John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

This Town

I finished Mark Leibovich's This Town last night. Its portrait of the symbiotic relationship between parasitical political figures and journalists -- symbiotic in that they support and strengthen each other, and parasitic in that they both feed off the same host, the Federal government -- is pretty appalling, but it's not something I didn't already know. Some of the specific details, like the story of the pathologically self-promoting Congressional aide who was fired for forwarding emails from journalists to another journalist, only to be rehired by the same Representative who fired him a few months later after the hubbub had died down, were entertaining, but the overall effect was depressing. The culture that Leibovich describes has been a part of the Washington scene for decades, but the number of people who are participating in that culture has exploded in the last twenty years, to the point where a strong case can be made that it is an active threat to the operation of the Federal government and to representative democracy in general.

Finishing the book got me thinking about someone who isn't mentioned in the book at all: my former boss in the Senate, Donald W. Riegle Jr. Like a lot of other former members of Congress who do show up in the pages of This Town, Riegle went to work for a lobbying firm, APCO Worldwide, after he retired. (APCO calls itself a "global communication, stakeholder engagement and business strategy firm," but what that means in normal human language is that they're a lobbying firm.) But you don't see him on TV. He doesn't, as far as I can tell, show up at the kinds of parties described by Leibovich in his book, nor does he seem to attend insider-y gatherings like the World Economic Forum in Davos or the Aspen Ideas Festival. He writes the occasional op-ed, and makes the occasional speech, but other than that he seems to have adopted an exceedingly low profile for a former Senator who stayed in Washington to be a lobbyist after retiring.

It's true that when he left office, he was still under a cloud due to his having been one of the "Keating Five." But as Leibovich makes clear in the book, scandal is no obstacle to prominence among the people who make up This Town, and the Keating Five scandal was more than 20 years in the past at this point. (And it certainly didn't seem to do John McCain any lasting damage.) I do remember from my time working for him that he was no great fan of the press, so it doesn't necessarily surprise me that he wouldn't want to spend much time hanging around with journalists. I also remember him saying when he announced his retirement that he needed to spend more time with his two young daughters, and while politicians saying they're retiring to spend more time with their families is cliché, my sense is that he meant it. His older daughter Ashley, who was was a pretty frequent visitor to the office, indicating to me that he did what he could to fit in visits with her around his Senate schedule.

Now I'm curious. Maybe I should drop him a line, see what he's been up to. I doubt he'd remember me; I left his staff almost 20 years ago, and I haven't seen him at all since, I don't know, 1997 or so. But he remembered me then, even remembered my name, and up to that point I wouldn't even have bet he even knew my name. (He was a bit remote from his staff, and by remote I mean once in a meeting he didn't recognize one of his own legislative fellows.) Something to consider.
Tags: dc, government, halcyon days of yore, politics, reading: books

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