Six Good Books About How Washington Works

From a Washingtonian story headlined “30 Essential Books About Washington”:

This Town, by Mark Leibovich
In theory, Mark Leibovich’s report from glittering post-recession Washington could have been a you’ll-never-eat-lunch-in-this-town-again moment for the writer. After all, his book—a combination of reporting, anthropology, and comic slicing and dicing—skewered people by name, hitting everything from how they threw parties to how they made money to how they mourned. But what would be the fun in that? If there’s anything Leibovich’s insidery depictions of status-seeking and celebrification taught, it’s that a guy whose book became a meme would never go hungry in #thistown.

Six years later, though, the evisceration feels more like That Town, a dispatch from a zany foreign country. In other words, it has joined an illustrious list of books that absolutely nailed some aspect of how Washington works, only to find themselves overtaken by events. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) delivered a searing portrait of Ivy League types whose prescriptions for Southeast Asia went unquestioned. Thanks in part to Vietnam, such CVs don’t go quite so unquestioned anymore. Hedrick Smith’s The Power Game (1988) shone a light on behind-the-scenes media advisers and their hidden arts. Thirty years on, those arts are no longer so hidden.

And Leibovich’s chummy old swamp full of oblivious partygoers? Uh . . . that’s so six years ago. Of course, none of that means there’s no utility to yesteryear’s how-it-works bestsellers. Journalism becomes history pretty fast—and this is awfully entertaining history. So if, say, you’re wondering how Hillary Clinton’s circle never saw it coming, you’d find worse places to turn.
—Michael Schaffer

All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. “This helped change journalism—you, too, could be as rich and famous as Woodward and Bern­stein—and was a great book.”
—Jack Limpert

Parliament of Whores, by P.J. O’Rourke. “I reread this once a year. It’s still sharp as a newly stropped straight razor. And a lot funnier.”
—Christopher Buckley, whose novels include Thank You for Smoking

Strange Justice, by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson.“The authors reconstruct the lurid farce of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation, with details such as the scene where attorney Fred Cooke Jr. ‘thought it pretty amusing to run into the chair-man of the EEOC . . . standing with a triple X videotape entitled The Adventures of Bad Mama Jama.’”
—Sasha Issenberg

Washington, by Meg Greenfield. A sly dissection of the capital—home to “the fatal, ever-present . . . temptation: disappearance into the abstract, bloodless, phony, self-inflating world of endless competitive image projection”—and an insightful account of one journalist’s journey through that land.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Marjorie Williams. Part profiles of such figures as Bill Clinton and Al Gore (“Scenes From a Marriage”), part essays culminating in the award-winning “Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir,” it’s a lesson in writing about Washington life, public and intimately private.


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