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Washington too concerned with building brands, not consensus, author says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 3, 2013: As insight into the self-absorbed mindset and atmosphere that led to this week’s partial shutdown of the federal government, author Mark Leibovich points to what is called the "Washington read.”

Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, described how in the nation’s capital — subject of his new book, "This Town” — you can see people go into a bookstore, flip to the back of a particular volume, then either buy the book or walk out.

What makes the difference? Whether they have found their name in the index.

Leibovich said the Washington read and the swelled heads that it spawns is one reason he left an index out of his book, which is subtitled "Two Parties and a Funeral — plus, plenty of valet parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital."

But such refusal to feed the egos in Washington isn’t about to make much difference in a town where building personal brands and erecting ideological silos have made self-service too often overshadow public service, Leibovich says.

"There are very, very narrow and very, very self-tailored lanes that people can stay in,” he said Wednesday night at the James C. Millstone Memorial Lecture at the new Saint Louis University law school building in downtown St. Louis.

Using such terms as"hyperpartisan" and "dysfunctional" to describe the current climate in Washington, he said it is a town "that is not working terribly well, not serving the American people very well."

Why? Leibovich cited three really big changes that helped bring about the change: new media, big money and what he termed “the celebritization of politics,” which he says gives rise to people like Ted Cruz who haven’t been in town for very long but have learned how to attract attention and a measure of influence that goes with it.

Contrasting today’s atmosphere with how things were more than 60 years ago, Leibovich recalled how Harry and Bess Truman behaved when he left the White House. They got into their car and drove home to Missouri, without any fanfare or any entourage or even any Secret Service protection. They even got stopped for a traffic violation along the way.

"He was a citizen politician in the truest sense,” Leibovich said of Truman. "He wanted to give back to the community after his service.”

Now, he said, Washington is home to a permanent political class, where people in office rarely think about going home to a normal life. Instead, they often stick around after they are out of office and find a job where they can make big money influencing their former government colleagues.

"It has never been easier, for want of a better term, to cash in on your service," Leibovich said. "You sort of wonder what people are thinking about when they are in office. You wonder, are people looking for their next job down the street? Forget going back to your community. Forget about the Peace Corps.

"I think we have an ethic now where Washington has become a career, self-service instead of public service."

He recalled watching with his children the day that Mitt Romney introduced Paul Ryan as his running mate last year. At first, he said, the family was impressed with Ryan, but they quickly became critical when he began attacking the Obama administration and its politics.

His daughter asked whether Ryan had ever met Obama before saying such negative things, then added.

"I think if they knew each other better, they might not talk like this."

Leibovich called it an "out of the mouths of babes moment” that crystallized what much of the American public must think about the climate in Washington at a time when the country could use more collegiality, not more confrontation.

"There is incredible discontent about the level of self-satisfaction in Washington, despite the lousy job everyone thinks the government, the media and K Street are doing," he said.

He said that before the lecture, he had walked down to the Gateway Arch, which is closed because of the shutdown, and heard reports of 3,200 workers at Scott Air Force Base being furloughed.

His book, he said, is not about those people, or the people who were killed at the D.C. Navy Yard or other people you have never heard of.

Instead, Leibovich said, he has written about “the people on cable television who are yelling about the people who were furloughed.”

How can the current dysfunctional atmosphere in Washington be fixed? Leibovich said he can throw his hands up in the air and say it’s not his job to come up with solutions, it’s his job to hold up a mirror to the prevailing culture so the rest of the world can see it.

But, he said, that is really a cop out. He pointed to Obama’s election, which he said showed that the public wants change, and the next presidential contest is likely to reinforce that wish.

"I think the next presidential candidate will be very, very, very well advised to be as honest and as authentic as possible,” Leibovich said.

The Millstone lecture began in 1994 and is sponsored by the Beacon and the Saint Louis University School of Law. It is presented in memory of a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist who died in 1992 after more than 30 years with the newspaper, in Washington and St. Louis. Speakers are chosen to illuminate his interests, including the legal system and civil liberties.

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