Washington Insider

Mark Leibovich and the Preening Egos of ‘This Town’

The veteran Washington reporter skewers the denizens of ‘America’s gilded capital’ in his much-hyped new book, This Town. He tells Lloyd Grove about why he did it, and how he’s preparing for the backlash.

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Mark Leibovich’s dishy exposé of Washington, D.C., This Town, won’t be out officially for a few days yet, so he’s bracing himself for complaints and critiques from the denizens of the place he calls “Suck-Up City.”

“There have been a few emails and voicemails, relying on tidbits they may have read in reviews,” said the New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent, whose book jacket flashes a red-inked WARNING that “This Town does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book.” Which didn’t stop The Washington Post from securing an early copy and publishing a comprehensive “unauthorized” index.

“There are many, many thin-skinned folks,” Leibovich continued. “I’ve heard from some of them. But I will probably get the full cannon fire when they read the whole thing.”

And yet, the most notable reaction so far has come from someone who isn’t even in the book: longtime Washington lobbyist and spin doctor Lanny Davis, a Bill and Hillary Clinton devotee since their days at Yale Law School together.

“Just ordered your book on Amazon after being certain, reading the Post’s version of the index, that I didn’t make the cut. Whew!” Davis wrote in an email to Leibovich. “Return favor—you didn’t make my cut either,” he added, an apparent reference to a volume Davis once wrote about public relations crisis management. “I suppose part of me (the masochistic part) wanted to read what people who hate [two politicians whom Davis supported] would have said about me.”

The email (part of which Davis agreed to let me publish, with the tactful redactions above), exemplifies a peculiarly Washington style of communication—by turns flattering, calculated, unashamedly self-referential and perhaps a teensy bit disingenuous—much like the strange little burg where Leibovich lives and works, though it should also be noted that This Town is populated by power- and money-mad egomaniacs and phonies who care little for the simple folk they were sent to serve.

The 48-year-old Leibovich, who has spent 16 years in the nation’s capital, chronicling its personalities and folkways for the Post before joining the Times in 2006, is fully prepared for some unpleasant encounters at the odd Georgetown cocktail party or two.

“I’m not worried about the people I consider real friends,” he said. “But there is definitely an occupational hazard to being a reporter in Washington, especially when you occasionally divulge the secret handshake. Because you’re going to run into those people. Sure, there will be moments of social awkwardness. I will always try to smile. Hopefully, there will be no physical harm to me.”

He’s kidding, of course. Nobody of position in Suck-Up City, and certainly nobody with any hope of position, would dare manhandle a prominent journalist from the nation’s most powerful news outlet. More likely, they will smile, clap him on the back and remain “cordial” (which, as Leibovich explains in his book, is a Washington code word for the purest hate).

Among those who come in for less than gentle, i.e. cordial, treatment is Meet The Press moderator David Gregory, whom Leibovich describes (recounting “the internal belief” of Gregory’s colleagues at NBC News) as “overly ambitious, excessively full of himself, and unworthy of ‘the chair.’ ” According to Leibovich, Matt Lauer once joked to a coworker: “If I end up floating dead in the Hudson River, there will be two suspects: my wife and David Gregory.” An NBC News spokeswoman didn’t respond to my request for comment, though correspondent and anchor Andrea Mitchell, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan's wife (who comes off rather well in the book), told me briskly: “There are a lot of important things to worry about, and that’s not one of them.”

Not surprisingly, Leibovich is scheduled to launch his publicity tour this Sunday on one of MTP’s rivals, ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos.

Gregory happens to be the successor to the late Tim Russert, whom Leibovich labels the unofficial “mayor” of This Town. Russert collapsed and died at NBC’s Washington bureau in June 2008, a victim of coronary thrombosis at age 58. The book is subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital,” and Russert’s memorial service at the Kennedy Center was a state occasion at which tout Washington mourned, the major-party presidential candidates sat side by side, and Bruce Springsteen performed by satellite feed after President Bush and first lady Laura Bush spent 45 minutes at the family wake. The memorial serves as Leibovich’s opening scene: a garish carnival of preening, posing and predatory networking.

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“A new low, even for Washington tackiness,” the author quotes MSNBC Morning Joe anchor Mika Brzezinski as she surveys the spectacle. At one point a cable news producer chases the Clintons down the aisle as they make their way to their seats in order to ask Hillary, the just-defeated Democratic presidential candidate, to come on her boss’s show. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” Hillary responds with a tight smile and keeps on walking. Leibovich writes: “Hillary has a memorial service to attend: the memorial service of a man she and her husband plainly despised and who they believed (rightly) despised them back.”

For the sweaty, twitching, huddled masses of Washington gossip addicts, This Town is rife with such shiny nuggets, the literary equivalent of crack:

—After Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama (but before he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor), South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham asked the Massachusetts Dem if he could inherit his lavish Capitol hideaway. Why? Kennedy wondered. “Because the Clintons are gonna kill you.”

—When Jim DeMint, Graham’s South Carolina colleague, left his Senate seat to take a job running the right-wing Heritage Foundation for a reported cool million a year, a reporter teased former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, “DeMint might be making more money than you do.” To which Dodd responded with a laugh: “No, he’s not. I checked.”

—A 33-item White House memo, titled “The Magic of Valerie,” was circulated by a press aide to offer guidance for public defenses of Valerie Jarrett, the top Obama adviser and family friend who was taking fire in various profile pieces. The best talking point: “Valerie is someone here who other people inside the building know they can trust. (Need examples.)”

—Writer and Clinton loyalist Sidney Blumenthal (an occasional contributor to Newsweek and The Daily Beast) sent Leibovich’s bosses an email accusing him of a “potential plagiarism problem” because This Town is also the title of Blumenthal’s satirical play about the Washington press corps, written in the 1990s and, the playwright complained, “prominently staged at the Washington Press Club.”

“Who knew?” Leibovich writes in the book’s epilogue, noting that both Elvis Costello and Frank Sinatra have songs of the same name. (It’s also the title of a blog written by Washingtonian magazine columnist Carol Joynt). “Admittedly my credentials are suspect because I have never had anything ‘prominently staged at the Washington Press Club,’” Leibovich writes. “Still, I feel bad to have inflicted hurt unto Blumenthal by overlooking a play that’s been forgotten by nearly everyone, in ‘this’ or any town.” Blumenthal’s retort: “It’s a more elaborate acknowledgment than I ever imagined.”

And so on and so forth.

“I think people will be fascinated by it,” writer and social doyenne Sally Quinn, wife of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, said of Leibovich’s dissection of the political and status culture in the nation’s capital. “The Republicans and the Tea Party are going to grab onto this: They’re always running against Washington even when they’re part of it; they’ll say everybody here is going to hell. All you have to do is read this book.” (Quinn, who has taken many arrows in print over the years but is treated generously in This Town, gave Leibovich permission to report for the first time that her 91-year-old husband suffers from dementia. “He said, ‘Can I put this in?’ and I said, ‘Yes, because it’s the truth.’ Ben’s not going to read it anyway.”)

Public relations executive and longtime Democratic operative Anita Dunn, a former Obama White House communications director who is also featured in This Town, said the characters may have changed, but the plot has always been much the same. “You’re asking me if Washington has changed since Henry Adams wrote probably the classic book about Washington and politics in the 1880s,” says Dunn, referring to Adams’s satirical novel Democracy. “The answer is that Washington hasn’t changed so much since Adams chronicled very similar issues, but things have amplified and move much more swiftly” because of the inexorable acceleration of the news cycle.

Leibovich, for his part, said he is trying “to hold the mirror to a culture that is very, very powerful and frankly very disappointing to a lot of the nation’s citizens. There’s a disconnect between the economic boom of this town for the last many years and the economic despair in the rest of the country, and the self-satisfaction in Washington compared to the lack of any satisfaction elsewhere. It goes from being kind of an inside joke to a bad joke to almost a perverse joke.” Leibovich added: “There’s not a lot of self-awareness in Washington, but there is a fair amount of self-loathing, because people do get the racket that this is.”