Commentary Magazine

Our Town

To the Editor:

In his review of This Town [“This Town Isn’t So Bad,” October 2013], Peter Wehner seems to miss the point about what is wrong with Washington. It does not concern me in the least that Mark Leibovich is a creature of the culture about which he writes and that he criticizes. Who better to tell us? When a sports team loses, why interview the players and coaches on that team? Because they know better than anyone what went wrong.

The review of his book emphasizes the theme that Leibovich indulges in the high life as much as anyone he skewers. But that is hardly the point. It isn’t about the hypocrisy that Mr. Wehner points out by way of dismissing any larger issue. What is so deplorable is the extent to which the goings-on described in This Town are so pervasive and well-established, and that they are symptomatic of how deeply wounded we are as a nation.

One in four children are now born into poverty, with the trend getting worse. The wealthiest area in this country is now the D.C.-metro area and not some place in the industrial heartland. It’s more than inequality. It’s about the corruption and the self-enriching culture that comes at the expense of others—at the expense, in fact, of those the politicos in Washington are supposed to represent, not fleece on their way to fame and fortune. Where is the press? Why is there no steady drumbeat like the one that ran Nixon and his gang off? Because it has become so pervasive as to be unremarkable, at least in the capital. Mr. Wehner may think this town isn’t so bad, but if so it’s because he’s lost perspective, especially as he ends his article by suggesting that Leibovich’s book (and not the reality he describes) is the problem. Can’t Mr. Wehner understand, and even sympathize with, how the non-Washingtonian must feel when gazing upon his gilded capital?

Peter Brinkmann
Mt. Airy, Maryland

 Peter Wehner writes:

Peter Brinkmann argues that I miss the point about Mark Leibovich’s This Town. What ought to trouble me isn’t Leibovich’s hypocrisy; it should be Washington D.C.’s “corruption and self-enriching culture.”

But of course I never argued, nor do I believe, the nation’s capital is a paragon of virtue. There are precisely the kind of problems one would expect to find in a city of unmatched power and influence. My point is rather different, that Leibovich’s book is a willful caricature. As I put it in my review:

The real disservice of This Town…is that it is a carnival mirror. The side of Washington that Leibovich writes about exists; his subjects are not mythological. The problem is that his book distorts Washington so grotesquely, with such a massively incomplete picture of the city, that it borders on being a lie.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for many years now, and I know for a fact that it is inhabited by plenty of impressive and even some honorable individuals. Yet if you read This Town, and didn’t know anything about this town, you would believe it is devoid of such people. Mr. Leibovich has to ignore them in order to support his cartoonish portrayal. If Leibovich had written a paean to Washington D.C., my review undoubtedly would have highlighted some of the darker sides of it.

As for the sports analogy Mr. Brinkmann employs: The better example would be if Barry Bonds wrote a book lamenting what performance-enhancing drugs have done to major league baseball and ridiculing those who used them. The point is a fair one, but Bonds’s effort to bemoan and criticize what he himself is a part of would be somewhat problematic.

One final point: I do have some sympathy with the frustration non-Washingtonians have toward our capital city. But that sympathy does have limits. We have a representative government in the United States—and perhaps never before in history have politicians been more sensitive to, or more reflective of, the moods and appetites and desires of their constituents. If Washington D.C. is a bastion of corruption and incompetence, it is not as if the American people aren’t to some degree complicit in this. To return to the sports analogy Mr. Brinkmann is fond of: The American people draft and trade for the players who represent Team USA. It’s fine to criticize the players if they fail—but self-reflection and even self-criticism on the part of management might be useful now and again.

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