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Political Best-Seller Fuels Washington’s Favorite Hobby: Self-Regard

New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich on the surprising reaction to his new book, and why his rabbi told him not to worry

Batya Ungar-Sargon
August 02, 2013
(Erik Mace)
(Erik Mace)

In the run-up to last month’s publication of This Town, a chronicle of contemporary Washington society, the veteran political journalist Mark Leibovich found himself worrying about the potential for blowback from the sources, friends, and neighbors he planned to portray in his book. “I just felt in a very vulnerable position,” he said this week. “A lot can go wrong in 110,000 words, and that’s sort of my character anyway, just to be neurotic about things. I knew that I was going to piss some people off.”

It turns out Leibovich needn’t have worried. He’s at the top of the best-seller lists, and he’s been the subject of endless dinner-party conversations and email threads relaying gossipy tidbits from the book’s pages. The publisher deliberately omitted an index—“Warning,” reads the dust jacket, “those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book”—prompting the Washington Post to compile its own unauthorized, and widely re-tweeted, guide. Which just proves that Leibovich may have been more right about the pervasive narcissism of contemporary Washington than even he could have imagined. “The level of self-celebration is striking and perverse,” he said.

Leibovich describes a Washington inhabited by a “permanent feudal class”—a phrase he attributes to Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma. “It’s not Democrats, it’s not Republicans, it’s just a class,” Leibovich elaborated. “Journalists are part of it. Lobbyists are part of it. Hangers-on and wannabes are part of it.” This class, like every other ruling class, has one primary aim toward which all efforts strive: staying in power, by any means necessary. Rather than devoting themselves to the political objectives they were elected to pursue, the only goals any of Leibovich’s characters recognize are fame, power, money, and being at the center of the center. Indeed, the game has grown so sophisticated that partisan gridlock has become just another narrative arc playing out in the spectacle of politics—and another way for the ruling class to generate fame and wealth, via endless talk-show appearances and speaking engagements.

The son of a retired Argentine-born psychiatrist, Leibovich may be both more attuned to the failings of his adopted hometown and more qualified to analyze its denizens. “To cover politics in Washington allows you to live in the very, very wide gap between what the actual truth is, and how people are trying to manipulate the truth,” he says. “They speak in the language of spin, obsequiousness, obfuscation. The meta of politics is just this endless source of material that can shed light on the psychology of the process.” But when I asked him if his father’s vocation shaped his perspective on politics, Leibovich referenced another influence altogether: his rabbi. “I don’t normally do this, but I sat down with the rabbi of the shul we go to, and we were talking about how to deal with the chaos, the uncertainty of dealing with a status-conscious congregation, whether we’re talking about a religious congregation, or a congregation of readers, of the New York Times or of a book like this, in Washington,” Leibovich said. “He said to me: Look, what you have to remember is everyone is on their journey to truth.”

It’s become something of a mantra for Leibovich. Everything in his Washington is personal, nothing political. At its heart, the book is about the radical and devastating disconnect between the people tasked with running the government and the electorate they purportedly represent. “I was hoping that I could, with this book, flesh out what the disconnect looked like, rather than just speak of it, because people always talk about how ‘Washington is out of touch,’ ‘Washington is dysfunctional,’ or ‘Washington is gridlocked,’ ” he said. “People tend to talk about it in terms of abstractions, and I wanted to really draw it out and put some Technicolor on it.”

What’s surprised him most, he said, is that no one has challenged his underlying premise about Washington’s deep-seated issues. Leibovich put Washington on the couch, and Washington seems to love it. Rather than take him to task for exposing them, the players in his book love the publicity. “I’ve gotten emails from people who are not portrayed well in the book—former senators, former congressmen, people who have been here a long time, who are sending me far more humble emails than I would have expected,” he said. “I was hoping, or expecting, that someone would make some kind of argument for why it’s not as bad as I say, or why there’s more nobility than I describe, or why I’m not such a bad guy, not me personally, but why senator X who’s now lobbyist X is now multi-gazillionaire X.” He trailed off. “For all the noise there’s been about the book,” he reflected, “I’ve been much more almost stunned by the silence from the sectors that should have their backs up a little bit.”

The only quibble he’s heard, he said, is from people who thought the first rule of the Washington insiders club is that you don’t talk about the Washington insiders club. But he was prepared for that. Leibovich opened his book with a Yiddish proverb: “Who discovered water? I don’t know, but it wasn’t a fish.” “I’m a fish, everyone here is a fish,” he told me. “If you’re gonna be a fish, you’re gonna get wet.” And he’s been swimming in the shark tank a long time: A Boston native who cut his journalistic teeth in California, he spent nine years as a reporter for the Post before moving to the Times, where he is national political correspondent for the paper’s weekly magazine. The rabbi he sought advice from? Gil Steinlauf, who heads Washington’s Conservative Adas Israel congregation—a synagogue known for attracting the city’s top Jewish power players, from members of Congress to Israeli ambassadors. “It’s hard to remember that you’re swimming in a kind of weird water, so in a way, there is a thrill to pick out the things that make this water particularly rarefied, unique, polluted, whatever you want to call it,” Leibovich said when asked about the pleasures of exposing the wretched doings he so eloquently brings to life.

Being an insider with an outsider’s point of view was crucial for writing the book, Leibovich said. “I always prided myself on being apart from the ruling class. I think it’s always important, not just in Washington but in life, to be able to able to balance your sense of belonging with what it’s like to be someone who doesn’t belong,” he said. And like any good whistle-blower, he prides himself on the justice of his cause. “The shaming of Washington, insofar as it is even possible, is a very noble pursuit,” he told me.

When asked if there is hope for Washington, Leibovich chuckled. “Yeah, why not? I mean, I sort of say that glibly, and I think it’s intentionally glib. The American system is a beautiful and durable thing, but flawed,” he told me. “I would like to think that this decadence is not sustainable, whether in the eyes of the electorate or the eyes of whatever the local economy is built on; that would bring me hope.” And—finally: “America does seem to endure.”


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Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.