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Rich writes: "'When I am president,' Obama had said in 2008, 'I will start by closing the revolving door in the White House that's allowed people to use their administration job as a stepping-stone to further their lobbying careers.' Puzzling over how so many colleagues have strayed from this credo ... "

New York Magazine columnist Frank Rich. (photo: New York Magazine)
New York Magazine columnist Frank Rich. (photo: New York Magazine)

The Stench of the Potomac

By Frank Rich, New York Magazine

06 August 13


Washington may be a dysfunctional place to govern, but it's working better than ever as a marketplace for cashing in. And that's thanks, more than anything, to the Democratic Establishment.

ou'd think that the market for Washington-bashing would be saturated by now. Not counting the nightly Comedy Central duo, four anti-Washington television shows were showered with Emmy nominations last month. Apocalyptic anti-Washington books with titles like It's Even Worse Than It Looks and Throw Them All Out have become our daily bread in the Obama years - although none of them matches Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer's Truman-era Washington Confidential, an enormous best seller in 1951 and forever to be cherished for describing the town (my hometown, I must disclose) as "the nation's Forest Lawn, where is sunk its priceless heritage, killed by countless generations of getters and gimme-ers."

Such bile never goes out of fashion. This is proving the summer of This Town, Mark Leibovich's jaundiced take on "America's gilded capital," which leapt up the best-seller list the week of its publication, where it's poised to end Sheryl Sandberg's lock on No. 1. As if to ratify its relevance, its release was greeted by a new NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll in which Congress's approval rating fell to an all-time low (12 percent) in that survey's history, raising the prospect that it could flatline to zero if the government shuts down come fall. Though President Obama's rating (45 percent) wasn't stellar either, do pity John Boehner, who would have been the most unpopular man in America had the field not included Edward Snowden and George Zimmerman, the only names that polled worse.

Leibovich's survey of the swamp on the Potomac during the Obama years would be worth reading just to see him torture David Gregory of NBC News, whose naked ambition has so riled the locals you wonder if Marion Barry might be held in higher regard. But the humor of This Town is spiked with mortality. It opens in June 2008 with the invitation-only Kennedy Center memorial for Tim Russert, the departed unofficial mayor of what Leibovich calls the Club - the "spinning cabal of ‘people in politics and media'" that rules Beltway society. The book closes late last year, with a Christmas fête convened by the town's unofficial king and queen, Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, at their Georgetown manse. In Leibovich's telling, this A-list holiday gathering was more funereal than the Russert funeral.

As he writes, at least "the room was alive" at the Russert send-off - alive with the greasy clamor of those trying to advance their status by proving that Tim loved them most of all. The Bradlee-Quinn soirée, by contrast, comes off like a waxwork, and not just because of the hostess's decision to dub it "the Last Party" in aspirationally au courant homage to the looming "end of the world" on the Mayan calendar. Greeting guests, the 91-year-old Bradlee, the godfather of Washington journalism for half a century, was visibly slipping away into dementia, fading much like his fabled newspaper in the new age of Politico. The crowd of invitees was "mostly old," with few journalists (or anyone else, with the possible exception of the help) under the age of 40 - "The Masque of the Red Death" minus the fashion sense.

The principal players in This Town also trend old. Blacks (a few members of the Obama administration and two former Bush Cabinet officers excepted), Hispanics, and gays are in short supply. So is the 99 percent. The gaping demographic disconnect between the town's aging aristocracy and the rest of the city's citizenry, not to mention much of the nation beyond the District's borders, in some ways parallels the crisis of the present-day Republican Party. But the Club, unlike the GOP, is not in crisis. And to a large extent it is not Republican. For all the ink generated by This Town in its short life, its distinctive contribution to its genre has often been lost in the gossip. The book is as much an indictment of the Democratic Establishment as it is of the Washington Establishment. And the two are often synonymous.

That's why the book is funny only up to a point. Delicious as it is to watch preening boldface names make asses of themselves as they network at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, the Aspen Ideas Festival, talk-show greenrooms, and the incessant book parties for books no one will open, what lingers from This Town is what will linger in Washington well after its current dinosaurs are extinct: the political culture owned by big money, Wall Street and otherwise, that the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, have done their best to perpetuate over the past two decades. At least Mitt Romney didn't pretend to care about the hoi polloi below. Democrats once did.

Along with George Packer's The Unwinding, a journalistic distillation of Great Recession–era America that is anything but comic, This Town is the second best seller this year to emphasize the Democrats' role in Washington's corruption. Both are authored by staff writers at liberal publications. (Leibovich is at the Times, Packer at The New Yorker.) In both cases, this theme is secondary to the main narrative. That's why The Unwinding, a Dos Passos–inspired epic effort to convey "An Inner History of the New America," is better known for its poignant portraits of everyday Americans largely invisible to official Washington. It's also why This Town is getting more attention for its sightings of the inveterate Beltway hostess Tammy Haddad and the pathologically compulsive party attendees Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell than for its mockery of behind-the-scenes characters like Mark Penn and Jack Quinn. If you read both books - and toss in The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, a jeremiad by Jeff Connaughton, a longtime Joe Biden aide and former lobbyist who figures prominently in The Unwinding and briefly in This Town - you can piece together a depressing indictment of the Democratic Establishment pre-, during, and, in all likelihood, post-Obama. Like the disenchanted Connaughton, who turned on both Biden and Washington for good, you may end up with "a sneaking sympathy" for the tea party.

The tale of how the Obama economic team was recruited en masse from Robert Rubin acolytes who either facilitated Wall Street's pre-crash recklessness while in the Clinton administration or cashed in on it later (or, like Rubin, did both) never loses its power to shock, and is revisited in all three books. Michael Froman, Rubin's chief of staff as Clinton Treasury secretary, not only served as the Obama transition team's personnel director but moonlighted as a Citigroup managing director while doing so. "Obama essentially entrusted the repairing of the china shop to the bulls who'd helped ransack it," Connaughton writes. Leibovich updates the story of the tacky prehistory of the Obama White House with its aftermath - the steady parade of Obama alumni who traded change we can believe in for cash on the barrelhead as soon as they left public service. 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 adviser 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."

"When I am president," Obama had said in 2008, "I will start by closing the revolving door in the White House that's allowed people to use their administration job as a stepping-stone to further their lobbying careers." Puzzling over how so many colleagues have strayed from this credo, the former press secretary Robert Gibbs has theorized that either "somehow we have all changed" or, alternatively, "maybe Washington changed us." Whatever the explanation, it's clear that the president himself has been either passive or ineffectual when it comes to exerting any moral authority over the White House alumni who've been streaming through the revolving door.

But this syndrome didn't start with the Obama administration and won't end with it. Perhaps the more useful question to ask is when and why this change came over Washington's entire Democratic hierarchy. There have always been lobbyists in both parties, of course, and there have always been powerful Democratic influence peddlers to match their Republican counterparts. Clark Clifford, Robert Strauss, and Vernon Jordan - the respective pals of Truman, LBJ, and Bill Clinton - are among the most legendary Washington operators of the post–World War II era. But what once was an unsavory appendix to the legislative process has scaled up over the past three decades to become a dominant, if not the dominant, Washington private industry. And while some former office holders, senators and members of Congress included, have always joined the lobbying ranks, lobbying and its adjuncts have now become the career havens of choice for Establishment Democrats with government résumés, not just for Republicans traditionally aligned with corporate interests. There's more status than shame in joining this gold rush - as we see in This Town - and many of the Democratic practitioners barely pay lip service to the ideal of siding with working- and middle-class Americans against the plutocrats of finance and industry. They are too busy rushing to partner with Republicans in servicing the very same corporate accounts.

No sooner did the Democrat Evan Bayh bolt from the Senate in 2010 with a sanctimonious Times op-ed decrying the "corrosive system of campaign financing" than he joined with Andrew Card, the former Bush chief of staff, in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby against corporate regulatory reform. No sooner did BP despoil the Gulf than it effortlessly recruited what Leibovich calls a bipartisan "Beltway dream team" that included both a former top spokeswoman for Dick Cheney and the Democratic super-lobbyist and fund-raiser Tony Podesta, who was also a prominent ambassador for corporate interests at the 2012 Obama convention in Charlotte. In the past four years of partisan gridlock, it's become a lazy and tiresome trope of centrist Washington punditry that the city would work if only Democrats and Republicans got together for a drink after-hours the way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did back in the day. But the truth is that Democratic and Republican potentates do get together - every night, lubricated with plenty of alcohol - albeit to further their clients' interests rather than those of the voters.

The relatively recent rise of lobbying as both a major industry and a full-time employment service for former public officials began in earnest in the post-Watergate seventies. The journalist Robert Kaiser, who tracked "the triumph of lobbying" in his 2009 book So Damn Much Money, discovered that the cost of a winning congressional campaign went up roughly fifteenfold between 1976 and 2006, empowering corporate money in the political marketplace more than ever. Over that period, he wrote, "the amount of money spent on Washington lobbying increased from tens of millions to billions a year." Last year, The Atlantic reported that while only 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists in 1974, that number has now jumped to 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of the House. This time frame tracks exactly with the rise of economic inequality and the stagnation of the middle class, concerns that Obama has started talking about lately without acknowledging his own party's role in perpetuating them. As Packer writes, the period when Robert Rubin "stood at the top of Wall Street and Washington was the age of inequality - hereditary inequality beyond anything the country had seen since the nineteenth century."

It was during the Clinton–Rubin–Greenspan–Lawrence Summers deregulatory spree of the nineties that the innovation of bipartisan lobbying shops also took off in earnest, obliterating any remaining distinctions between the financial interests and imperatives of the two parties. Before then, most Washington lobbying firms were affiliated with either one camp or the other - and suffered at the bottom line when their teams cycled out of power. So why not diversify the partnership pool as a hedge against defeat? What you'll never hear on Morning Joe, with its incessant "Why can't we all just get along?" bromides, is what Leibovich says in his opening pages - "that the city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected." It's the friendly interconnectedness of special interests at the top more than the combative ideological divisions in the trenches below that makes the situation so hopeless. Two of the top three political-action-committee donors to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are the same: Comcast and AT&T, one of our government's esteemed partners in domestic surveillance. The former Republican Senate leader Trent Lott and the former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt are similarly united in lobbying for GE, best known of late for its remarkable record of ducking U.S. corporate taxes.

Though there were earlier examples, the concept of a bipartisan lobbying and public-relations behemoth ramped up big-time with the formation of Quinn Gillespie & Associates in January 2000, at the start of the final year of the Clinton presidency. 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. Fittingly enough, Quinn and Gillespie first met in a greenroom at Fox. The theory of their new firm was simple: Governments may come and go, but we'll score no matter what. As Quinn said in 2004: "We never lost a wink of sleep hypothesizing what the effect of the election outcome might be on the firm. We have a great group of Republicans and a fantastic group of Democrats."

The third founder of Quinn Gillespie was Jeff Connaughton, who had discovered, as he says, that "the rest of the country may be divided into red and blue, but D.C. is green." As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, he was first inspired to enter politics when he heard Joe Biden deliver a rousing speech on campus in 1979. He would later work on Biden's ill-fated first presidential campaign, in 1988, and serve as a special assistant to Biden when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. After a stint as a lawyer in the Clinton White House, Connaughton went into private practice. When the Lewinsky scandal hit and Quinn, a tireless on-camera Clinton defender in the impeachment year, couldn't field all his television invitations, he sometimes sent Connaughton in his stead. Both quickly realized that impeachment was a boon to business. "My higher profile was enhancing my value," Connaughton writes in The Payoff. Quinn's role in a later Clinton scandal was another bonus. He secured a last-minute presidential pardon for his client Marc Rich, a fugitive whose ex-wife, Denise, had donated $400,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library. There was a firestorm, and Quinn ended up in the Club's doghouse for a while. But not that long a while. As Leibovich writes, Gillespie correctly predicted that the stigma would fade rapidly and that "after a few months all anyone would remember about Jack Quinn's little scandal was that he ‘got something big done.' And it would be good for business."

The publication of This Town set off a lot of hyperventilating in Washington about the blowback sure to follow. A reviewer at the Times predicted that Leibovich "will never be able to have lunch in This Town again." A writer at Politico claimed that "not since Truman Capote's Answered Prayers" had "a book so riled a city's upper echelons." George Stephanopoulos promoted This Town on his Sunday show as "the tell-all that has official Washington scrambling." In reality, not so much. The Club has embraced the book and its author, and both the Post and Politico gave it more in-depth coverage in the weeks surrounding its publication than, say, the civil war in Syria. In his publicity rounds, Leibovich has named only one person who has complained about the book: Lanny Davis, the impeachment-era Clinton counselor turned flack for human-rights-abusing West African dictators; Davis's beef is that Leibovich didn't mention him at all. It just goes to prove Gillespie's point that as long as your name is out there in a Washington tsunami, you can monetize it in the end. The sleazebags populating This Town, however much lampooned in its pages, will ultimately be rewarded because they "got something big done," whatever it was and however unsavory.

There have been a few mild critiques of This Town from young liberal bloggers whose careers, causes, and far wonkier Washington get as little attention in the book as Lanny Davis. Matthew Yglesias asserted that "the now dominant political paradigm is one in which ideology and partisanship carry more weight" than the old Washington of backroom deals. In an online discussion with Leibovich on the Post's website, Ezra Klein noted that the book didn't include congressional staffers who "think they're making the world a better place," or "people like Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who really is listened to inside the political system, and really does get up each day thinking about how to help poorer Americans." To Klein, the book was more "about the people who wield power in Washington's social world rather than in its political world."

It is self-evident that ideology and partisanship have carried a ton of weight in the Obama years, as exemplified by the obstructionist Republican radicals in the House. And it's also true that there are people who care about making the world a better place throughout Washington. But the country's actual poor - some of them given strong voice by Packer in The Unwinding - might question just how much power these altruists have in a Washington when the corporate fix is in. Those deals are still made in back rooms - and front rooms. That's what Leibovich atomizes, sometimes indirectly and without always spelling out how the dots connect. Another liberal blogger, Alex Pareene of Salon, gets it right, I think, when in his approving appraisal of This Town he writes that, while hyperpartisanship is one reason everyone hates Washington, there's a larger and more enduring source of that hatred: the capital's "permanent, unshakable elite overclass, many of whom are involved in the process by which corporations and the rentier rich tighten their control over the levers of power and use that control to extract as much wealth from the nation's laborers and taxpayers and natural resources as possible."

What can change it? Certainly not those supposed anti-Washington reformers in the GOP. The corrupt Bush-era Über–GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have done prison time, and Tom DeLay, the mastermind of his party's K Street Project, may have ended up as a freak show on Dancing With the Stars, but their ethos and many of their protégés (e.g., Ralph Reed) survive them. Many of the populist tea-party revolutionaries elected in 2010 immediately hit the corporate fund-raising circuit and recruited lobbyists for their new congressional offices. The tea-party-backed freshman senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, hired an AT&T and Citigroup lobbyist as his chief of staff, yet another confirmation that, for all the polarization afflicting Washington in the Obama years, bipartisan cooperation can still be purchased for a big check.

Among Democrats, the list of national politicians fiercely opposed to the existing order begins and ends with Elizabeth Warren. Even now Obama is toying with appointing Larry Summers as Fed chair, despite his past in Rubinomics during the Clinton era and his present as a paid consultant to Citigroup. The two most likely Democratic prospects to succeed Obama in the White House, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, both came of political age in the revolving-door Washington of This Town; many of the most successful fixers in the book are one degree of separation from one or both of them. Sometimes these alumni are one degree of separation from ethical conflict, too. The ubiquitous Clinton fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, as inescapable as canapés in Leibovich's narrative, is currently running for governor of Virginia even as a Department of Homeland Security investigation into a disputed visa has ensnared a company with ties to both him and Hillary Clinton's brother, Anthony Rodham. Clinton's longtime aide Huma Abedin, best known now for her marital martyrdom, was discovered by Politico in May to have taken on other clients, including Teneo, a business and banking "global advisory firm" co-founded by the Bill Clinton majordomo Doug Band, in her final months in the taxpayers' employ as a part-time consultant at the State Department.

This crowd is as intractable as it is incorrigible. There are no term limits, because Washington amnesia perennially wipes the slate clean. No one seems to remember anymore the furor kicked off by a 1998 Post "Style"-section piece in which Beltway grandees like David Broder and Cokie Roberts vented to Sally Quinn about how the impeached president had trashed their pristine city. "Regardless of whether his fortunes improve," Quinn concluded, "Bill Clinton has essentially lost the Washington Establishment for good." Well, that was then, and this is now. As This Town makes clear, these days Clinton alumni are the Washington Establishment, whether in the Obama administration or on K Street, and they can hardly wait for the greater dividends that will accrue should the former First Couple be restored to the White House in 2016. If that happens, Leibovich will not have to write a sequel, because it is already writing itself. your social media marketing partner
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