Rhode Island and Leibovich's `This Town'

Aug 18, 2013

John O.  Pastore was a legendary Rhode Island political figure, the son of immigrants and the first Italian-American elected as a governor and a U.S. Senator. A dominant figure in state politics, Pastore had a distinguished 26-year tenure  in the Senate and never lost an election in a long career that began in the doldrums of the Great Depression in the General Assembly and ended with his decision in 1976 to retire rather than run again for a seat he would have easily kept.

Pastore bored deeply into the major issues of his time. He was an unreconstructed New Deal, and later, Great Society Democrat who was a floor manager of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, a crucial player in advancing atomic energy and in crafting the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Pastore, a champion of public broadcasting, was known as the father of public radio and television. A prolific orator, Pastore’s  1964 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Lyndon Johnson is as a classic.

Pastore was 68 when he decided against a reelection in 1976. Victory would have been sealed;  he had been reelected in 1970 with 68 percent of the vote against John McLaughlin, a Republican and Roman Catholic priest who would later leave the priesthood for the more lucrative career as the first of the cable television news shouters with his show, The McLaughlin Group.

When Pastore retired, he returned to Rhode Island, lived in a modest home in the middle-class Cranston neighborhood of Garden Hills, took a job at Columbus Bank and spent much time with his family. At his funeral in 2000, where Ted Kennedy gave the eulogy, Pastore’s children and grandchildren told fond stories of his engaged, humorous and doting presence. And Joe Biden spoke about Pastore's compassion after Biden's tragic 1974 family car accident that claimed his wife's life.

If there is an overarching theme to Mark Leibovich’s new bestseller and Washington, D.C.  takedown, ``This Town’’ it is that aren’t many John Pastores these days in Washington. Leibovich, a New York Times political writer, gives us a national capital in thrall to the unremitting culture of celebrity, money and greedy contempt for the provincials that populate the rest of the United States.

Leibovich’s Washington is a place where Green Room gofers morph into millionaire consultants, reporters navel-gaze at their own superficial work, politicians preen for cable channels and nobody much cares what happens to the folks beyond the Beltway who pay the taxes that keep this merry-go-round spinning.

Maybe all one needs to know about our dysfunctional Congress is that in 1974 3 percent of retiring members of the body that decides our laws stayed in Washington and became lobbyists. Now that figure is 50 percent. There was a time when those we elected to Congress didn't see their service as a gilded path to a McMansion on Nantucket.

There is so much corporate, think tank and special interest money sloshing around the capital city that it doesn’t matter whether your candidate or party wins or loses; the lobbyist Lollapalloza rolls on. ``Great, now I don’t have to lobby the administration for four years,’’ says Charlie Black, the Republican super influence peddler,  tells Leibovich after his candidate, John McCain, loses the 2008 election to Barack Obama. ``I can play more golf.’’

``Everyone in Washington is joined in a multilateral conga line of potential business partners,’’ writes Leibovich. He quotes Democratic lobbyist Jack Quinn, a top official in the Clinton Administration, about his partnership with Ed Gillespie, a Republican player in several administrations and a campaign consultant to Mitt Romney. ``Ed and I both appreciate that everyone involved in the world in which we operate is a patriot.’’

Well, certaintly paycheck patriotism: The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the Quinn & Gillespie firm has harvested at least $44.7 million in lobbying fees since Obama was inaugurated in 2009.

Leibovich is an equal opportunity satirist of Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. It was once unthinkable that an influential  U.S. Senator in the prime of his career would leave the Senate for a think tank sinecure. But that’s precisely what happened with Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Tea Party favorite who traded his $176,000 a year Senate post for a $1 million a year gig as head of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Connecticut  Sen. Chris Dodd, a liberal Democrat and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, vows  he won’t become a lobbyist when he leaves the Senate. But when the motion picture industry tosses him a $1.2 million annual salary, there is no way he is jumping the Amtrak back to Hartford.

As old friend Peter Kadzis wrote recently in the Providence Phoenix, ``Leibovich’s DC lacks a higher purpose. It is also devoid of any shame.’’

Journalism comes off as corrupted. Reporters earn big speaking fees for road shows before trade associations and convention of business types. Cable news and Internet based outlets such as Politico are the new arbiters of a winking insider brand of reporting that rewards style over substance, insider gossip over issues. The decline of traditional dig-it-up reporting and the abandonment of Washington by regional newspapers (the Boston Globe is the last New England newspaper with a serious presence in the capital; once robust Washington bureaus of such newspapers as the Hartford Courant and the Providence Journal have been shuttered) has made DC political coverage a game of trivial pursuit. Mike Allen is a long way from Tom Wicker or Scotty Reston, never mind Walter Lipmann.

One criticism of Leibvoich is that his own snark trumps substance. Unlike, say, the informative and serious Boston Globe series, `Broken City,’ which went behind the headlines into the causes for Washington dsysfunction, `This Town’ serves up an Evelyn Waugh version of Washington politics, replete with faux scoops and the lubrication  of endless schmoozing and partying.

What tenure is to Boston, movies to Hollywood or Wall Street to New York, influence peddling and faux celebrity is to DC. Along with gobs of cash.

There was always influence peddling and lobbying in Washington. And it didn’t always pass the smell test; Robert Caro’s insightful tales of Lyndon Johnson and his Texas cronies acting as mules for oil industry cash in suitcases to bribe Congress is striking.  Yet, there once seemed to be more honor among thieves. Tommy `The Cork’ Corcoran, the brilliant New Deal lawyer (and Pawtucket native) turned lobbyist at least had an intimate knowledge of government and some vague scruples. He and his ilk didn’t make a living organizing parties.

The toughest thing to take about the high hilarity and low lives of `This Town’ is the utter contempt in which the rubes who pay the taxes are held. Voters are dumb. We are to be manipulated by pollsters, consultants and Tee Vee ad makers. Few of us understand government or politics, so we zillion-dollar hustlers in DC will convince we the people for whom to vote. It is all a sham anyway because it doesn’t matter which candidate or party wins; the real game in Washington is which players populate a new administration or climb the lucrative, greasy K Street poll.

The only solace for a Rhode Island voter is that none of our pols are characters in Leibovich’s book. The only member of the all- Democratic RI Congressional delegation who even merits a mention is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and he only in passing. None of the Ocean State’s well-known DC lobbyists and consultants get a nod either, which should make most of them happy. (LaSalle Academy classmates Tad Devine and Tom Donilon don't get any ink, which Devine is known to be quite pleased about).

`This Town’ is a fun and instructive read for political junkies and anyone who wants to understand what is wrong and deeply troubling about the way business is conducted in 21st century Washington. At the end, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.