Column: The change that wasn't
WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital savored a satisfying spasm of schadenfreude last holiday weekend.
Copies of "This Town," my friend and former Washington Post colleague Mark Leibovich's soon-to-be released book about Washington culture, have begun to dribble out, and people in the capital are reacting in the predictable way of sorting out who came out worst.
There's presidential friend and White House aide Valerie Jarrett, whose colleagues felt compelled to draft a memo, "The Magic of Valerie," defending her reputation. It included the bullet point "Valerie is someone here who other people inside the building know they can trust. (need examples.)"
Then there's hostess Tammy Haddad, who approached Leibovich at a book party she was throwing and declared "ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! I JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE WITH HER DAUGHTER! ... Now, c'mon, come meet the novelist."
There's also Politico's Mike Allen, who published spoon-fed exclusives from "Washington superlawyer Robert Barnett" and then put Barnett on a short list of likely Supreme Court appointments, ahead of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
And of course there's Barnett himself, who negotiated a book deal for Barack Obama and parlayed his pull to earn a minor role on Obama's debate-prep team in 2008 -- then used his access to the vice presidential debate to chat up aides to Sarah Palin, who soon became a Barnett client.
I enjoy such tasty dishing. But the gossipy focus misses the point of the book, and why people might be interested in it even if they don't care about Tammy Haddad. "This Town" is really about how Obama and his team came to Washington with solemn vows to change it, but then wound up joining the revolving-door culture.
"With the rise of Obama," the question became, "Could Washington really change?" Leibovich writes. "No more lobbyists in the White House, or 'politics as usual,' or tending to the needy oracles of Beltway groupthink." He includes many self-righteous quotes from Obama aides Dan Pfeiffer ("we did not do 'cocktail party' interviews") David Plouffe ("If Politico and [Time magazine's Mark] Halperin say we're winning, we're losing") and Robert Gibbs ("We believe this isn't about us. It's about something bigger").
"Obama himself vowed that his administration would steer clear of other corroding Beltway forces" of celebrity and self-dealing, he writes. Those working on Obama's transition staff in 2008 were made to sign a "no ego, no glory" memo.
Then it became all ego and glory.
Plouffe quickly cashed out, earning $1.5 million in 2010 by consulting to Boeing and General Electric, giving speeches, and writing a book -- negotiated by Barnett. (Barnett later scored a larger role on Obama's debate prep team in 2012 -- his triumph duly recorded by Allen -- even though Obama joked to him, "Bob, you are the conventional wisdom").
The revolving door spun like a gyroscope. Raytheon lobbyist Bill Lynn came to the Pentagon; Geoff Morell left the Pentagon for BP. Michael Froman was a managing director of Citigroup while serving on Obama's transition team; Peter Orszag, the budget director, went to Citigroup. "Scores of administration officials had by 2010 left the administration for K Street jobs without anyone so much as pointing out that they were defying a central tenet of the Obama political enterprise," Leibovich writes.
As for celebrity, Obama advisers were feted at 14 galas during the first inauguration. Haddad threw parties for the son of the first lady's chief of staff as well as David Axelrod's assistant and Rahm Emanuel's lieutenant. She suggested to Axelrod's wife, Susan, that in exchange for Susan co-hosting Haddad's annual celebrity brunch, "Tammy would devote the following year to helping her campaign to promote awareness about epilepsy," which afflicts the Axelrods' daughter.
Haddad became the Axelrod charity's "woman of the year," and she used her connections to help Newsweek's Jon Meacham, a client, score an interview of Obama and an Air Force One ride for both of them.
The accommodations to Washington business-as-usual went on. "One high-level official on the re-election campaign said it felt like, at a certain point, people were thinking mostly about who would play them in the 2012 version of 'Game Change,'" Leibovich writes. Gibbs told Leibovich about a soul-searching meeting of Obama aides. "I remember saying in that meeting, 'Somehow we have all changed,'" Gibbs said. "Or maybe Washington just changed us."
That makes "This Town" worthwhile -- even if you don't care what happened at the Bar Mitzvah of David Brooks' son, or that the wedding cake for Ed Henry of Fox News was a 70-pound replica of the White House.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.