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Inside the D.C. bubble – stupid, slimy, savvy

Of all the "mistakes" by The Washington Post's owners that led to the once iconic newspaper's sale for a relative song, perhaps the stupidest was the 2007 decision not to invest in the start-up that went on to eat the Post's lunch in its bread-and-butter business of capital reporting.

If Watergate turned Post journalists into stars, the paper eventually became a victim of the local celebrity culture it helped create. No news outlet embodies, perpetuates and profits from this culture more than Politico, the start-up founded by two former Post reporters six years ago.

Politico's business model lies not in pursuing high-minded Watergate-style journalism or even beating the Post in circulation or unique Web visitors. Fewer than 40,000 copies of its free print edition are distributed on the streets of Washington. Its content is aimed squarely at "The Club."

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In a new insider account of Washington, Mark Leibovich explains how The Club consists of the "spinning cabal of people in politics and media and the supporting sectors that never get voted out or term-limited or, God forbid, decide on their own that it is time to return home to the farm."

The journalists, lobbyists, political consultants, White House aides, Capitol Hill staffers, socialites and persons-of-no-fixed-profession Mr. Leibovich profiles in This Town embody just about everything despicable about the D.C. bubble. If many of these people arrive in Washington with the best intentions, they soon lose any notion of the public interest.

People "become defined by their proximity to other people" and "self-pimping" becomes "the prevailing social and business imperative," writes Mr. Leibovich, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and self-confessed member of The Club. "Over time, people achieve a psychic fusion to their public personas and their professional networks. The essence of self becomes lost, subsumed in a flurry of Playbook mentions and high-level name-drops."

Playbook is the daily D.C. cheat sheet. Compiled by Politico's Mike Allen, it summarizes the top news stories, parties, lobbying and book deals, staff changes, birthdays and nuptials of interest to The Club. And no one solicits mentions in Playbook – whose main corporate sponsor of late has been Keystone XL pipeline proponent TransCanada – as covetously as Robert Barnett.

Mr. Barnett is a "superlawyer/dealmaker," according to This Town – the "doorman to the revolving door." He got the Clintons a combined $18-million (U.S.) advance for their respective memoirs. He got Sarah Palin "well into eight figures" in book, speaking and television fees.

Barack Obama and his entourage, Mr. Leibovich reports, do not like Mr. Barnett. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe found him "obsequious" and initially spurned Mr. Barnett's bid to join Mr. Obama's transition team. Yet, Mr. Plouffe still turned to Mr. Barnett to negotiate his reported seven-figure deal to write a book on the 2008 campaign. And, oh yes, in between the campaign and his gig as White House senior adviser, Mr. Plouffe worked as a "consultant" for Boeing and General Electric.

This Town calls Mr. Barnett "a signifier of Washington's special tolerance for conflict of interest." But, boy, does he have company. Take Michael Froman, a former chief of staff to Clinton-era treasury secretary Robert Rubin. Mr. Froman served on the Obama transition team while he was a managing director at Citigroup. That would be the same bank Mr. Obama bailed out weeks later.

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Mr. Leibovich's book is full of stories of Obama acolytes who campaigned on changing the way Washington works but rushed to cash in on their White House connections. Mr. Obama himself comes off better, "immune to the neediness that afflicts so many politicians." He won't go into withdrawal when he leaves the White House, unlike the Clintons, who left in 2001 and have been trying to get back ever since.

Yet, the same self-sufficiency that makes Mr. Obama the only adult in This Town also helps to explain his ineffectiveness in a capital where even presidents have to grovel if they want to get things done. "Sucking up," Mr. Leibovich explains, "is as basic to Washington as humidity."

Mr. Leibovich has taken some flak for betraying members of The Club. As one anonymous clubber protested in Politico: "He's at every single party and now he takes the knife out?" But in truth, no one is really that upset.

"It is clear that Politico and Playbook are portrayed as enablers of the culture Leibovich lampoons," Mr. Allen and Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei wrote in a prebuttal to This Town. But "operatives exposed as too compromised or too cozy or too crazy often profit from the attention. What strikes outsiders as slimy is often seen as savvy here."

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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