Book Excerpt: The Evolution of “This Town”

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A hundred pages into his study of Washington’s elite “Club,” Mark Leibovich pauses to “proffer a brief tutorial on the recent history of the Washington entourage.” This excerpt recounts the evolution of the entourage — back some four decades, to the days when “Big Money” first rolled into town.

Tim Russert, left, greets former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, right, and his wife, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for NBC News, Andrea Mitchell, center, at the 60th anniversary celebration of NBC's Meet the Press at the Newseum in Washington. Leibovich says Russert was the mayor of elite Washington -- This Town. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

This Town by Mark Leibovich

The biggest shift in Washington over the last forty or so years has been the arrival of Big Money and politics as an industry. The old Washington was certainly saturated with politics, but it was smaller and more disjointed. There were small and self-contained political consultancies that worked on campaigns or raised money for elected officials or contracted a service (i.e., direct mail). PR people tried to promote a client’s interests in the media, while lobbyists did the same by engaging directly with government actors. But that “sector,” such as it was, typically comprised mom-and-pop operations. It looked outward with some level of fear and humility. It generated some wealth but not enough to make a discernible impact on the city, its culture, and its sensibilities.

Now those subindustries not only have exploded but have been folded under a colossal umbrella of “consulting” or “government affairs.” “No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting,” Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker. “In the middle decades of the twentieth century, political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money.”

Over the last dozen years, corporate America (much of it Wall Street) has tripled the amount of money it has spent on lobbying and public affairs consulting in D.C. Relatively new businesses such as the Glover Park Group—founded by three former Clinton and Gore advisers—provide “integrated services” that include lobbying, public relations, and corporate and campaign consulting. “Politics” has become a full-grown and dynamic industry, a self-sustaining weather system all its own. And so much of its energy is directed inward.

Whenever there is an aura of money and power, an entourage grows up, and that is what’s happened in D.C. For much of the last century, the notion of a permanent D.C. was a handful of power brokers embodied by Clark Clifford. Clifford, an adviser to four presidents, was the town’s original Beltway superlawyer and wise eminence—at least until he was indicted for bank fraud. They also included a few “celebrity journalists” like James “Scotty” Reston of the New York Times and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times. But the political entourage was not an industry on a par with Hollywood or Wall Street. Nor were they packaged like celebrities, with pictures splashed on blogs, stories blasted out on Twitter, and agents working multiplatform deals.

In that era, a former campaign official or White House staffer—a 1960s version of, say, Republican TV pundit Mary Matalin—might have hung around and accepted a political appointment if her candidate won. But she never would have joined a mega-industry inside The Club. “Those inside the process had congealed into a permanent political class, the defining characteristic of which was its readiness to abandon those not inside the process,” Joan Didion wrote in Political Fictions.

Perhaps more than anything, Watergate—and All the President’s Men—made journalists a celebrated class in This Town unlike in any other. The triumphs of Woodward and Bernstein and the killer persona of Ben Bradlee defined a sector of Washington at its romantic best, even while the city, during Watergate, exhibited her disgraceful worst. Bradlee partook fully of that. “We became folk heroes,” he said, while knowing that the postgame high of Watergate would never last. After the Post won the Pulitzer in 1973 for its Watergate reporting, Bradlee wrote a letter in anticipation of that day when “this wild self-congratulatory ski-jump” would end and they would all “hit solid ground again.” It would happen soon enough, with a meteor crash in 1981, when the Post was forced to give back a Pulitzer Prize won by a young Post reporter who fabricated a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Yet the celebrity aura of the news business in This Town never really abated.

The cable news boom of the 1990s—the Clinton years—accelerated this exponentially. It created a high-profile blur of People on TV whose brands overtook their professional identities. They were not journalists or strategists or pols per se, but citizens of the green room. Former political operatives sought print outlets, not so much because they wanted to write, but because it would help get them on TV. After leaving Tip O’Neill’s office, for example, Chris Matthews got himself a column for the San Francisco Examiner. He was even named the Examiner’s Washington bureau chief, though he was the only one in Washington for the Examiner and it had no footprint beyond being the Bay Area’s sleepy afternoon newspaper. But the affiliation and title helped Matthews get on TV. He begged himself onto political shout fests like The McLaughlin Group. Hardball had its debut in 1997, on CNBC, and was catapulted by the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal. In his book about the media’s conduct during the Monica saga, Bill Kovach, the founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, anointed Matthews as part of a “new class of chatterers who emerged in this scandal… a group of loosely credentialed, self-interested performers whose primary job is remaining on TV.”

Now the likes of Matthews are full-throttle personalities commanding five figures a pop on the speaking circuit, big book advances, and—in Matthews’s case, at least for a while—a $5 million-a-year contract at MSNBC. Fame and celebrity feed on themselves, to a point where people outgrow their first public identities—say, in Mary Matalin’s case, as a Republican strategist. A few years back, Matalin signed a deal as a celebrity voice to present the safety instructions before takeoff on Independence Air. She is brand-oriented.

Washington’s exportable sex appeal has continued to grow even as the modern political game has grown so repellent to so many Americans. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this started, but it seemed to again coincide with the arrival of Bill Clinton. As big money is an inherently sexy lure, Clinton’s hiring of a Wall Street mega-titan, Robert Rubin, to be his Treasury secretary created an aura of wealth creation in the city that hadn’t existed under George H. W. Bush (who presided over a bad economy) and Ronald Reagan (under whom the lobbying culture certainly thrived, but nowhere near to the degree it does now). The Clinton years also brought a new generation of staffers to routinely parlay their “service” positions into lucrative financial services jobs. Few of them had MBAs or banking experience, but the mystique of having served at high levels of politics—particularly in the White House—had become instantly bankable. Rahm Emanuel, for instance, resigned his job in the Clinton White House in 1998 to join the investment banking firm of Wasserstein Perella. Emanuel was not a “numbers guy,” he admitted, but more of a “relationship banker.” Relationship banking paid well. By the time he left to run for Congress in 2002, Emanuel had amassed more than $18 million in two and a half years and was then free to return to his life of “public service.”

Clinton also represented a killer hybrid of pop culture cachet. He was telegenic, young, and willing to discuss his underwear on MTV—and, of course, had a titillating penchant for Big Trouble in his personal life. All this lent Clinton a box-office allure. Hollywood types started showing up at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which had previously been a musty spring affair and the highlight of the local social calendar by default. The dinner has sold out every table since 1993 at a price, in recent years, of about $2,500 per, and the spectacle has festered into a glitzy cold sore of pre-parties, after-parties, and live television coverage from the red carpet.

Actor Kevin Spacey, star of <em>House of Cards</em> laughs during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Saturday, April 27, 2013, in Washington. Julia Louis-Dreyfus of <em>Veep</em> is in the background. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Actor Kevin Spacey, star of House of Cards laughs during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Saturday, April 27, 2013, in Washington. Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Veep is in the background. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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Bill Clinton’s winning presidential campaign of 1992 also spawned the Rise of the Celebrity Operative. While there have always been famous or infamous political aides (Ted Sorensen for JFK, Lee Atwater for Reagan and Bush 41), the Clinton campaign ushered in a fascination with “entourage” characters such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, among others, who themselves became stand-alone brands. Carville, for instance, was a journeyman political gym rat who had never advised a winning national campaign until Clinton’s in 1992 and has not played a major role in advising a domestic one since. Yet with his direct and homespun drawl, urchinlike appearance, and bipartisan romance to a well-known Republican pundit—Matalin—Carville has become a marquee imprint whose five-figure speaking fees, TV pundit deals, and book projects have made him and Matalin exceedingly wealthy.

The Carville–Matalin merger was not so much a joining of two warring tribes as it was the sanctification within the political class. Carville quotes Walter Shapiro, the veteran political reporter for Time and other publications, who marveled that anyone would treat the Carville–Matalin union as some kind of exotic mixed marriage. “If either of them had been in love with a tree surgeon from Idaho,” Shapiro said, “that really would have been something.” His larger point is that Political Washington is an inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in The Club. Policy argument can often devolve into the trivial slap fights of televised debate: everyone playing a role, putting on a show, and then introducing a plot twist—in this case, “Hey, these people yelling at each other on TV are actually a couple and they’re getting married.”

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