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July 12, 2013 11:51 AM On the Make

By Ed Kilgore

While I have no present intention of reading Mark Leibovich’s This Town, it’s becoming difficult not to read about the book, which appears to be coursing through that very lucrative vein of cultural commentary that involves mocking and celebrating its objects in equal measure. I have little interest in the relative social status of This Town’s self-proclaimed aristocracy. But according to Walter Shapiro, another Imperial City expat who has the means to keep a pied a terre there, Liebovich captures another phenomenon that I do find interesting, because it’s really the fuel that keeps Washington running:

The nation’s capital has always been a prized destination for young men and women with middle-aged dreams. If you pick the right friends and gamble on the right campaigns, you can find yourself with an exalted position on the White House staff in your late twenties or early thirties. As a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, I recall the heady master-of-the-West-Wing euphoria of being close to the person who is close to the person who is close to the Leader of the Free World.
That is why the most affecting and disturbing chapter in This Town is Leibovich’s portrayal of Kurt Bardella, a nakedly striving yet guileless 27-year-old press secretary to Darrell Issa, the Inspector Javert of the House Republicans. Bardella, who never graduated from college, is torn between two ambitions: White House press secretary someday (all that TV time) and quickly being able to “monetize his government service” (all that money). But before he can achieve either dream, Bardella is fired by Issa for leaking to Leibovich large chunks of the staffer’s daily emails from reporters and Capitol Hill Republicans. But this is Washington where only overly sensitive losers feel disgrace—within weeks Bardella was writing columns for the Daily Caller, negotiating with cable TV bookers and soon winning back a Capitol Hill job with Issa.

Yeah, that sounds painfully familiar. When I worked and lived there I used to describe Washington to the folks back home as a vast landscape of little ponds with big fish: that person shoving past you in the Metro or nearly killing you on I-95 might well be a GS-14 who’s a mighty big deal in his or her world. But it’s the Young People on the Make who really mark Washington as a fundamentally sad and scary place. There they all are: everyone who decided in the fifth grade that they’d be president someday; all the kids who practiced interviewing themselves in the bathroom mirror; every high school grind who overcame the humiliations of provincial life and feasted on West Wing, imagining themselves doing the power walk with POTUS or the constellation of angels and archangels scattered along the Mall and K Street.

Attracting and consuming the energies and dreams of young fogies is central to the D.C. economy; evaporating illusions are its fuel and feelings of meaningless superiority are its fool’s gold. Most of these kids leave This Town sooner rather than later, sometimes to go back and join the family law firm or even start a political career in order eventually to return to Washington in triumph. But it’s the “winners” who stick around who are the saddest creatures, frantically looking for their names in Leibovich’s book and unconsciously weighing their importance. Yeah, I much prefer observing Washington from a safe distance.

UPDATE: In response to commenter 624LC, yes, I’m aware that Washington is a living, breathing city of people who aren’t in the political rat race, and I also appreciate its charms, particularly on certain days in the fall and spring when its physical beauty can be breathtaking.

So to make up for the unintended insult, here’s the most prominent of many musical tributes to Washington, DC, recorded in, but not part of, the Disco Era:

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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