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September 26, 2013

"This Town" examines D.C. corruption

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — I saw a recent poll where Congress has a public approval rating of 12 percent. That figure is shocking only because it should be closer to zero.

Let’s face it. The primary goal of an elected politician is to get re-elected. Actually accomplishing anything is secondary. It’s no surprise that Washington has become a cesspool of hypocrisy that defines polarization and self-promotion. If our so-called public servants really had a conscience why would they want to remain in such a convoluted torture chamber when they can’t get anything done?

We’ve had so many sexual and monetary scandals in Washington that it hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. Some politicians have managed to survive their bad behavior, and their persistence has encouraged other sleaze-balls to re-enter the fray. It’s almost impossible to write a sentence about politics these days without including the words “hypocrite” and “liar.”

If you’re sitting outside the Washington “bubble” and wondering how such an atmosphere could perpetuate itself, turning apparently well-meaning public servants into greedy egomaniacs, there is a new book that explains it all. “This Town,” by Mark Leibovich, describes what Washington is really like. Leibovich doesn’t reveal any illegal activities but underscores the idea that D.C. itself is one big scandal.

It goes far beyond elected representatives. The lobbyists and journalists are in cahoots with the politicians. They’re either members of “The Club” or trying to join it. It’s a name-dropping and “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” mentality. Journalists are constantly trying to rub elbows with the politicians and vice versa.  

Lobbyists are just a subset of the former, usually retired or defeated politicians who say they hate Washington but are willing to stay for the right price. They are considered valuable to special interests because they provide access to lawmakers.

Integrity means nothing to these ex-legislators turned lobbyists. They are happy to represent causes they once railed against if they are paid enough. Democratic and Republican operatives who are at odds on every issue are happy to join forces to form new lobbying firms. Nothing is out of line when dollar signs are flashing.

“This Town” opens with the funeral of Tim Russert, the long-time host of NBC’s Meet the Press, the oldest of the Sunday morning talk shows. Russert, who died prematurely of a heart attack in 2008, was a big deal in Washington because getting on his show was considered a coup. He knew how to cultivate relationships, real and superficial, so his funeral was attended by every VIP in town.

Unfortunately, Russert’s funeral was the perfect venue to bring together all the worst elements of the nation’s capital. It seemed like half the guests despised the other half but were forced to sit together and make nice. Some attendees used the somber occasion to brazenly charm TV bigwigs or Washington power brokers in order to gain future access. Apparently shame doesn’t exist in the D.C. culture.

The only real surprise in “This Town” is that there are no surprises. Washington really is a town where hypocrisy and the lust for attention, money and power are all consuming. The only resident that has seemed to maintain his integrity is Colin Powell and even he hasn’t escaped unscathed.

If you’ve ever wondered why an arcane event like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has become the “can’t miss” event on the Washington social calendar it’s easy to see why after reading Leibovich’s tome. It’s the one time that politicians, lobbyists, and journalists can “let their hair down” and not have the country be shocked that they actually get along.

It used to baffle me that successful Democratic and Republican strategists, James Carville and Mary Matalin, could literally tie the knot and enjoy marital bliss. Not anymore. After experiencing Leibovich’s wonderful expose of Washington’s culture I understand that Carville and Matalin (and everyone else) are simply products of “This Town.”

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org.