, I tried to find a Mr. Smith character. I wanted to, and I had some back and forth with the first publisher of this book, which is not the ultimate publisher of this book, about finding someone to root for. They wanted someone to feel good about to sort of run through the narrative.
And there are people I think I could root for, the people I like in Washington, I think people who are there for the right reasons. But I couldn't find him or her. And ultimately, I gave up trying. And I tried to sort of create a cumulative picture over a five year period.
BILL MOYERS: What does that say to you?
MARK LEIBOVICH: I think ultimately it says that this is not-- well, first of all, it's a very cautious culture. And I think cowardice is rewarded at every step of the way.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MARK LEIBOVICH: It's rewarded in Congress. You everything about the Congressional system, whether it's leadership, whether it's how money is raised, is going to reward cowardice. The true mavericks are going to be punished in some ways. If you are going-- if you want to build a career outside of office when you're done, when you're voted out as a lobbyist, as a consultant, as many of them do, you are absolutely in-- you are absolutely encouraged not anger too many people. Not--
BILL MOYERS: Not take a big stand?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Not take a big stand, right. No truth is going to be told here by-- based on any sort of cowardly go along, get along way. And I think that there are many ways in which the money, the system is financed-- the politics are financed the way the media works, that will not under any circumstances reward someone who takes a stand.
BILL MOYERS: As you and I both know, many Americans see Washington today as a polarized, dysfunctional city. One that is not sufficiently bipartisan. But you describe it as a place that “becomes a determinedly bipartisan team when there is money to be made.”
MARK LEIBOVICH: That is absolutely true. I mean, ultimately, the business of Washington relies on things not getting done. And this is a bipartisan imperative. If a tax reform bill passed tomorrow, if an immigration bill passed tomorrow, that's tens of billions of dollars in consulting, lobbying, messaging fees that are not going to be paid out.
BILL MOYERS: Let's take one example. April 20th, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil well, oil rig, explodes in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people killed, the largest marine spill in the history of the industry.
Oil gushes onto the seafloor for at least 84 days. You, Leibovich, look at that crude oil flowing into the gulf, and you see an equally large flow of cash spreading across Washington, covering our nation's capital to, as you say, "manage the crisis." Now, tell us how they set about to manage that crisis.
MARK LEIBOVICH: So BP is in this whole heap of trouble, okay? They have this disaster that they are pegged with. The president looks powerless. I mean, what are you going to do? You have this awful calamity taking place. Systematically BP is spending tens of millions of dollars to basically tie up the most prominent Washington Democratic and Republican lobbyists, media consultants, ad people, to where you had an all-star roster.
And all of a sudden, everyone is working together. I mean, you had rhetoric of President Obama, you know, criticizing BP. You had BP saying, "Oh no, we're going to make this right." You had Republicans saying, "Oh, the president should be doing more."
So you had this TV sort of debate, the same noise you would see in any other story juxtaposed with these terrible oil soaked pelican pictures from the gulf, which in fact the city is just reaping this bounty.
BILL MOYERS: You say BP, British Petroleum, put together a beltway dream team that included Republican super lobbyists like Ken Duberstein, Democratic super lobbyist Tony Podesta, former vice president Cheney's one time spokeswoman Anne Womack-Kolton, Republican flacks like John Feehery and Democratic flacks like Steve McMahon and McMahon's business partner, the Republican media guru Alex Castellanos, who's a contributor to CNN.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yes. McMahon is on MSNBC so it’s very bipartisan that way too.
BILL MOYERS: And McMahon, the Democrat and Castellanos the Republican are partners in a firm called Purple Strategies. BP hires them to spearhead this $50 million television campaign you talk about.
TONY HAYWARD:: To those affected and your families, I am deeply sorry.
BILL MOYERS: They were brought, you say, into the fold by the Democratic operative, Hilary Rosen, who was working for a London-based firm that was also working for BP. And she was also a pundit for CNN. I mean, what a web.
MARK LEIBOVICH: And again, I think the other piece of this is that a year later Geoff Morrell, who is the head spokesman for the Pentagon under, you know, President Obama's Pentagon, has become the chief Washington spokesman for BP.
BILL MOYERS: Former White House correspondent for ABC News.
MARK LEIBOVICH: ABC News. He followed Bob Gates to the Pentagon first with President Bush then with President Obama. Sort of a classic revolving door figure, Geoff is. But no, so-- that was-- I mean, it's a classic two step. I mean, I also think BP has done very, very well rehabilitating itself. I mean, thanks largely to flooding the media with all kinds of goodies and a lot of advertising money. And we're supposed to feel good about BP again.
COMMERCIAL NARRATOR:: Two years ago, the people of BP made a commitment to the gulf and every day since we’ve worked hard to keep it. BP has paid over twenty three billion dollars to help people and businesses who were affected, and to cover cleanup costs. Today the beaches and gulf are open for everyone to enjoy. And many areas are reporting the best tourism season in years. We’ve shared what we’ve learned with governments and across the industry so we can all produce energy more safely.
BILL MOYERS: And what's the moral that you-- we draw from that story? About this town?
MARK LEIBOVICH: About this town, is-- well, first of all, when there's a problem, there is a lot of money to be made in this town. And, look, it's another example of Washington doing very, very, very well.
BILL MOYERS Let’s look at Jack Quinn and Ed Gillespie
MARK LEIBOVICH: Jack Quinn is the White House counsel under Bill Clinton. He went onto cable a lot and defended the president during a lot of his campaign finance problems during his two terms. He met Ed Gillespie, who was then a Republican operative in green rooms. They had this green room friendship. People become friends. And in Ed and Jack's case, they went into business together. They started Quinn Gillespie, the first real major sort of bipartisan lobbying firm.
BILL MOYERS: One stop lobbying.
MARK LEIBOVICH: One stop lobbying. You want to deal with Republicans, you want to get to Republicans, you go here. You want to get to Democrats, you go here. They founded them so they-- their firm's founded in 2000. Jack Quinn got into some trouble in 2001 after he successfully lobbied Bill Clinton to pardon his law client, Marc Rich.
BILL MOYERS: Fugitive.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Fugitive Marc Rich. There was a big to-do then. Jack was big time in the barrel. He's hauled before Congress. He feels like he's being looked at in restaurants. And Ed Gillespie said, "Look, Jack, in a few months everyone's going to forget about this and all they're going to remember about you and this incident is that you got something big done." And sure enough-- you know, Jack did a good job for his client. The outrage dissipated. And the firm-- the lobbying firm thrived with the rest of the industry.
BILL MOYERS: Four years later, they sold out for $40 million. Now how do they make that much money in four years and the talent they bring is that they’re creatures of Washington?
MARK LEIBOVICH: That's a very, very, very valuable commodity. I mean, if you can sell yourself as someone who knows how Washington works, someone who has these relationships, someone who can get on the phone and get the president of the United States to pardon, you know, your fugitive client, that's a very, very marketable commodity. I mean, if you see-- if you are seen as someone who knows how this town works, someone who is a usual suspect in this town, you can dine out for years. That's why no one leaves.
BILL MOYERS You once asked the Democrat Jack Quinn what appealed to him about the Republican Ed Gillespie, who became his partner when they first started bonding. And he answered?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Well, “Ed got the joke.”
BILL MOYERS: What's the joke?
MARK LEIBOVICH: That's what I said. I said, "Jack, what's the joke?” And he said, "The joke is that, well, we're all patriots." And I thought that that was both-- it was some mix of sarcasm, contempt, glibness-- I don’t know. It was a fascinating answer.
BILL MOYERS: You reported here, that “over the last dozen years corporate America, much of it Wall Street, has triple the amount of money it spent on lobbying and public affairs in DC,” because, and I'm quoting you, “have figured out that despite the exorbitant calls to hiring lobbyists, the ability to shape or tweak or kill even the tiniest legislative loophole can be worth tens of millions of dollars."
MARK LEIBOVICH: First of all, there's extravagant waste in the private sector of Washington if you go to some of these lobbying offices and parties and what they're billing people. I mean, it looks like an incredible racket. In fact, these companies are getting what they pay for. I mean, Tony Podesta we talked about before, a Democratic lobbyist, talked about how great it is that laws are so complicated now.
The context was I think it was Dodd-Frank or it might have been in health care, there are these tiny little loopholes. They go on for thousands of pages. And if you can be a lobbyist or a lawyer at a firm who can understand this much and you're getting paid, you know, tens of millions of dollars, but you're probably saving your clients, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes more. So it's very cost effective. I mean, the complete arcaneness of this world is again, very, very good for business.
BILL MOYERS: Let's quickly run through some of the roll call of influence peddlers that you write about. Billy Tauzin.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Billy Tauzin was a former Democrat, became a Republican congressman. Went on to become the head of the-- one of the top pharmaceutical lobbies in the country
BILL MOYERS: After, in the House, overseeing the drug industry, chairing the committee that oversaw the drug industry. And he was crucial in passing the Medicare prescription bill, which has meant billions in profits for the drug companies. Then he resigned, as you say, ran the pharmaceuticals lobbying arm in Washington. And in 2010, according to you, made $11.6 million. Steve Kroft and “60 Minutes” did an exposé of him.
STEVE KROFT on 60 minutes: I mean, this doesn’t look good. When you push this bill through that produces a windfall for the drug companies, and then a short time later you go to work for the drug lobby at a salary of $2 million.
BILLY TAUZIN on 60 minutes: There’s nothing I could have done in my life after leaving Congress that I didn’t have some impact on after 25 years in Congress. If that looks bad to you, have at it. That’s the truth.
STEVE KROFT on 60 minutes: In fairness to Billy Tauzin and former Medicare chief Tom Scully, they weren’t the only public officials involved with the prescription drug bill who later went to work for the pharmaceutical industry. Just before the vote, Tauzin cited the people who had been most helpful in getting in passed.
BILLY TAUZIN on 60 minutes: I specifically want to thank the staffs and committees from Ways and Means. John McManus that did such a great job.
STEVE KROFT on 60 minutes:Within a few months McManus left Congress and started his own lobbying firm. Among his new clients were PhRMA, Pfizer, Lilly and Merck.
BILLY TAUZIN on 60 minutes: From a majority side of the finance committee, Linda Fishman—
STEVE KROFT on 60 minutes: Fishman left to become a lobbyist with the drug manufacturer Amgen.
BILLY TAUZIN on 60 minutes: Not the least of all but the energy and commerce committee staff who toiled so hard for us – chief of staff Pat Morrissey.
STEVE KROFT on 60 minutes: Morrissey took a job lobbying for drug companies Novartis and Hoffman-LaRoche.
BILLY TAUZIN on 60 minutes: And Jeremy Allen.
STEVE KROFT on 60 minutes: He went to Johnson and Johnson.
BILLY TAUZIN on 60 minutes: Kathleen Weldon and Jim Barnett.
STEVE KROFT on 60 minutes: She went to lobby for Biogen, a biotech company. He left to lobby for Hoffman-LaRoche.
BILLY TAUZIN on 60 minutes: They did a marvelous job for this house and we owe them a debt. Thank you all.
MARK LEIBOVICH: We owe them all right. Wow. Yeah, I mean, this happens-- it happens with every bill. I mean, I think-- what was striking about that is Congressman Tauzin actually sort of-- if we sent a resume out on all of their behalf, by sort of doing a roll call in his remarks. But look, I mean, that-- the Steve Kroft piece-- was stunning in that I think he caught Tauzin just, oddly flat-footed. I mean, I think we've seen in reading his face, he seemed almost flat-footed that the question would be asked.
I mean, no one is really going to burn any bridges. I mean, it’s like one big bridge, in some ways. And look Jack Abramoff is a name that actually has not come up here. He’s the picture of modern disgrace in Washington, right? The disgraced lobbyist.
One of the many books I read in preparing this book was his memoir, which he wrote, I think, largely I don’t know if he wrote it in prison. But I think a lot of it was probably derived from his ruminations in prison. He told about how he knew as a lobbyists, he would have all these relationships with people on the Hill, people in the White House, people—elected officials.
And at a certain point, they would say, "Hey, you know what Congressman X? Or you know what, Staffer X? You're really good at this. When you're done-- have you thought about what you're going to do when you leave the Hill?" And they'd say, "Well, not really." Or they would just sort of leave the question open. And Jack Abramoff said, "I knew that when I could ask that question, I owned him." Because there's a preemptive bribe there.
It's-- you know, "You're going to be making maybe a million dollars at my lobbying firm, if you answer this question correctly and you act correctly." I mean, in your office, if you can help us. If you can maintain this friendship for as long as you're in power. I mean-- when you see Peter Orszag going to Citigroup, when you see Jake Seiwert going to Goldman, when you see Geoff Morrell going to BP, it does sort of beg the question, "Who were they working for when they were at the Pentagon, at the OMB, at the Treasury Department?" I mean, you just sort of wonder where their mind is.
BILL MOYERS Trent Lott. You say he’s the he's the archetype of the age of the former. What's a former?
MARK LEIBOVICH: A former is a former office holder, a former senator, a former congressman, a former White House deputy chief of staff, or whatever. I mean, the line I have in the book is that, "Formers stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold plated toaster." They don't go home anymore.
They talk about how much they hate Washington, but they settle in here-- quite comfortably. And Trent Lott was the Senate majority leader-- you know, very powerful Republican. He kind of abruptly retired in 2007 I think, went into business with John Breaux, a Democratic senator.
He was a long time senator from Louisiana. As a member of Congress, Breaux said that his vote-- someone said that-- someone called him a cheap whore and he said, "I'm not that cheap." And he also said, "My vote cannot be bought. It can be rented." Anyway, Trent Lott--
BILL MOYERS: So you've got the Republican Lott and the Democratic Breaux--
MARK LEIBOVICH: Demo-- another b--
BILL MOYERS: --creating a boutique--
MARK LEIBOVICH: A bout--
BILL MOYERS: --lobby firm.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yeah, although they eventually were absorbed into Patton Boggs which is, you know, one of the bigger lobbying firms in town--
BILL MOYERS: Tommy Boggs, son of the former speaker, Democratic majority leader, Hale Boggs, who's--
MARK LEIBOVICH: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: --one of the most-- well, arguably the most powerful lobbyist firm in Washington.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Or it has been for many, many years. But anyway, so Trent Lott and John Breaux have been very, very successful in the last five, six years as lobbyists. Trent Lott, a pretty candid guy. I mean,
He talked about how much he hates Washington. I said, "So why do you stay?" and he looked at me like I was crazy, and he said, "Well, because this is where all the problems are, but this is where all the money is.” I mean, this is what keeps people here. And it's true. No one leaves anymore.
BILL MOYERS: Richard Gephardt.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Richard Gephardt-- former House majority leader. Two-time presidential candidate. A hero to organized labor.
BILL MOYERS: Son of a teamster.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Son of a teamster, milk truck driver. Gave some of the most impassioned campaign rallies I've ever seen in places like Iowa and--
BILL MOYERS: For working people.
MARK LEIBOVICH: For working people. I mean, he seemed like the real deal. He became a lobbyist, like a lot of members of Congress do. And he since-- has worked for a lot of corporations.
BILL MOYERS: Goldman Sachs, Boeing, Visa, I get from your book.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yeah. I mean, again, many of them not terribly friendly to organized labor.
BILL MOYERS: In Congress, as you say, he fought for labor. But then he went to work for Spirit Aero Systems, overseeing a tough anti-union campaign. And then in the House he had supported a resolution condemning the Armenian genocide of 1915. When he left Congress he was paid about $70,000 a month by the Turkish government to oppose the resolution?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yeah. I mean, I guess the word, "genocide" goes down a little easier at those rates, right I mean, I don't see any shame there. I don't-- again, he's allowed to change his mind for money. I'm allowed to be outraged.
BILL MOYERS: Evan Bayh, Democrat from Indiana.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yeah, Evan Bayh was this, you know, two term senator. He retired very, very extravagantly in the pages of The New York Times about how Washington is broke and how he was tired of all the yelling matches and partisanship and how nothing gets done. And he wanted to get into an honorable line of work. And a lot of his colleagues were not happy with this description, but also were rolling his eyes because they were, like, "Where was that outrage when you were in office?"
And one of his colleagues said, "Well, that's the most effective speech he's given, you know, in eight years here, or in 12 years here." He immediately joined Fox News, he joined the Chamber of Commerce. I mean, this is someone who was a runner up to be President Obama's running mate.
MARK LEIBOVICH: He and Andy Card, the White House chief of staff under President Bush, they sort of did a dog and pony act in which they would go out in the country on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce and--
BILL MOYERS: Which is the biggest business lobby--
MARK LEIBOVICH: Biggest business lobby--
BILL MOYERS: --wash--
MARK LEIBOVICH: --in Washington absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: In Washington.
MARK LEIBOVICH: A big thorn in the side of this White House. And have, you know, been giving a lot of speeches sort of-- in support of that agenda.
BILL MOYERS: In your book you quote one journalist calling Bayh, “the perfectly representative face for the rotted Washington establishment." Another of your colleagues said he was "Acting to entrench the culture of narcissism and hypocrisy that's killing the United States Congress." Another describes him “practically a caricature of what a sell-out looks like.” I would take from your book that you don't think those depictions are too harsh.
MARK LEIBOVICH: No, not at all. I think it's true. Look, I mean, you don't have to-- I mean, I just sort of lay out the examples. I lay out his words. I mean, again, he was so sanctimonious in his departure.
EVAN BAYH: Can we not remember we are "one nation under God" with a common heritage and a common destiny? Let us no longer be divided into "red" states and "blue" states but reunite once more as fifty red, white, and blue states. As the civil rights leader once reminded us: "we may have arrived on these shores in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now."[…]
So my friends, the time has come for the sons and daughters of Lincoln and the heirs of Jefferson and Jackson to no longer wage war upon each other but to instead renew the struggle against the ancient enemies of man: ignorance, poverty and disease. That is why we are here. That is why.
MARK LEIBOVICH: He was so disgusted with Washington. And, of course, he stayed. And there are all these examples of what he has gone on to do. So, look, it all speaks for itself. I mean, you can-- it's nice that there are commentators who can put a fine a point-- or a finer point on it. But this is all out there.
BILL MOYERS: Chris Dodd, former Peace Corps volunteer.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Chris Dodd, very nice guy, very fun-loving guy. I mean, very sort of, you know, outspoken liberal. He was-- he had this great legislative last hurrah in 2010, where he-- you know, he coauthored Dodd-Frank. He was one of the chief engineers of the health care bill. I remember talking to him when he announced he wasn't going to run. He got in some trouble-- was very, very unpopular back in Connecticut. He got in some trouble with a mortgage broker.
BILL MOYERS: He took a loan, I think, from Countrywide--
MARK LEIBOVICH: Countrywide.
BILL MOYERS: --in the housing--
MARK LEIBOVICH: In the housing--
BILL MOYERS: --bubble.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Right, at a time when he was, you know, presumably, you know, chairman of the banking committee could have been very involved in that. But also was running for president in a fairly quixotic--
BILL MOYERS: With a lot of money from--
MARK LEIBOVICH: A lot of money from Wall Street. You know, and he basically decamped to Iowa for a few months in 2008. Chris Dodd, I remember having lunch with him in the Senate dining room and saying, "So what are you going to do now?" And it was a triumphant moment. And he-- I mean, because he-- these bills were actually going to pass.
And he said-- "Oh, boy, the possibilities are endless. I mean, I could be a college president. I might go out to work for some startup. I might rejoin the Peace Corps." I mean, he had this look of possibility. And I said, "So you're not going to lobby, right?" And he said, "Oh no, no, no, take that off the table right, right now."
And he is now head of one of the most powerful lobbies in town, the Motion Pictures Association of America. You know, he would say that, "Well, I'm not registered to lobby, technically." And it's true. But he also oversees a staff of lobbyists. And the chapter about that is-- I talk about just the institutionalization of being part of the political class.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think he lied to you?
MARK LEIBOVICH: He would say that his thinking evolved. He would-- I don't think he-- I don't know. What do you call it? It turned out not to be true. I mean, he-- look, it's disappointing. I mean, I have to say that as someone who is looking for someone to level with him.
BILL MOYERS: The official language in Washington is fraudulent language. It's the language of spin, marketing, P.R.
MARK LEIBOVICH: It's not how human beings talk to each other. But yeah, no, it's-- people don't rec-- you become very anesthetized. And Washington is a huge, huge dome of anesthesia. People don't fully know just, again, the B.S. that is just part of the day to day transaction. And again, it's hard to realize when you're living there. I mean, I think Bob Bennett, the senator from Utah, he was voted out.
BILL MOYERS: He lost to the Tea Party candidate.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Tea Party guy. He, I think, was-- someone said, "So you're going to cash in." He goes, "I'm entitled to make a living." And that's-- look, it's what they do.
BILL MOYERS: Even my friend Byron Dorgan, the former Democratic senator from North Dakota. He was once a source of mine, despite all the populist sentiment he expressed over the years, you point out that on the same day Robert Bennett-- made his announcement, Byron Dorgan made his announcement they would be joining together one of the big law firms that includes a large lobbying component. And you point out that both had served on the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Now what advantage did that give them?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Appropriations Committee gives you a huge advantage, because that's money, essentially. It's where money is spent. It's where it's allocated.
BILL MOYERS: Where the cash goes?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Where the cash goes. So that-- those are the most-- by far the most coveted-- lobbying targets-- when you have either a congressman or a senate who is retiring from one of these committees or voted out.
BILL MOYERS: You write about-- you write about Anita Dunn. Tell me about Anita Dunn.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Anita Dunn is a long-time Democratic operative. She was one of the top aides for President Obama's '08 campaign. She was the communications director for a time in the White House. Very, very sharp woman. She was very, very instrumental in sort of helping the first lady, for instance, sort of pass-- or put together her anti-obesity initiative. She's now one of the top media consultants in town. And she's done a lot of work to-- I mean, some would say maybe undo some of the work she did in the White House.
BILL MOYERS: As you say, Anita Dunn helped Michelle Obama set up her “Let's Move” program to stop obesity. I'm almost quoting you verbatim.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yep, sure.
BILL MOYERS: Then she signs on as a consultant to the food manufacturing and media firms trying to block restrictions on sugary foods targeting children. Her husband, by the way, and this is, of course, incidental I'm sure, happened to be the president's White House council.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Certainly Anita Dunn has benefited greatly from a perception of her being still a figure with ties to the White House, whether it's her husband who's now the former White House council. But someone who has all kinds of friends there. Who's on the phone there all the time. I mean, that has to be a boon to her corporate clients.
BILL MOYERS: You talk about President Obama and his campaign and his opposition to the revolving door. Let me play you an excerpt from one of his speeches.
BARACK OBAMA: But the American people deserve more than simply an assurance that those who are coming to Washington will serve their interests. They also deserve to know that there are rules on the books to keep it that way. They deserve a government that is truly of, by, and for the people. As I often said during the campaign, we need to make the White House the people's house. And we need to close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely, and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave.
BILL MOYERS: And what happened?
MARK LEIBOVICH: They have put this law in place, "We won't have lobbyists in the White House." They kept making exceptions. They-- there have been a number of people who they have waived that rule for. But ultimately, I think what's happened is more on the other end. You said people leaving the White House to go right to K Street. You've had people leaving the White House going right to Goldman Sachs, going right to BP, going right to Citigroup. I mean, some of the biggest corporate nemeses in this administration in the first term are now being staffed at the highest levels by people who were staffing the Obama administration at the highest--
BILL MOYERS: Peter Orszag, who was Obama's--
MARK LEIBOVICH: --director of management and budget director.
BILL MOYERS: Now at Citi.
MARK LEIBOVICH: High level at Citi. Jake Siewert who was a chief counselor to Tim Geithner, secretary of treasury-- they were doing all kinds of battle with Goldman Sachs during the first term, especially after the financial crisis. Jake is now the head of communications for Goldman Sachs. I mean, you--
BILL MOYERS: And so many of them have a connection to someone else who figures prominent in your book, Robert Rubin.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yeah, Robert Rubin--
BILL MOYERS: Was Clinton's treasury secretary.
MARK LEIBOVICH: There's always been a symbiosis between Wall Street and Washington to some degree. But I think the Clinton Era introduced a whole new level of magnitude to this. And Bob Rubin, who was the sort of storied head of Goldman Sachs for many years, coming to take the reins of treasury was really-- I mean, he was a real guru. And brought a lot of protégés, Larry Summers being the biggest example, to town. Tim Geithner being another one. And yeah, and then, you know, the economy crashes, the banks crash. I mean, Robert Rubin gets a great deal of blame. I mean, Bill Clinton himself did a mea culpa on Robert Rubin.
BILL MOYERS: On ABC News.
MARK LEIBOVICH: On ABC News, on George Stephanopoulos.
BILL MOYERS: Rubin had been a force in killing Glass-Steagall, which was the firewall between commercial banks and investment banks.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Investment banks.
BILL MOYERS: And he was a big supporter of derivatives, deregulation.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: And all that contributed to the fiscal crisis. After he left the Treasury Department, he went to Citi.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Went back to Citi--
MARK LEIBOVICH: --Citi.
BILL MOYERS: You say he made $126 million in nine years.
MARK LEIBOVICH: No, he did. No, he did very, very, very well. And--
BILL MOYERS: And you called Rubin "The primest of movers of in the modern marriage of politics and wealth creation."
MARK LEIBOVICH: Absolutely. He was the ambassador to the Clinton wealth machine. I mean, even-- I mean, you had people like Rahm Emmanuel, who was a mid-level White House, you know, operative in the Clinton White House, who, was able to go to Wasserstein Perella and make, you know, $16.2 or $16 point something million.
BILL MOYERS: $18 million dollars in two and a half years.
MARK LEIBOVICH: And then before he went back to become a public servant again and run for Congress. But yeah, Bob Rubin brought this whole generation of Wall Street people to Washington. Then he brought them back from Washington to Wall Street, greatly enriched. And look, he's a hero to a lot of people on Wall Street. He was a hero to a lot of people in Washington. And again, I think Bill Clinton more than anyone in the last, you know, few decades has sort of engineered this relationship.
BILL MOYERS: Let's get to the press. You write, "Never before has the so-called permanent establishment of Washington included so many people in the media." And you write, "The Washington press puts the “me” in “media.”” How so?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Look, I mean, first of all, just the rise in new media has given everyone a voice. I mean, the rise of cable has given everyone a face. I mean, it's never been easier to become a media celebrity. And I think punditry has replaced reporting as the gold standard of my profession.
I mean, there-- the media is everywhere in Washington. I mean, I think the White House Correspondent's Dinner is a classic example of how Washington, you know, rewards being famous, being on TV, being a brand-- more than anything.
BILL MOYERS: Your descriptions of the White House Correspondent's Association Dinner, the annual dinner are fabulous in the book. The dinner's sold out every table since 1993, at $2,500 a pop?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yeah, but I mean, even the greater outrage is that there's-- it now goes over five days. You have probably about two dozen pre-parties and after parties. You probably have tens of millions of dollars, some funded by corporations, in entertainment, in sort of people sucking up to everyone else, and food and musical acts and so forth.
Because, of course, you know, a single banquet is no longer sufficient to celebrate the accomplishments of the Washington media. Tom Brokaw who has become a real activist against the White House Correspondent's Dinner said that it sends the message that it's all about the people on the screen. It's all about the media. Which I think to some degree is true. I mean, the media is feeling great about itself. The media is as rich as any other part of the economy. And I think the Correspondent's Dinner is a classic example of this.
BILL MOYERS: Have you attended one?
MARK LEIBOVICH: I have, although not since 1996, because the New York Times stopped letting us go.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
MARK LEIBOVICH: They thought it was too-- Dean Baquet, who's now the managing editor of The Times, he was the Washington bureau chief of The Times. I think it was in 2007, actually, declared that this is too cozy. He didn't like the message it sent. He would prefer that we stop going. I thought it was a great decision.
BILL MOYERS: Describe the dinner to me.
MARK LEIBOVICH: It's just this room full of tuxedoed people. A lot of Hollywood celebrities come in. A lot of people talk about, you know, the good that the press does. But again, it's an extravaganza that continues, that it becomes the ultimate bubble world, the ultimate example of decadence in Washington that people know intuitively is wrong, but have no either will or ability to stop it.
REPORTER 1 at the WHCD: This is a big night in Washington. Anyone whose anybody is here. And the key question for everyone in Washington is “What are you wearing?”
REPORTER 2 at the WHCD: So you’ve got the politicians, the journalists, and plenty of celebrities thrown in between. I had a Katie Perry sighting, saw Bradley Cooper too.
REPORTER 1 at the WHCD: Is there anyone you’re excited to meet tonight?
MICHAEL STEELE at the WHCD: Everyone actually. I just came here with my buddy Chris Tucker it was good to see him.
REPORTER 1 at the WHCD: You know Michael Steele?
CHRIS TUCKER at the WHCD: Michael Steele? Who is Michael Steele?
REPORTER 3 at the WHCD: And who are you wearing tonight?
CELEBRITY at the WHCD: Badgely Mischka.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOLOUS at the WHCD: You’re asking people what they’re wearing and all that….
REPORTER 1 at the WHCD: Are there any political conversations you’re going to have at all?
KIM KARDASHIAN at the WHCD: Sure we’re having one now aren’t we?
ROBERT GIBBS at the WHCD: Is this still not the craziest thing ever? When did this get to be like this?
BARACK OBAMA at the WHCD: Thank you everybody. How do you like my new entrance music?
MARK LEIBOVICH: The problem is excess. To some degree, it is perfectly emblematic of the reality distortion field inside of Washington, of just having no sense whatsoever. One that the rest of the country is struggling, that the government is in financially very, very bad shape, that Washington is not doing a good job, and that this goes on year after year after year.
Hollywood comes to town. You have the collision of the bubble worlds, right? And what I think is sort of striking is this year Kevin Spacey is the star of “House of Cards,” which is not a very flattering picture of Washington. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is the star of “Veep,” which is this very, very funny HBO show.
BILL MOYERS: About the vice president.
MARK LEIBOVICH: About the vice presidency, neither of which paint Washington in a flattering light. They both showed up to the dinner. They went to the big after party sponsored by Vanity Fair and Bloomberg. And they were both swarmed. Everyone was like, "Oh, we have to get our picture taken with Kevin Spacey and with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who, I mean, ultimately, paint a hideous portrait of how Washington works. And Washington at its most grotesque and perverse. And yet, that's what we're celebrating. And again, you do sort of pinch yourself after one. It's like, "What are we celebrating here?"
BILL MOYERS: There's a sequence in Netflix's “House of Cards”, where some of Washington's best-known journalists are playing themselves in a fantasy world. Watch this.
GEORGE STEPHENOPOLOUS on House of Cards: Just before we came on the air, I received an advance copy of an article that’s going to be in tomorrow’s Washington Herald – it’s front page, and it was written by Zoe Barnes. And in it she quotes an editorial that ran in the Williams College Register when you were editor back in September 1978 which called the Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank quote, an illegal occupation. […]
JOHN KING on House of Cards: Quoting a source close to the President as saying that Katherine Durant will likely be the new nominee for Secretary of State after Michael Kern’s withdrawal.[…]
CANDY CROWLEY on House of Cards: Congressmen Frank Underwood says he got quote schooled by AFT spokesman and chief strategist Martin Spinella during a debate last night on this network. In the past 24 hours reruns of the gaff have played non-stop on tv news programs and the internet. […]
BILL MOYERS: Does it say something to you that prominent journalists are willing to erase the line between reality and fiction?
MARK LEIBOVICH: That if you look at something like House of Cards, if you look at something like the Correspondent's Dinner, where you have Hollywood and Washington merging and you have kind of a joined mind, a joined fame machine. You realize that the lines might not be that drawn to begin with.
It-- in any mind. I mean, I think one of the things-- there's a scene at the end of this book in which a member of the campaign team from 2012 for President Obama said, "After a while it just seemed like everyone was thinking about who was going to play them in the next version of ‘Game Change’," which is this campaign book that was written by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann about the 2008 campaign, best-seller.
And again, that sort of goes to the larger cinematic sense that people have with themselves here. There's this sense of preening, a sense of, "Who's going to play me in the movie? Will I get a cameo playing myself in the movie?" as people in the Game Change movie did. That's another scene in here. And again, it's a sort of blame-- it's a sort of blurring of the larger class of fame, of really the ruling class in the public perception game. That I think is as much a part of this decadence as really anything else.
BILL MOYERS: As I read this book, I felt there was-- you were troubled by writing it. I mean, you're having-- it's a fun book to read, as I said in the beginning. But there's something troubling you, even now, about this story.
MARK LEIBOVICH: I'm more troubled now after seeing people react to it. I mean, in two ways. One, seeing the very legitimate and, frankly, very gratifying outrage that it has brought outside of town. Because it gives me a level of-- gives me a degree of faith that people can still be outraged, even when they're being amused or entertained or, you know, being hit with nuggets or whatever it is that people look for.
In Washington, I've been outraged again, like I said, by the complete lack of discussion, it seems to have begot. The complete lame pushback, the complete "how dare he" of this, you know, sort of trying to make me an outcast. That someone who has spoken out at school and someone who has tried to expose-- actually, I don't want to say tried to expose the racket. Because that makes me seem more muckrakey than I probably am. But I think ultimately it's-- I think getting out of my writer's head and getting this book out into the marketplace and seeing people experience it has helped me to see the whole of it.
BILL MOYERS: I was surprised when I read the book, because I have followed your reporting. And you were reporting good stories, anecdotal stories, and fact-driven stories. But they didn't seem to have the narrative arc that emerges in this. Was that something you came to in the course of writing it or in the course of reporting? How did that come about?
MARK LEIBOVICH: It became a moment. And it-- and it did occur to me in-- in being exposed to this that the political class that I'm writing about has reached some kind of critical mass in the 21st century. I think there's something going on in Washington that needed to be called out.
BILL MOYERS: And the moment you talk about?
MARK LEIBOVICH: The moment I talk about. Again, I don't think the can be sustained. And I think it's indecent. I think it is not how Americans want their government and their capital city to be. I think in some ways-- and I always sort of cower under this-- this claim when people ask me for prescriptions. But I think in some ways-- I mean, I'm holding a mirror to a culture. It is a culture that people only know around the edges. I wanted to take it sort of full on, in all its components, including the media, and hope to paint a picture that will stand as something that is lasting for this era.
BILL MOYERS: Is it conceivable to you that one, two, three, or four more people in your book might say, "Wait a minute, this is shameful. And they can't change it out there, because we are impenetrable. So I'm going to stand up. And we're going to change it from within."
MARK LEIBOVICH: I mean, look, I mean, there are a lot of good people in Washington. I mean, it sounds contradictory given a lot of what we've talked about. But there are people who-- a lot of people who especially when they're young or when they were young, they came from a place of decency. They came from a place of hope.
And that doesn't completely go away, right? So—look, I wrote a book-- and I'm speaking as a journalist-- who-- that I think in probably some level was a product of disgust, my own disgust. Maybe even there was a level of unconscious desire to check myself before finding myself too deep in the club, too much a part of this world. And, I mean, so look, I mean, I absolutely love-- would love this book to be a source of shame, of self-reflection. But I think-- I am willing to start with discomfort. If this is a source of discomfort, I'm very happy with that, too.
BILL MOYERS: Suppose this culture in Washington is more representative of the country today than you want to acknowledge. You know, there's this scene in David Simon's series The Wire, where a policeman is asking one of the kids on the street, "Why do you go on playing this game of poker, when the guy you keep inviting to the game is stealing your money?”
POLICEMAN in The Wire: … he always stole the money, why did you let him play?
KID in The Wire: Got to. This America man.
BILL MOYERS: Cause that's the American way. What if Washington has become the Wall Street way, the Las Vegas way, the Silicon Valley way?
MARK LEIBOVICH: It it's a classic chicken/egg question. What we have now in the population is a level of dissonance, right? It's a level of disgust that is parallel to-- you know, maybe some indifference. But that is also parallel to your own role in reelecting your congressman, your own role in watching these shouting matches on cable, your own role in perpetuating this system, and being in-- being transfixed by these ads.
So yes, I mean, I think that this dissonance is something that lives in a very, very distilled way inside our nation's capital. And I think it's acted out by these-- by these real-life players, who are in a very writ-large way experiencing both the American dream and the American nightmare.
And that is something that I think makes this town, but also the nation's capital, at this moment, a very, very palpable place to watch this disconnect play out. And again, it's a lot to get your head around. I do think it is worth a discussion. And frankly a smarter discussion than many people in Washington are willing to have.
BILL MOYERS: “This Town” is the place to begin. Mark Leibovich, thank you very much for the book. And thank you very much for being here.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: We are so close to losing our democracy to the mercenary class, it’s as if we are leaning way over the rim of the Grand Canyon and all that’s needed is a swift kick in the pants. Look out below.
The predators in Washington are only this far from monopoly control of our government. They have bought the political system, lock, stock and pork barrel, making change from within impossible. That’s the real joke.
Sometimes I long for the wit of a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. They treat this town as burlesque, and with satire and parody show it the disrespect it deserves. We laugh, and punch each other on the arm, and tweet that the rascals got their just dessert. Still, the last laugh always seems to go to the boldface names that populate this town. To them belong the spoils of a looted city. They get the tax breaks, the loopholes, the contracts, the payoffs.
They fix the system so multimillionaire hedge fund managers and private equity tycoons pay less of a tax rate on their income than school teachers, police and fire fighters, secretaries and janitors. They give subsidies to rich corporate farms and cut food stamps for working people facing hunger. They remove oversight of the wall street casinos, bail out the bankers who torpedo the economy, fight the modest reforms of Dodd-Frank, prolong tax havens for multinationals, and stick it to consumers while rewarding corporations.
We pay. We pay at the grocery store. We pay at the gas pump. We pay the taxes they write off. Our low-wage workers pay with sweat and deprivation because this town – aloof, self-obsessed, bought off and doing very well, thank you – feels no pain.
The journalists who could tell us these things rarely do – and some, never. They aren’t blind, simply bedazzled. Watch the evening news – any evening news – or the Sunday talk shows. Listen to the chit-chat of the early risers on morning TV -- and ask yourself if you are learning anything about how this town actually works.
William Greider, one of our craft’s finest reporters, fierce and unbought, despite a long life in Washington once said that no one can hope to understand what is driving political behavior without asking the kind of gut-level questions politicians ask themselves in private: “Who are the winners in this matter and who are the losers? Who gets the money and who has to pay? Who must be heard on this question and who can be safely ignored?”
Perhaps they don’t ask these questions because they fear banishment from the parties and perks, from the access that passes as seduction in this town.
Or perhaps they do not tell us these things because they fear that if the system were exposed for what it is, outraged citizens would descend on this town, and tear it apart with their bare hands.
Next week on Moyers & Company, an encore broadcast of my conversation with the remarkable John Lewis, the youngest man to speak at the March on Washington fifty years ago -- and the last one still living.
And at our website, billmoyers.com, visit our money and politics page for more in-depth coverage and analysis of how Washington’s insider club treats government like a private ATM.
That’s all at billmoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.