Column: Coziness befits this town
By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON — I’ll probably regret this, but here goes: I write today in defense of coziness. My text is Mark Leibovich’s “This Town,” his delicious indictment of inside-the-Beltway incestuousness in its various manifestations.
Let me begin where all how-small-is-Washington stories must: Leibovich and I worked together for years and see each other around ... well, around this town. He is a friend. So, too, are most of the people he skewered.
“This Town” is a fun read. Leibovich has a sharp eye, and an even sharper tongue, for the inflated self-importance and jockeying for position that infest what he describes as Washington’s “grimy ecosystem.”
This critique could be aimed elsewhere, but where New York’s metric is money and Los Angeles’ is celebrity, Washington’s is power, a measure that coexists uneasily with democracy and its noble aspirations.
Wall Street and Hollywood can be unabashed in pursuit of the coins of their realm. Washington is a fat target because it purports to be better than all that. It demands — at least it advises — more discretion.
Think of the late Michael Deaver, the adviser to Ronald Reagan whose take-down began after he was pictured on the cover of Time magazine in 1986 in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven Jaguar.
And this critique, as the Deaver episode suggests, has been aimed at Washington before — especially by those, like Reagan or Barack Obama, who seek its top prize.
“Nothing new here: the anti-Washington reflex in American politics has been honed for centuries, often by candidates who deride the capital as a swamp, only to settle into the place as if it were a soothing whirlpool bath once they get elected,” Leibovich writes. “The city exists to be condemned.”
And so he does. But the coziness that Leibovich condemns is not as nefarious or as corrupting as he would have you believe. Washington is a better place, populated by more people dedicated to public service and public policy, than is dreamt of in Leibovich’s philosophy.
One brand of coziness that Leibovich decries is that between journalists and government officials, its iconic apogee the Georgetown party exemplified by the Ben Bradlee/Sally Quinn soiree that Leibovich describes.
I’ve spent far more evenings serving chicken fingers in Bethesda than sipping chardonnay in Georgetown, but I would argue that developing relationships of trust and confidence with sources ends up benefiting readers, not harming them. Off-the-record conversations offer insights that ambush interviews deny. You get a sense of the complexities of governmental decision-making. You get a glimpse of an officeholder’s intellect and mindset. You learn who to trust, and who to avoid.
We journalists could, in theory, live like the Washington version of Bubble Boy, quarantined from casual contact with the people we cover, insisting that our children go to separate, journalist-only schools. Or we could live in a Leibovich world, with every party — indeed, every funeral; his book opens with Tim Russert’s invitation-only send-off — an on-the-record event. In the end, our understanding, and consequently our readers’ understanding, of — sorry — this town would be the worse off for it.
Another, admittedly more problematic form of coziness involves the revolving door between government and the private sector. Obama famously banned lobbyists from his administration, except when he allowed them, but guess what? Obama could have benefited from more lobbyists — that is to say, more expertise about how Washington works — not fewer.
On the other side of the revolving door, officials parlay their experience and exposure into lucrative lobbying jobs or seven-figure laps on the speakers’ circuit. “Formers stick to Washington,” he writes, “like melted cheese on a gold-plated toaster.”
But he is too unsparing, too cynical, in his assessment of motivation. Certainly, some people go into government calculating the subsequent payout. But more people, at least more of the people that I cover, go into government because that is where they truly want to spend their time and talent; the private sector pays tuition bills.
Finally, Leibovich complains that Washington, “far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected.” But both phenomena can be simultaneously true. Washington is interconnected, but the people who need to connect to make it work remain hopelessly divided. This city — this town — suffers less from a surfeit of coziness than from a yawning deficit thereof.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.