New York Times Magazine national correspondent Mark Leibovich was in the Bay Area this week promoting his new book, “This Town,” a cutting takedown of Washington, D.C.’s power-hungry, incestuous, insider culture where every friendship is questionable and hypocrisy runs rampant. It is a book that illuminates the greed and upside-down values of the people running — and reporting on — the nation’s capitol. He spares no one — elected officials, journalists, socialites, policy makers nor lobbyists.
“This is a very, very fat time to be living in the nation’s capital. This is a city where people can live very large,” Leibovich said at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco on Wednesday, where he was interviewed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Leibovich was also a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News several years ago, before going on to The Washington Post and later to The Times.
For those who have worked inside the Beltway — as politician, staffer or journalist (that last group includes yours truly) — the sanctimonious politicians, blatant breach of ethics that are allowed to go unchecked and relationships that scream conflict of interest that Leibovich writes about isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a surprise. Yes, he pulls back the curtain on the archetypes of Washington power with more guts and authority than perhaps others before him. But the — yuckiness? — that has commandeered almost any sense of public service in Washington is one of those undeniable truths, like the air conditioning inevitably breaking on the Metro, the city’s subway, during rush hour on a 98-degree day.
And while this ego-driven and shameless culture may exist at an unparalleled scale Washington, according to Leibovich’s reporting, it’s also blossoming here in Silicon Valley and in Sacramento — and wherever else politics and business and wealth collide. During the Commonwealth Club event, Newsom agreed that state’s capital had plenty of power-seeking egos and transactional friendships.
(Newsom also said he had been a regular attendee to the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which Leibovich highlights in his book as one of the most gratuitous and self-promoting events in Washington.)
And you don’t have to go all the way to Sacramento. The premium placed on glitter and glam in the Silicon Valley, whether it’s Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison’s luxury yacht or Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s adventures into space, is not unlike (and may even trump) the excessive displays of wealth around Washington that Leibovich details.
And while the headquarters of Facebook, Google, Apple and other valley powerhouses may be 3,000 miles from Washington, those companies’ leaders are never far away. Tech leaders are some of the most powerful lobbyists on The Hill, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg most recently creating a political action group to call bipartisan immigration reform. (Zuckerberg also found himself in hot water by running ads that supported individual politicians on what were very clearly partisan grounds.) Last month, Apple’s Tim Cook and Google computer scientist Vint Cerf landed a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss surveillance issues.
And some might argue that the currency of “who you know” is just as strong in the valley as it is in Washington. The circles at the top are small; the big companies notoriously private. Who one went to school with, dated, wants to date or lives near may be all the qualifications one needs to get a job, pass a bill or get an inside scoop for a front-page story.
Leibovich doesn’t prescribe a solution to fix Washington’s woes, or any other city’s. But as Newsom pointed out at the Commonwealth Club, Leibovich launched a much-needed dialogue about the culture of the rich and powerful, and how much they are and are not doing anything to serve the average American, whether it’s passing laws or building apps and search engines.
Leibovich added that “shaking things up is important” for any “culture and society.”
And when Newsom asked Leibovich why he continues to live in Washington, the author said it was actually a pretty nice place to raise his family. He and his wife have good jobs and good friends; their young kids like their school and their friends. The weather is nice for most of the year. They’re happy there. In between the petty politicking and eye roll-inducing social events, life is pretty good.
I bet a few people would say the same about California.
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