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Punditry Trumps Productivity in ‘Celebritized’ Culture of Washington Politics

August 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Despite public dissatisfaction, doing nothing seems to have "become a profitable endeavor" for Congress, says author Robert Draper. Ray Suarez talks to veteran political journalists Draper and Mark Leibovich on how Washington insiders contribute to government gridlock and the new "celebritized culture" in American politics.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, the next in our series looking at the challenges of governing in America.

In our first installment, we got some historical perspective. Yesterday, I talked with two authors who’ve written extensively about modern-day Washington.

Mark Leibovich is author of “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.” And Robert Draper is the author of “When the Tea Party Came to Town,” a look it the 112th Congress.

Now, gentlemen, if you go back to the earliest days of American political journalism and satire, it featured scathing contempt of Congress and a perception on the part of the people that not enough or sometimes not anything was getting done.

What’s different, Robert Draper, about now?

ROBERT DRAPER, author: Well, you’re right that, from the very outset, from the first federal Congress, there was gridlock.

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And, in fact, one guy that I wait about in my book from the first federal Congress, Fisher Ames, quit in disgust after four terms, saying, do not ask what good we do. That is not a fair question in these days of faction.

But, back then, they managed to get the Bill of Rights passed. They managed to annex a couple of states. They stood up the executive branch, the judicial branch. They did a lot of stuff during their gridlock period.

What’s different at this point now is that I think it has not only become customary, but I think the public has become increasingly immunized to it. And as Mark has pointed out in his book, it has become a profitable endeavor to do nothing.

RAY SUAREZ: A profitable endeavor.

Mark Leibovich, the act of — quote, unquote — “going to Washington,” whether you’re an elected official, a civil servant, a journalist, a lawyer, whatever, has that changed, let’s say just in the recent decades?

MARK LEIBOVICH, author: Yes.

First of all, Washington has become, in the words of Tom Coburn, the senator from Oklahoma, a permanent feudal class of insiders. These are people who are in office, people who are formerly in office, staffers, journalists, hangers-on.

And you have this insider class that becomes self-perpetuating, and you have a Congress in which 42 percent of former members of Congress become lobbyists, 50 percent of former senators become lobbyists. That compares to 2 percent or 3 percent back in 1974. So, you have people coming here with no intention of going back to the farm, like George Washington would have.

RAY SUAREZ: But is there any connection with actually — achievement? If I’m going buy politicians, if I was going to be as cynical as to put it that way…

MARK LEIBOVICH: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: … wouldn’t I want to buy people who I know can really do things?

MARK LEIBOVICH: Yes, I think theoretically you could.

But I also think that when people are going to go through this revolving door, as it’s called, you do wonder, when people are in office, when people are in power, who are they really working for? Are they in it to actually work to serve the public good, or are they in it for self-service?

So, you have a situation now where the government, where the whole sort of maw of Washington has become a single entity, and if you’re seen as an insider, that itself becomes marketable.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert, there’s something charming about looking at photos of Harry Truman taking his morning stroll surrounded by reporters popping questions at him and writing down his answers in their notepads.

But one big change since then is in the media, a 24-hour atmosphere, multiple platforms, and media stars.

ROBERT DRAPER: Yes.

And if you’re asking the question, essentially, does the media bear some culpability for the situation that we’re in, the answer is I think inarguable. Absolutely. It’s become almost axiomatic that the Washington press covers what goes on or what doesn’t go on as if it were an Olympic competition or a horse race — pick your metaphor, but it’s something sporting.

RAY SUAREZ: Yes, but part of the whole business has been traditionally pointing out dysfunction.

ROBERT DRAPER: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: How do they contribute to it?

ROBERT DRAPER: Yes.

Well, they contribute to the dysfunction because they encourage people to — they view everything through a political lens, not through the grimy lens of policy-making. Everything is about who is up, who is down, who had the better week, whether or not this is abetting their 2016 presidential ambitions.

The press has — the press has always been viewed as a cynical institution, but now it’s deeply so. It barely even makes a passing reference to policy-making in its coverage of political figures in Washington.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, you write about a celebritized culture, and not only from people who are on TV and make millions of dollars doing so.

MARK LEIBOVICH: Right, like all of us, right.

RAY SUAREZ: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: But people who work in public service and become kind of celebrities too. Is that new?

MARK LEIBOVICH: Right.

It’s new in that new media is new. It’s new in that Twitter is new. It’s new in that Facebook is new. And I do think that, look, I think we are in a business now as journalists in which the gold standard has become punditry, as opposed to reporting.

If you can be outrageous, if you can have a better shouting match on TV, if you can have a more attention-getting blog, you are probably in a better place. You’re in a better place to succeed, to make money than other people. And, frankly, it’s part of a larger phenomenon in politics today, in which Washington and the political class really does very, very well when nothing gets done.

RAY SUAREZ: So, does that explain why — and the three of us could probably make a list with 20 or 30 names on it of very well-known elected officials who have no singular legislative achievement…

MARK LEIBOVICH: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: … no law that bears their name, no linchpin moment in history to which they contributed, but they’re famous.

MARK LEIBOVICH: Absolutely. Fame itself has become the defining imperative.

I mean, look at the 2012 Republican race for president, for instance. You could argue that Michele Bachmann, for instance, to go back to sort of Robert’s congressional space, is not exactly a pillar of great achievement in the House, but she became very, very famous as sort of a cable person, as a staple in the conversation.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERT DRAPER: And the flip side, on the Democratic side, Anthony Weiner, who has been in the news a lot.

MARK LEIBOVICH: Exactly. 

ROBERT DRAPER: Anthony Weiner was known as a talking head during the health care debate and thereafter. But he had no legislative achievement to speak of, in fact, was basically an outcast in the Democratic Caucus, did very little to lift — to help either showing up to committee meetings, crafting legislation.

But he was known for being himself. He was known for being a talking head, being a…

(CROSSTALK)

RAY SUAREZ: Your most recent book talks about the Tea Party specifically. And in there and around there, sort of in orbit of the Tea Party, are a lot of public figures who point with pride to all the things that haven’t been able to get done, thanks to me.

ROBERT DRAPER: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a new yardstick, isn’t it?

ROBERT DRAPER: Sure. Well, yes, because the unit of measurement, I think, that Democrats traditionally use is how many bills were passed.

And for the freshman class of the 112th Congress, who are now in their — sophomores, the ones who are still around, anyway, they say that’s not the right way to measure things. Government has already regulated too much. It’s already passing too many spending bills. The less, the better. So, their view is that obstructionism is precisely what they ought to be doing. Gridlock is a good thing.

RAY SUAREZ: So, where does that leave us now? Can we run a big, complicated, continent-size country with a lot of needs using this cast of characters?

MARK LEIBOVICH: This is the part of the conversation where I put on my “I’m just a reporter, I hold a mirror to the culture” hat.

It’s a little — I need to shorten the name of…

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERT DRAPER: It’s the part where I defer to Mark.

MARK LEIBOVICH: Yes. No, I think…

RAY SUAREZ: We will come up with an acronym.

MARK LEIBOVICH: No.

But, I mean, look, Robert and I, neither of us have chapters at the end of our books in which we lay out 10 bullet points on how we can make Washington work better, how we can make Congress work better.

Ultimately, though, I think, clearly, there is a level of great dissatisfaction in the country with how business is and is not getting done in Washington. And it’s in great disconnect with how good people in Washington seem to be feeling about themselves and how successful inside-the-Beltway people have become.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Leibovich, Robert Draper, thank you both.

MARK LEIBOVICH: Thanks, Ray.

ROBERT DRAPER: Pleasure.

RAY SUAREZ: Next week, we will speak with people who have portrayed the nation’s capital on the big screen, on television, and in novels to get their interpretation of governing in today’s Washington.