Monday, September 30, 2013

"This Town" and our town


By Bill Kraus

Everbody told me, “You gotta read this book.” I have always been leery about “inside” books that are written by outsiders. The only people who really know what goes on in a campaign or a government are those who are in the campaign or the government. Outsiders get leaks, snippets, gripes, lots of questionably motivated stuff. Outsiders then tend to dress this up with melodrama to pump book sales.

I have not changed my mind since reading Mark Leibovich’s This Town even though the writer is as close to being an insider as an outsider is likely to get.

The book is gossipy. A lot like People magazine on steroids. Lots of name dropping where the great majority of names dropped are of people the rest of the world never heard of. All of them earn a lot of money and reputably have a lot of influence.

I should not have been surprised by this.

When I worked for a large New York company many years ago, we had an insignificant Political Action Committee. We also had four full-time people in Washington and our man in charge was a ranking officer of the company and a former presidential appointee. Like many in Washington he was what is known as an unregistered lobbyist. He advocated.

This pattern is endemic. Money in politics gets the ink. Influential people in Washington who are members of the club get things done.

This differs from state capitols like ours in one significant respect. Washington is a celebrity culture and the celebrities are the insiders, with some Hollywood stunners mixed in, and the press, mostly the television press, as major players.

Les Aspin, when he was in the Congress, once told me that the only way a member of Congress, even a committee chair, can get on national TV is to set him or herself on fire.

This generation has both more opportunities to get on the plethora of shows hosted by the celebrity media stars and a round of parties to what is Perle Mesta (the dominant Washington hostess in the 1950s) to the 10th power.

If the book is even close to the reality, the important people in Washington never pay for a meal. The round of parties is non-stop and ubiquitous. To think that this is not where the below-the-radar business is done is to be beyond naive. And never before has the so-called permanent establishment included so many people in the media. The author contends that the media is overly self-involved. One of the book's quips tells about a prominent CBS talk show host and news anchor arriving at a party at the home of Ben Bradlee of Washington Post and Watergate fame with Claire Danes, the movie star who has the lead role in the Showtime series Homeland, on his arm. Gossip? Revealing.

Stories about who, what, and where this insider social circle is abound in the book. The TV press particularly is, to steal a phrase from the military, “imbedded” in the power game in our Capitol.

The book also says that almost no one leaves Washington anymore. In 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Now 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of the members of the House do.

While the salon phenomenon is not on view in Madison, there is one similarity to what happens in Washington that has a Wisconsin sequel. Funerals. Much of This Town describes the bipartisan gathering of influentials at the memorials for Tim Russert of NBC and the diplomat Richard Holbrooke. The late Supreme Court Justice Bill Bablitch a former legislative majority leader and the journalistically important Dick Wheeler were celebrated at similar bipartisan gatherings of our influentials in our Capitol city recently.

Lincoln to the contrary notwithstanding, ours has always been a government of the elite, and This Town tells you who they are in great, occasionally tiresome, detail.

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