Tim Russert is dead. But the room was alive.
You can’t work it too hard at a memorial service, obviously. It’s the kind of thing people notice. But the big-ticket Washington departure rite can be such a great networking opportunity. You can almost feel the ardor behind the solemn faces: lucky stampedes of power mourners, about two thousand of them, wearing out the red-carpeted aisles of the Kennedy Center.
Before the service, people keep rushing down the left-hand aisle to get to Robert Gibbs, the journeyman campaign spokesman who struck gold with the right patron, Barack Obama, soon to be the first African-American nominee of a major party. If Obama gets elected, Gibbs is in line to be the White House press secretary. Gibbs is the son of librarians, two of the 10 percent of white Alabamans who will support Obama in November. “Bobby,” as he was known back home, hated to read as a child and grew up to be a talker, now an increasingly hot one.
He keeps getting approached in airports and on the street for his autograph. He is a destination for a populace trained to view human interaction through the prism of “How can this person be helpful to me?” Gibbs has become potentially whoppingly helpful. People seek out and congratulate him for his success and that of his candidate, especially at tribal gatherings like this, a grand send-off for the host of Meet the Press.
Next to Gibbs presides another beneficial destination: David Axelrod, a Democratic media consultant and kibitzing walrus of a mensch who orchestrated Obama’s run to the 2008 Democratic nomination. Known as “Axe,” Axelrod is a sentimental RFK Democrat whose swoon over Obama is unrivaled even by Gibbs’s. (Gibbs once called Axe “the guy who walks in front of Obama with rose petals.”) Noting the big run on Gibbs and Axelrod, a columnist for Politico told me they were the new “it guys” at the service, and of course they were, in part for devising a communications strategy predicated on indifference to this very onrushing club of D.C.’s Leading Thinkers.
Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski are mobbed as well; they can barely get to their seats: assaulted with kudos for the success of Morning Joe, their dawn roundtable on MSNBC and a popular artery in the bloodstream of the Leading Thinkers. People keep pressing business cards into the cohosts’ palms, eager to get themselves booked, or their clients booked, or their books mentioned, just once, by Joe or Mika. “A new low, even for Washington tackiness,” Mika will lament of the funereal hustle. But it’s important to be part of the conversation, anyone would understand. You seize your moment when it comes.
Bill and Hillary Clinton walk stiffly down the left aisle. Heads lurch and the collective effects are unmistakable: that exotic D.C. tingle falls over the room, the kind that comes with proximity to Superpowers. Bill and Hill. They are given wide berth. It had been a tough stretch. Hillary has just conceded the Democratic nomination. It ended an epic primary saga in which Bill had disgraced himself, making unpresidential and maybe racially loaded remarks about Obama. Neither Clinton is in a particularly good “place” with Washington at the moment, or with the media, or with the Democratic Party—or, for that matter, maybe with each other.
Bill’s top post–White House aide, Doug Band, is keeping a list on his BlackBerry of all the people who screwed over the Clintons in the campaign and who are now, as they say, “dead to us.” Some of them dead are here at the Kennedy Center. There is a running joke inside Clinton World about all the bad things happening to the Clinton crossers. Ted Kennedy, who pivotally endorsed Obama in January, is now dying from a brain tumor. (After Kennedy’s endorsement, which came months before the tumor was discovered, his colleague Lindsey Graham asked Kennedy if he could inherit his Senate hideaway office. Why? “Because the Clintons are gonna kill you,” Graham joked.) John Edwards, who also endorsed Obama, was busted for cheating on his dying wife; his disgrace is now in full spiral. The state of Iowa, whose Democratic voters slapped a humiliating third-place finish on Hillary in January’s caucuses, was devastated by biblical floods in the spring.
Now, true to her stoic and gritty precedent, Hillary is keeping her smile affixed like hardened gum and sending out powerful “Stay away from this vehicle” vibes. Ignoring the vibes, an eager producer for MSNBC’s Countdown beelines toward her, introduces herself to the Almighty, and prepares to launch a Hail Mary “ask” about whether the senator might possibly want to come on Countdown that night.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Clinton responds to the eager producer, while the smile stays tight and she keeps right on walking. Hillary has a memorial service to attend: the memorial service of a man she and her husband plainly despised and who they believed (rightly) despised them back.
But the Clintons are pros at death and sickness. They show up. They play their assigned roles. They send nice notes and lend comfort to the bereaved in that warm and open-faced Clinton way. They are here with empathetic eyes to pay respects, like heads of Mafia families do when a rival godfather falls. Washington memorial services have that quality when the various personality cults convene: Bill and Hillary walking a few feet away from Newt and Callista Gingrich and right past David Shuster, the MSNBC host who has just been suspended by the network for saying the Clinton campaign “pimped out” Chelsea by having her call superdelegates. (Shuster has been barely heard from since. To reiterate: Don’t mess with the Clintons!) Bill and Hill, who appear not to have reserved seats, find two several rows back next to Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, the current one.
Not far from the Gibbs and Axe receiving line, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell walks in with her husband, the conservative monetary oracle and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. One of the most dogged reporters in the city, Andrea adores her work and her friends, but mostly adores Alan. He is a prime Washington Leading Thinker who even when being blamed by many for running the economy off a cliff can always be seen on Andrea’s arm doing his courtly old dignitary thing at D.C. social events. If Washington was a comic book—and it sort of is—Greenspan would be in the background of every panel.
A few rows from Alan and Andrea sits Barbara Walters, the luminary TV interviewer and Chairman Greenspan’s former girlfriend. Back when Alan and Andrea were first dating, during the George H. W. Bush administration, they attended a dinner to honor Queen Elizabeth at the British embassy. In the presidential receiving line, Bush introduced Andrea to the queen. “Your Majesty, this is one of our premier American journalists,” the president said, then turned to Mitchell and said, “Hello, Barbara.” Bush sent a personal note of apology to Andrea the next day.
At the memorial service, Barbara sat over near Ken Duberstein, a vintage Washington character in his own right, who did a brief stint as the White House chief of staff during the checked-out final months of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Duberstein and Mitchell are old friends. Jews by religion and local royalty by acclamation, they once shared a memorable erev Yom Kippur—the holiest night on the Jewish calendar—at a most sacred of Official Washington shrines: the McLean, Virginia, mansion of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, and his wife, Haifa. Dick and Lynne Cheney were also there. It was such a coveted social function. Andrea and Ken felt pangs of Jewish guilt but ultimately could not say no to this most holy of obligations. “In the end, we both decided that the Lord and our parents would somehow understand,” Andrea later explained in her book, Talking Back.
Now a lobbyist, Duberstein has been riding the D.C. carousel for years, his Rolodex flipping with billable connections. He is an archetypical “former.” That is, a former officeholder who can easily score a seven-figure income as an out-of-office wise man, pundit, statesman, or, if you would be so crass (and a true statesman never would be), hired gun. “Formers” stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold-plated toaster.
Duberstein is often referred to in these words: “It isn’t exactly clear what Kenny does.” You know you’ve made it in D.C. when someone says that—“It isn’t clear what he does”—about you. Such people used to have an air of mystery about them. You assumed they did something exotic, like work for the CIA. Now you might assume the Kuwaiti government or someone is paying them a gusher to do something not terribly virtuous. They would prefer not to discuss their work, if you don’t mind, and you have to respect their discretion. Ambiguity pays well here.
Duberstein is a regular at Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s and talks constantly on the phone to his close friend Colin Powell, and even more constantly to everyone else about what “Colin was just telling me.” Like most formers, Duberstein sits on many boards andloves to read his name in print or pixel—except, God forbid, if someone identifies him as a mere “former Reagan administration official,” not Reagan’s “former chief of staff,” in which case he will feel denied his full former bona fides and often complain. The standard line on Duberstein is that he spent six and a half months as Reagan’s chief of staff and twenty-four years (and counting) dining out on it.
As John McCain was securing the Republican nomination, Duberstein made inquiries about running his theoretical transition team, according to several campaign aides. That would be a perfect assignment for someone of Duberstein’s ilk, someone with an intuitive sense of who all the GOP usual suspects to populate an incoming administration will be. Duberstein denies ever lobbying for the transition job, but the McCain team was not interested in his services anyway, and eventually Duberstein wound up endorsing Obama, just after Colin did.
Duberstein keeps shaking hands and waving and looking mid-sentence over your glistening head to see who else is in the vicinity. He wears a big welcoming smile, which he relaxes, at the appropriate time, into an expression of grave distress over the loss of Timothy John Russert.
The ceremonies began this morning, June 18, first the funeral proper at the church in Georgetown, then the public memorial at the Kennedy Center. They are sweet, sober, and starstruck services that give Russert his full due and, more important, affirm everyone—by their presence—as worthy in the pecking order. “All of the most important people in politics and media are in the same room,” the columnist Anne Schroeder Mullins will later write in Politico, the emerging company-town organ for Political Washington, or “This Town,” as people here refer to the place, with bemused faux disgust and a wry distance—a verbal tic as secret handshake. “And if you’re there, too,” Schroeder Mullins concludes, “you’re a player among them.” When you read that, it is impossible not to feel reassured at this precarious moment.
The showing today testifies to the man who died, Russert, the bold-faced impresario of the longest-running show on television and the most powerful unelected figure in the country’s most powerful, prosperous, and disappointing city. A buoyant part of This Town was being put to rest today, an era interred with him at Rock Creek Cemetery after President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura spent forty-five minutes with the family at St. Albans for the wake.
And the gathering is itself testament to The Club, that spinning cabal of “people in politics and media” and the supporting sectors that never get voted out or term-limited or, God forbid, decide on their own that it is time to return home to the farm. The Club can be as potent in D.C. as Congress, its members harder to shed than ten-term incumbents. They are, in effect, the city fathers of This Town. They are not one-dimensional and are certainly not bad people. They come with varied backgrounds, intentions, and, in many cases—maybe most cases—for the right reasons. As they become entrenched, maybe their hearts get a bit muddled and their motives too. Not always: people are complicated, here as everywhere, and sometimes even conflicted (enough sometimes to see therapists, though we don’t discuss that here, don’t want to scare the vetters). But their membership in The Club becomes paramount and defining. They become part of a system that rewards, more than anything, self-perpetuation.
When seen together at tribal events like this one at the Kennedy Center, the members of The Club nourish the idea that the nation’s main actors talk to the same twelve people every day. They can evoke a time-warped sense of a political herd that never dies or gets older, only jowlier, richer, and more heavily made-up. Real or posed, these insiders have always been here—either these people literally or as a broader “establishment.” But they are more of a swarm now: bigger, shinier, online, and working it all that much harder.
While so much of the nation has despised Washington, a gold rush has enthralled the place. It has, in recent years, become a crucible of easy wealth, fame, forgiveness, and next acts. Punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling, accompanied by a mad dash of “self-branding,” to borrow a term that had now fully infested the city: everyone now hell-bent on branding themselves in the marketplace, like Cheetos (Russert was the local Coca-Cola). They gather, all the brands, at these self-reverential festivals, like the April White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, whose buffet of “pre-parties” and “after-parties” now numbers more than two dozen—because a single banquet, it is clear, cannot properly celebrate the full achievements of the People Who Run Your Country.
The insider swarm has been known by various names: “Permanent Washington.” “The Political Class.” “The Chattering Class.” “The Usual Suspects.” “The Beltway Establishment.” “The Echo Chamber.” “The Echo-System.” “The Gang of 500.” “The Gang of600.” “The Movable Mess.” “The Club.” “This Town.”
This is the story of This Town in a time of alleged correction. “Change elections” keep convulsing the local order, the pundits say. There was one in 2006; there would be another in 2008 and another in 2010, and probably more in the coming decades. The nation’s leaders keep throwing out the word “Washington” as a vulgar abstraction. Nothing new here: the anti-Washington reflex in American politics has been honed for centuries, often by candidates who deride the capital as a swamp, only to settle into the place as if it were a soothing whirlpool bath once they get elected. The city exists to be condemned.
The city has also always enjoyed pockets of wealth, usually of the old-money variety: bankers, railroad barons, and aristocrats from other parts of the United States serving in administrations (and in foreign capitals as ambassadors). Being the seat of the federal government, which isn’t moving anywhere, has usually ensured a baseline of economic stability. But in recent years Washington has defied the national economic slump and become the richest metropolitan area in the country. Getting rich has become the great bipartisan ideal: “No Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore, only millionaires,” goes the maxim. The ultimate Green party. You still hear the term “public service” thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that “self-service” is now the real insider play.
Likewise, from the late 1990s, This Town was riveted by bigger– than–West Wing mega-news: Monica, the 2000 recount, 9/11, and the wars that followed. Politics and Washington became the game, perhaps the dominant story of the young century. George W. Bush’s Washington was held out as the polestar of the nation’s safety and the world’s democracy. That cost money, much of it spent here, and they were also fattening up social programs like Medicare while at it. Suddenly it had never been so easy to “monetize” taxpayer- subsidized government service. Then, in 2008, a for-the-ages presidential campaign culminated in a historic election and coincided with a fiscal calamity, at which point This Town was entrusted with saving the nation’s economy too. In both administrations, Washington appeared deeply divided by politics, but the fights were sufficiently huge and loud to affirm everyone’s hyper-relevance—the reason they pay you (the cable outfits, the corporations, the foreign governments)to explain “how Washington really works.” Because you are part of This Town, and that in itself is a value proposition, central to the brand.
With the rise of Obama, the more immediate question became, once again: Could Washington really change? Because, rest assured, This Town as we knew it would have no friend in the Democratic nominee. No more lobbyists in the White House, or “politics as usual,” or tending to the needy oracles of Beltway groupthink that foster consensus views like Hillary being “inevitable” or America not being ready to elect a black president. What would become of The Club in a Wild West of disjointed megaphones, charismatic insurgents, hope, and resignation?
No matter how disappointed people are in their capital, even the most tuned-in consumers have no idea what the modern cinematic version of This Town really looks like. They might know the boilerplate about “people who have been in Washington too long,” how the city is not bipartisan enough and filled with too many creatures of the Beltway. But that misses the running existential contradictions of D.C., a place where “authenticity and fantasy are close companions,” as the Washington Post’s Henry Allen once wrote. It misses that the city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected. It misses the degree to which New Media has democratized the political conversation while accentuating Washington’s insular, myopic, and self-loving tendencies. It misses, most of all, a full examination of how Washington may not serve the country well but has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself—a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives.
What is my story? People ask me a lot if I am a member of The Club. I started getting that question, in so many words, when I began writing this book. Yes, I’m guilty. I write about national politics at a big media outlet. I’ve been in This Town sixteen years, nine spent working for the Washington Post and the last seven for the New York Times. I have a title, an affiliation, and a business card that seem to impress. People appear to believe I am worth knowing (and I must be, because sometimes I get to go on Morning Joe!). I have lots of Washington friends and also some real ones.
People then ask, legitimately, would it be possible to write honestly about The Club from the inside? “Who discovered water?” goes the old Yiddish riddle. “I don’t know, but it wasn’t a fish.” I am a fish. I have chosen to live, work, and raise my family in the murk. This might well be an easier pursuit for a citizen on solid land. But I have no plans to leave. People ask me about that too. Why? It’s not like I’m making lobbyist or TV money. I plead reality: my wife and I have built a good life here.
I also plead optimism: If Washington, D.C., is a civic lab rat of the Nation Exaggerated—all good and petty tendencies concentrated into a few monument-bedecked square miles—then we want to believe that what goes on here can be a flattering microcosm, right? It might not be at a given moment or decade, and surveys show an overwhelming majority of Americans judge Washington to be a mortifying perversion of national ideals. But as Barack Obama proved in 2008, hope can be a powerful force, if not necessarily sustainable (as Obama also proved).
And while living in D.C. can encourage cynicism, it can also breed daily wonder. When I drop my daughter off at kindergarten, I watch her and her friends stare out the window at the vice president’s motorcade as it sirens past en route to the White House. In the day-to-day, we can all be those kids with noses pressed against the glass. That’s how Tom Brokaw described Tim Russert when he first came to Washington from Buffalo as a young aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. They are a local archetype, the starstruck operators, arriving new to revivify the city with fresh waves of scared energy and the desire to make it in This Town.
Washington is one of the two or three most popular destinations in the country (along with New York and possibly Los Angeles) for those seeking self-creation, reinvention, and public purpose on a grand and national scale. People work obscenely hard, and they do it despite/because of the baggage they bring. And they do it, in many cases, with a desperation that, to me, is the most compelling part of the Washington story, whether now or before: it is a spinning stew of human need.
I make no claims of immunity. Or—Lord knows!—superiority. I am part of this culture and under no illusion that it cannot reinforce my worst tendencies at times: vanity, opportunism, pettiness—it’s all there on the psychic résumé. I struggle with all of it and more. But this is my home and my experience and I write from it willingly.
It is also, of course, a position of privilege. My job allows not only for a prime spot against the glass but also forays behind it to see the momentous and ridiculous up close. I have profiled hundreds of political figures over the years and have spent considerable time in their presence (and who knows why they continue to allow this?). They will often play to caricature—their own and the city’s—but they are also human beings who are usually engaged in important work. The entertainment value here can be great but ultimately incidental. Washington is not Hollywood (or “Showbiz for Ugly People” as the dumb cliché goes). The stakes are real and higher.
In the words of Republican senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, today’s Washington has become a “permanent feudal class,” a massive, self-sustaining entity that sucks people in, nurtures addiction to its spoils, and imposes a peculiar psychology on big fish and minnows alike. It can turn complex, gifted, and often damaged individuals into hollowed-out Kabuki players acting in the maintenance of their fragile brands. I have seen this up close, too, often in the most fateful environments, like this, Tim’s send-off, the biggest tribal pageant This Town had seen in some time.
You know someone big has died when they play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes and interrupt the president with news of the passing: George W. Bush was told of Russert’s death while dining in France with President Sarkozy. They have metal detectors at the funeral entrance, because so many high-value targets have come. And many men in the crowd are glowing with Queen Elizabeth levels of Pan-Cake makeup as they are coming straight from their TV stand-ups, or “hits.” “I feel almost like we did when somebody—when Jack Kennedy or even Katharine Graham died,” blogged Sally Quinn, a former Washington Post reporter who is a Georgetown hostess and the wife of the Washington Post’s illustrious former editor, Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee.
Sally is shattered. But looks fantastic, at almost seventy. So does Ben, even better (nearing ninety). Will the silver-haired BFF to JFK get a send-off like this? Lord knows he will deserve one, but it will hopefully not happen for the longest of whiles. Ben was the Washington alpha journo of his day, with a presidential scalp to end any discussion. He also played the transactional local game as well as anyone. “Did he use me? Of course he used me,” Bradlee said of his late friend John F. Kennedy in a 1975 interview. “Did I use him? Of course I used him. Are these the ground rules down here in Washington? Hell, yes.” Ben Bradlee is the Man. He is The Club.
Tim Russert was the mayor of it. He was a superb journalist— not so much in the sense that he wrote or produced stories or unearthed wrongdoings, but in the sense that he was a guy on TV whom everyone knew, who asked the “tough but fairs” of important newsmakers and did so in a way that was distinctive and combative and made for good TV. If you were a politician of serious ambition, an invitation to his set was your rite of passage and your proving ground. “It was like you were being knighted,” Bradlee said of getting on the show. “All of a sudden you went up a couple of ranks in their class.” And then, when the program was done, everyone would rate your performance.
Russert became more famous than most of the people he interviewed. After a while in Washington, the fame itself becomes the paramount commonality between the parties. You are a commodity, Someone on TV, with an agent and a chief of staff. (Even Chelsea Clinton has a chief of staff now!) You start using “impact” as a verb.
After a while, the distinctions between the clans all run together—the journalists, the Democrats, the Republicans, the superlawyers, the superlobbyists, the superstaffers, the supercommittees, the David Gergens, the Donna Braziles, and the loser on Facebook who says he’ll be on Headline News at 2:20 p.m. They run together like the black-tie dinners, or the caricature drawings of notable Washingtonians on the wall at the Palm on Nineteenth Street. If you’re lucky and you stay long enough, you can get your picture taken with some really notable Washingtonians and then show off the photos on your office “Me Wall.”
Yes, Russert was the mayor of This Town. To be sure, the “real” city of Washington has an actual elected mayor: black guy, deals with our city problems. But that’s just the D.C. where people live, some of them (18.7 percent) even below the poverty line, who drag down the per capita income to a mere $71,011—still higher than any American state but much less than what most anyone at the Russert funeral is pulling down. Yes, Washington is a “real city,” but This Town is a state of belonging, a status and a commodity.
Russert was such an intensely present figure, his face filling the whole screen like he was right there in front of you. People would approach him at Reagan National or after one of his paid speeches, where he would tell the same jokes and stories over and over, like a politician does. Non-Meet the Press-worthy lawmakers chased him into the men’s room, trying to make a charismatically folksy impression. Strangers told him all about their cousins from Buffalo and commended Tim for “holding our leaders accountable” and for being so real, because somebody in Washington had to be real. That was Tim’s job. Fans would ask him to deliver a message to the president, as if everyone in This Town lived together in the same high-rent group house and bickered over the rent and shared Bob Dole’s peanut butter.
Tim possessed all of the city’s coveted big-dog virtues: He was not to be fucked with. He seemed happy and excited and completely confident at all times, and why not? His killer persona combined a Guy’s Guy exuberance with gravitas. Tim had a great table at the Palm and drank Rolling Rock from a bottle and ate good, manly food that wasn’t drizzled with anything. He testified at the Scooter Libby trial. He had great seats for the Washington Nationals and people asked him to sign their tickets between innings, and maybe Greenspan had signed the ticket before, and James Carville, too, and also Bob Schieffer, all of them together on the same ticket—like a D.C. version of a ’52 Mantle baseball card.
Russert, of course, had many friends, which he worked at with a politician’s attention to gesture. He would handwrite sympathy and thank-you cards and send baby pillows embroidered with the name of your newborn. He went to spring training every year and brought back a Jason Giambi autograph for E. J. Dionne’s son. Tim was classy that way. When the former Senate leader Tom Daschle’s father died, Tim sent his widow an ensemble of T-shirts, hats, and a jacket bearing the Meet the Press logo. Mrs. Daschle could be seen for years wearing the jacket around Aberdeen, South Dakota.
I probably had about a half-dozen conversations with Russert over the years, usually about sports or politics. Our last in-person encounter was in February of that year, 2008, at a Democratic presidential debate in Cleveland, which he was moderating. He had just finished a workout in the gym of the Ritz-Carlton and was walking through the lobby in a sweaty sweatshirt, long shorts, black loafers, and tube socks. A network spokesman tried to declare the mayor’s outfit “off the record,” which I of course made a point of mentioning (gratuitously) in a future story in the New York Times Magazine.
Before I did, I called Russert to give him a heads-up about this, because nothing is more important in Washington than giving or getting a “heads-up,” the better to avoid the intolerable humiliation of being surprised or blindsided by some piece of information. One could argue that an entire boom industry, lobbying, is predicated less on influencing the government than on giving heads-ups to big-paying clients about something that is going to happen whether or not they paid a lobbyist a $50,000-a-month retainer.
Anyway, so I called the mayor to give him a heads-up about how I would not be honoring the flack’s off-the-record outfit request. He laughed so hard I had to move the phone away from my ear. “Just do me one favor,” he said. “Say they were rubber-soled shoes, will you?”
He laughed again, and we talked briefly on the topic of how so many people in This Town are obsessed with where they rank in the great pecking order. Concern over one’s place is hardly original to these times in Washington. But the orgy of new media, news-about news, and the rolling carnival of political moneymaking and celebrity has only exacerbated This Town’s default vanity.
“You can drive yourself crazy if you worry too much about that stuff,” the mayor said, with the self-assurance of a man solidly atop the pig pile and comfortable in his shoes.
Then, three months later: “Did you hear about Tim Russert?”