One of the entertaining parts of the rollout of This Town, Mark Leibovich's characteristically perceptive and well-turned expose of self-dealing and self-importance in official Washington, has been watching reviewers attempt to attach Larger Meaning to the book, as if it's not enough for it simply to lay bare the moral corruption of a powerful place. The Larger Meaning that several commentators have been seizing on so far is that the book is really an account of how the Obama administration allowed itself to be sucked into the mire after claiming it was going to clean the swamp.
This thesis was put forward in most detail by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post:
...The gossipy focus misses the point of the book and why people might be interested in it even if they don’t care about Tammy Haddad. “This Town” is really about how Obama and his team came to Washington with solemn vows to change it but then wound up joining the revolving-door culture.
“With the rise of Obama,” the question became, “Could Washington really change?” Leibovich writes. “No more lobbyists in the White House, or ‘politics as usual,’ or tending to the needy oracles of Beltway groupthink.” He includes many self-righteous quotes from Obama aides Dan Pfeiffer (“We did not do ‘cocktail party’ interviews”), David Plouffe (“If Politico and [Time magazine’s Mark] Halperin say we’re winning, we’re losing”) and Robert Gibbs (“We believe this isn’t about us. It’s about something bigger.”).
“Obama himself vowed that his administration would steer clear of other corroding Beltway forces” of celebrity and self-dealing, he writes. Those working on Obama’s transition staff in 2008 were made to sign a “no ego, no glory” memo. Then it became all ego and glory. Plouffe quickly cashed out, earning $1.5 million in 2010 by serving as a consultant to Boeing and General Electric, giving speeches and writing a book—negotiated by [super-agent Bob] Barnett...
I'm all for naming names when it comes to people cashing in—my colleague Noam Scheiber did a nifty job of this just a few months ago with ex-Obama administration honchos. But I'd also argue that it's a wee bit rich for the Beltway scorekeepers to be chiding the Obama-ites for adopting the local norms when over these past few years the Obama crew has also been widely ridiculed for holding themselves above them. Back in 2008 and 2009, the Obama team was being tagged as naive and "holier-than-thou," as Milbank himself put it in 2008, for claiming they were going to bring to town a "new politics" that was less concerned with back-slapping and news-cycle gamesmanship. The purest statements of the establishment's disdain for the Obama-ites have been doyenne Sally Quinn's laments that they were failing to come to her parties. But there've been countless variations on this theme all the way up through this year, that Obama and his acolytes are too aloof, too stuck on their own way of doing things.
And now, suddenly, they're getting hit for the opposite: that they too easily accomodated themselves to the local customs and mores. Well, which is it? Are they prigs holding themselves above "this town" or sellouts who've gone native? I suppose one could argue that they are both—that there is a difference between declining to hobnob in the ways the capital expects, which they have purportedly failed to do, and declining to cash in personally, which some of them have been more than happy to do. Still, there should be at least some recognition of the apparent inconsistency in the lines of anti-Obama-ite scorn.
As it is, simply hitting the Obama crew for hypocrisy leaves us in the awfully jaded and cynical position of assuming that their stated desire to do things differently was doomed from the start, that there is something inexorable about the corrupting influence of the place. And I'm not sure we really want to accept that, because that effectively removes personal responsibility from the equation. If the mere fact of coming to "this town" is enough to undermine one's morals, then can one even hold people accountable when they do take the fall? I'd rather continue to believe in some level of agency, so that we can judge the choices of a Plouffe against those of, say, a Steve Hildebrand, another Obama strategist who, instead of calling up Barnett and Boeing, decided to open up a coffee shop in his native South Dakota. Then again, that is very far from this town.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis