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Frary: This Town and Olympia Snowe

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A new best seller, This Town, by Mark Leibovich presents some interesting points of comparison with Senator Olympia Snowe’s Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress. Leibovich, The New York Times Magazine Washington correspondent, makes only one passing comment about the bipartisan divide that troubles Olympia. He quotes Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who explained that the “power of anxiety, worry and fear leads politicians in contemporary Washington to cling to the safest, most conventional methods of staying in power.” Easiest among those methods is the embrace of rigid partisanship which, as the senator tells him, “usually signals a deeper faith in careerism than in conservatism or liberalism.’”

Liberal and conservative voters alike may want to consider Coburn’s observation when choosing their political heroes.

Senator Snowe’s understanding of the role of careerism in the partisan stalemate is unclear. In some places her book treats ideological divisions as a congressional phenomenon alien to the sentiments of the voters. In others she seems to argue that isolating congressmammals from the ideological bases of their respective parties is a solution to the divisions.

There was a period, when Senator Snowe was building up her campaign treasury and everyone expected her to run for reelection, that she was clearly reaching out to the GOP right-wing. I attended a meeting in Auburn whose guests included Tea Party activists from Franklin County and an outspoken member of the Religious Right. While she set out to explain her votes and stands on the issues in terms of what might be called legislative craftsmanship, many of her listeners were trying to elicit her views on the constitutional limits on the power of the federal government. As an experienced and expert legislator she was intent on explaining the “process.” They wanted an explanation of the principles that governed the process. Although some questions were a little prickly, the tone was restrained, but no common ground emerged.

This Town does not feature Washington’s ideological divisions. It resembles an anthropological study of Washington’s community of movers, shakers, consultants, influence peddlers and lobbyists. Its general tone is revealed by a couple of chapter titles: “The Roach Motel of Power,” and “Suck-Up City”.  Leibovich explains that “This Town imposes on its actors a reflex toward devious and opportunistic behavior, and also a tendency to care more about public relations than any other aspect of their professional lives—and maybe even personal lives.” Remove the ideological conflicts and what remains are “…the capital commandments of self-interests, self-importance, self-enrichment and self-perpetuation.”

There is some space for arguments from principle and ideology in Washington, but the author lists this as but one factor among many others—“Winning here means winning people over—sometimes by argument, sometimes by craft, sometimes by obsequiousness and favors, sometimes by pressure and sometimes by a chest-thumping, ape-type show of strength that makes it seem prudent to get with the ape’s program.”

Accept Leibovich’s description of what goes on among our federal masters and you must conclude that a non-ideological “common ground” will remain a hideous mess which fully justifies popular disgust with Washington.

The book jacket includes this notice: “WARNING: This Town does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book.” As you might expect, few members of the book’s cast of characters come out very well. I’ve read the book with care and can report that Maine’s congressional delegation comes out unscarred by Leibovich’s acerbic wit. Representatives Pingree and Michaud are not mentioned at all. Senator Snowe appears only in connection with the career of a young go-getter named Kurt Bardella who sought advice from George Stephanopoulos, i.e., “Kurt was thinking about taking a job in the Senate office of Olympia Snowe ….George offered the advice that, given Snowe’s exotic position as one of the last moderate Republicans on the Hill, she would be an object of press attention—and thus a visible place for a press aide to land.” The lad took the job, grew bored after a year, and moved back to the House to get a job with Rep. Darryl Issa. Olympia then disappears from the narrative.

Senator Collins appears only as the source of a quote about Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s crass horse-trading, undiluted by any pretense of principle. Although it’s not really mean to any one, Common Ground does not contradict this impression of Sen. Reid as a man motivated more by power than principle.

In Olympia’s book Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) and John Breaux (D-Louisiana) are repeatedly spoken of as exemplars of genial bipartisanship, who worked with our senator to achieve common ground on various issues. Interestingly, the Democratic leader shares her warm feelings. Leibovich tells us “Harry Reid loves Lott: he views him as just the deal-maker pragmatist today’s Senate craves.  ‘I miss Trent Lott,’ Reid is always saying.”

This Town’s author seems to respect both Reid and Lott in a way. Both fought their way up from obscurity and poverty and neither hides their motivations. “Washington is where the money is,” Olympia’s good friend tells him. “That’s generally what keeps people here.” When Lott first became majority leader in 1996, Sen. Coburn talked to him about a government reform initiative, but Trent wasn’t interested. He replied that there would be plenty of time for that after Election Day. Coburn: “Trent was essentially saying that staying in office was more important to him than anything else. It was amazing to me that he would actually say that.”

NB: Coburn didn’t say Lott’s priority amazed him. What amazed him was hearing it stated openly.

Breaux, when he was one of Olympia’s colleagues in the House, once declared that although his vote could not be bought, it could be rented, and when a colleague denounced him as a “cheap whore,” he protested that he was not “cheap.”

After they left the Senate, Trent Lott and John Breaux formed a bipartisan lobbying partnership that earned $11,000,000 in 2011. After all, “I lived on a fixed income for thirty-nine years, Lott told [Leibovich], referring to the top tax bracket salaries he earned over four decades in the House and Senate. He had big staffs and many perks and two homes. But he was never rich.”

Olympia mentions Coburn only as a colleague with whom the moderates had to negotiate to achieve compromise on an expenditure bill he was blocking. She says nothing critical about him. Harry Reid, who shares her approval of Lott has a different view. According to Leibovich: “Coburn has been a favorite target of Harry Reid, whose office has (among other things) accused him of being a racist because he wanted to offset funding for the Justice Department to investigated hate crimes and of not caring about feeding the Little Children lethal food.”

This is not surprising since Reid refers to members of the Tea Party as “evil-mongers”. Newsweek has described the Oklahoma senator as the “spiritual godfather” of the movement. David Sirota, the Central Maine Newspapers’ silliest columnist, scorns him as an “arch-conservative demagogue.”

And his brings us to the most surprising feature of Leibovich’s book. Senator Coburn is the only person featured in his book whom he treats with respect. Everyone else is served up with a sauce of scorn or skepticism but this conservative is spared both. The New York Times reporter quotes him extensively and almost all his remarks support Leibovich’s own views of the works and days of the This-Townies. At some points it’s hard to decide who’s talking.

None of the liberal sources who praise This Town—The Daily Kos, The New York Times, The New Republic, New York magazine, The Washington Post, Salon.com, Slate.com, Buzzfeed, Politico and Margaret Carlson on Bloomberg—seem to have noticed.

I’m not saying Leibovich is a covert conservative. His ideology is liberal, but he’s an entertaining and perceptive writer and gives a very different view of the common ground that actually prevails in Washington than a reader gets from Common Ground.

About the aftermath of BP’s Deep Horizon oil spill he writes “Washington becomes a determinedly bipartisan team when there is money to be made—sorry, I mean a hopeful exemplar of Americans pulling together in a time of crisis.” Here he shows This Town’s BoodleSphere springing into action; with the oil company “moving to secure every Republican and Democratic flack and lobbyist they could soak up to help with their ‘positioning’ problem.”

Common ground indeed!

Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former US Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia, http://fraryhomecompanion.com/ and can be reached at: jfrary8070@aol.com 

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