Illustration by Steve Weigl
What would Henry Adams make of today’s mess in Washington?
Great grandson of President John Adams, grandson of President John Quincy Adams, son of Lincoln’s Minister to Great Britain Charles Francis Adams, Henry is arguably America’s greatest historian.
During the Gilded Age that followed the Civil War, Adams and his wife Clover established a salon in their splendid town house across from the White House. From there, Washington’s great and the good kept score of the political carnival.
Novelist Henry James captured the tone of the Adams’s ménage in a thinly disguised short story. “Let’s be vulgar,” a character says, “and invite the president.” Thus was born the Washington establishment, where even the grandest are always on the make.
Now comes Mark Leibovich, the senior Washington correspondent of the New York Times Magazine, with his best-selling expose of DC insiders, This Town (Blue Rider Press).
Leibovich’s Washington is every bit as corrupt as Adams’s, but it is less elegant and more intensely depraved.
If you want to understand why everyone hates Washington, read This Town.
If you want to understand why so many hate the media, read This Town.
If you want to understand why the United States appears to be beyond political redemption, read This Town.
Or, if you already have a handle on those things, read the book to bolster your own cynicism. Because This Town is an epic of venality, a hymn to self-serving, an ode to original sin.
With a jaunty sense of neo-Calvinism, Leibovich looks upon the Washington establishment, which he dubs “The Club,” and finds that it is wanting. Leibovich’s DC lacks a higher purpose. It is also devoid of any sense of shame.
The brown-nosing of NBC’s David Gregory, the rank hypocrisy of former Speaker of the House-turned-lobbyist Dick Gephardt, and the energetic vacuity of hostess-for-hire Tammy Haddad are among the many acts on display in Leibovich’s bonfire of the vanities.
Anyone looking for moral uplift in This Town will give him or herself a hernia. There are, however, mitigating moments of humanity that almost rise to the level of common decency.
One instance when decency is actually achieved is when the frosty and fearsomely disciplined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spends the night in the Ritz bar consoling and commiserating with the staff of diplomat Richard Holbrooke after he finally succumbed to a heart attack that earlier felled him in his office.
Even by the standards of This Town, Holbrooke was a piece of work.
A blowhard of international repute, Holbrooke’s rococo style never segued into the cool imperative of Barack Obama’s White House. Still, Obama’s droid-like performance at Holbrooke’s memorial service was an illustrative exercise in self-absorption.
Holbrooke may have been a character from an earlier era, but it was not without distinction. Holbrooke, after all, cut his professional teeth as a young aide to the legendary Averill Harriman at the Vietnam peace talks. And, in 1995, serving as President Bill Clinton’s emissary, he negotiated peace in Bosnia. Holbrooke had been there, done that, and accomplished something along the way. Truth be told (a dangerous idea in Washington), that’s more than could be said for Obama before he was elected president.
But I must stop before I get sentimental. Holbrooke was then. And Obama, after all, is now. The past is a desert. The future is where Nirvana lies. Odds are that the hand that pats your back in DC is less interested in giving kudos than in sizing you up for a sharp stiletto.
My own gloss on the Holbrooke interlude is this: the old duffer was not worth the energy of a knife in the back, especially given that Holbrooke had two Clintons as protectors. (As Leibovich reports, Bill to someone: Sure, Holbrooke’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.) Sometimes, it’s cruel to be kind.