Carol Felsenthal
On politics

NYT Reporter Lays Bare the Ugly Underbelly of D.C. And Rahm, Valerie, and Axe Are In It

Mark Liebovich turns his often-unflattering eye towards Washington power brokers, including an unfortunate attempt by the West Wing to portray the “magic” of Valerie Jarrett.

Mark Leibovich, currently chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, formerly a reporter for the Washington Post, specializes in warts and all profiles, often of Washington insiders. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the subject of a Leibovich profile, remarked that Leibovich “knows how to cut your heart out.”

Now Leibovich, in This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital, has done same to our capital city, Washington DC.  The book is published on July 16. Reporters from competing media have managed to find early copies and have extracted and published the juiciest bits.

Valerie Jarrett takes the hardest hit, at least among the Chicago characters.

There’s the West Wing’s 33 talking points circulated to White House staffers in advance of a 2012 New York Times profile of Jarrett. They come direct from a draft memo, titled “The Magic of Valerie,”  that Leibovich managed to put his hands on.

“The magic of Valerie," Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski quotes from the memo, “is her intellect and her heart. She is an incredibly kind, caring and thoughtful person with a unique ability to pinpoint the voiceless and shine a light on them and the issues they and the President care about with the ultimate goal of making a difference in people’s lives.

“Valerie is the perfect combination of smart, savvy and innovative.

“Valerie has an enormous capacity for both empathy and sympathy. She balances the need to be patient and judicious with the desire to get things done and work as hard as possible for the American people from the White House.

“To know what both drives Valerie Jarrett and why the President values her opinion so much, you benefit greatly from really getting to know the woman.

“Valerie is tapped in to people’s experiences, their good times and bad. She knows from her own life what it is like to believe and strive for your dreams.

“Valerie expects people to work their hearts out for the President and never forget where you work and the magnitude.

“Single mother, woman working to the top in a competitive male dominated world, African-American, working for change from the grassroots to big business.

“Valerie is someone here who other people inside the building know they can trust. (need examples.)”

That phrase, “need examples,” is worth the time reading the smary prose that preceeds it.

Then there’s a description of what Leibovich calls Jarrett’s “earpiece envy”: when David Axelrod was given Secret Service protection, apparently for actual cause,  Jarrett allegedly arranged the same for herself.

Chicagoan Susan Sher, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff and current University of Chicago point person for bringing the Obama Library to the Hyde Park campus, makes the cut. Sher’s son wrote a novel and was given a book party by Washington-insider hostess, producer, and event planner Tammy Haddad, or, as Leibovich calls her, “a human ladle in the local self-celebration buffet.”

“At one point,” Leibovich writes of the book party, which he attended, “Tammy rushed over to me and the guy I was talking to and announced ‘ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! I JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE WITH HER DAUGHTER!. . . Now, c’mon, come meet the novelist.’”

David Axelrod and his wife Susan make the book because, as the Post’s “Reliable Sources” says, “David Axelrod [hits] up journalists who cover him for charity contributions.”  The above-mentioned Tammy Haddad is, according to Leibovich,  a fundraiser extraordinaire for the Axelrods’ epilepsy research charity.  (Axelrod told Politico a couple of months ago that “Tammy has been a great friend to Susan and me, and I think very sincere about it. She has never asked me for anything in return.")

Bob Barnett—Waukegan native, lawyer, super-agent who makes book and other deals for everyone from Bill and Hillary to Sarah Palin and also represents 375 big-name journalists—also appears. According to the gossip writers for the Washington Post’s “Reliable Sources,” who also obtained a copy of the book, Barnett is “tireless in his self-promotion” and “mercenary in his allegiances.”  He’s portrayed as a wannabe Obama White House insider who cajoled his way into debate prep for the last Romney/Obama meeting and spent his time in the spin room promoting himself.

In describing the background of Rahm Emanuel, Leibovich writes that his service in the Clinton White House had become “instantly bankable…. Rahm… resigned his job in the Clinton White House in 1998 to join the investment banking firm of Wasserstein Perella. Emanuel was not a ‘numbers guy,’ he admitted, but more of a ‘relationship banker.’ By the time he left to run for Congress in 2002, Emanuel has amassed more than $18 million.'’

Look for more on Rahm when I get my hands on the book. He does not appear much in the advance anecdotes, but, according to the Washington Post’s unauthorized index—see below for details—appears in eight chapters of Leibovich’s book. (Bill Daley appears in only one; wonder if Daley’s peeved about that.)

Much is being made of the fact that This Town deliberately lacks an index and thus deprives self-absorbed DC networkers of the ability to give the book the “Washington read” (i.e. look up their own names in the index and read every reference; a wider Washington read, I suppose, would involve looking up the names of one’s enemies and hoping they get slammed). Apparently these reporters haven’t heard of e-books, which render the index irrelevant. Searching for a name and finding every reference is a few keystrokes away. It’s not 1989 any longer, when The Andy Warhol Diaries were published and it fell to SPY magazine to publish a paper index available by snail mail. Nonetheless, The Washington Post has posted the aforementioned “unauthorized index” to This Town.

Movie producer Julia Phillips exposed the sordid secrets of Hollywood in her memoir, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again (1991). Washington being Washington—Hollywood for ugly people—Leibovich, who lives there with his wife and children, will likely eat plenty of lunches with the people he has diminished. Being seen with him will add to their cache, given the city’s “freedom of shamelessness,” as Liebovich’s publisher describes it. 

At 4 pm on July 4, when one might imagine people had better things to do than order dishy DC books, Leibovich’s book ranked #40 on Amazon’s list. Remember, it doesn’t go on sale—on line or in stores—for another 11 days.  

I’ll take a second look on pub date—or earlier if I can score a copy of the book—and be back with any Chicago-related gems left to digest and disgorge. The book is excerpted in this Sunday’s Times Magazine. The long excerpt focuses on an obscure, repulsively plugged-in congressional aide to Rep. Darrell Issa of California. Except for a brief appearance by Sen. Mark Kirk, none of my favorite Chicago characters make an appearance.

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