BOB GARFIELD: It will surprise you, not at all, to know that the seat of our national government, putting aside all the Greek columns and heroic statuary, is just a garish circus of vanity, posturing, lying, self-dealing and professional incest. That the media and the political class have formed an unholy alliance is also not news.
Enter, though, Mark Leibovich, Chief National Correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, who had the temerity, and the access, to document the sordidness in all its delicious and repulsive detail. His best-selling book, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—plus plenty of valet parking!—in America's Gilded Capital, is like a cell phone camera sneaked into an orgy, as in “OMG, is that Andrea Mitchell? Ooh!” Mark, welcome back to On the Media.
MARK LEIBOVICH: That’s the single best introduction I have had since this book has come out. And I don’t mean that just in the suck-up city context.
BOB GARFIELD: You begin with the funeral of the late Meet the Press host, Tim Russert. And what a tableau. [LAUGHS] Describe this scene.
MARK LEIBOVICH: I was struck, in June of 2008, on this very solemn occasion when the person I called the, “the mayor of official Washington,” Tim Russert dies, this pageant of a funeral that was held in his honor just became this cocktail party in which everyone was throwing business cards around, people were networking and doing very, very well to make sure that they were placed diplomatically before the cameras, so that they could mourn better than their peers. So yes, this was my jumping off point, and it was – became a five-year anthropology of the Washington political class of which the media is a big part.
BOB GARFIELD: The universe you describe in this town has, in some ways, always existed. Vanity, hypocrisy and corruption are not new to Washington, DC. But, if I understand your book right, they have been supercharged by, of all things, cable television.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Well, among other things. I mean, I think cable was probably one of the first revolutionary entities back in the, I guess, early ‘90s, back in the Clinton days. It sort of gave everyone a face, it sort of expanded the population celebrity operatives and, and people who could just dine out on their own telegenic brands. What is supercharged about this is that we are living in an era in Washington of incomparable wealth. This is now the wealthiest community in the United States. There is more money in politics, more money in just sort of the political class than there ever has been. New media has made easy second acts, easy fame, sort of cheap notoriety easier than ever, and also the celebrification of politics, all of which has sort of conjoined at a time when Barack Obama was coming to town, sort of creating his own celebrity ecosystem, and, and here we are.
BOB GARFIELD: Another tent pole in this town is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that used to be a, a standalone affair, where politicians and the people who cover them rubbed shoulders for one evening, leaving the press feeling slightly awkward but also slightly self-important. But the [LAUGHS] – the event you describe in this book has just metastasized into this preening excess.
MARK LEIBOVICH: A single banquet is no longer sufficient, Bob, to celebrate the full achievements of the political media. It now must take place over a five-day period in which we have two dozen or so pre-parties, after parties, tens of millions of dollars spent on entertainment and food and all that fun stuff, and all kinds of press coverage spent on the press. I mean, it’s journalists congratulating journalists about their journalism, right? So I think this is a classic metaphor for the media and also Washington in general’s inability to control itself, and knowing something is grotesque and horrific and a joke, and yet, just amping it up. And I mean, I think it's the perfect example of the bubble world this has become and, frankly, the decadence that has prevailed here.
BOB GARFIELD: The book is very gossipy. Lobbyist Ken Duberstein gets especially rough treatment. Lobbyist and ex-Senator Evan Bayh is one of many portrayed as a hypocrite, liar and public servant of easy virtue. Terry McAuliffe, now running for Governor of Virginia, just gets eviscerated. Your old Washington Post colleague Howie Kurtz, now of Fox News, comes off as just a total blowhard. NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who you don’t actually say anything nasty about, but who appears again and again in the book with her husband, Alan Greenspan, former Fed chairman, is portrayed as a socialite who the reader can only conclude cannot possibly conduct journalism at arm’s length.
MARK LEIBOVICH: She is emblematic of a figure in Washington whose social life, whose professional life, whose personal life overlaps so seamlessly that you, you wonder where the boundaries are, where the barriers are.
Now, I also must say, Bob, that because I work for the New York Times and because I’m a respectable journalist, I, I shy away from the term “gossip.” Everything –
You know, whether about Evan Bayh or Terry McAuliffe or, I mean, this is all – this is all up to the standards of the New York Times. It's all –
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's just go with character assassination.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yeah, I’m sure that’s fine.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah.
There, there are two media figures in the book who play outsized roles in the, the ecosystem. One of them is a sort of Internet age Walter Winchell, Politico blogger Mike Allen. Tell me about Mike.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Well, he works at Politico, which is this website that I do think has revolutionized the political and the media conversation in this town. Mike writes Playbook, which is this morning email tip sheet that goes out to about 100,000 influencers, people in politics, people on the staff, people in media, bookers, and so forth. And basically, Mikey’s newletter - and he is known as “Mikey” in the sort of somewhat infantilized boyish perpetual high school way of ours - that he has this outsized role in setting the daily agenda, in figuring out what the talk shows will talk about, what might be on tomorrow's front pages or on the evening news and, in a sense, has a very Internet age role that is maybe analogous to what the front page of the New York Times might have had about 20 years ago.
BOB GARFIELD: Another key figure in your book is somebody who I’m sure 99.9 percent of America has never heard of. Who is Tammy Haddad?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Tammy is a longtime producer for Larry King Live. She went on to work for Chris Matthews. And then she kind of reinvented herself to be this full-service convener of the new media Washington. Washington has always had, you know, party hostess, party convener types, people who get the A list together. What’s distinct about Tammy is that she has become a very, very successful businesswoman and she has contracted her services out to a number of media organizations, who pay her a good amount of money to do whatever it is she does, whether it's some video component, whether it's hosting events, whether it’s putting people together.
And one of the things she's been able to do for people is get them access to the White House. So I, I did profile Tammy both as a singular and sort of original character in the modern Washington but also someone who very, very deftly has insinuated herself into an administration that said that they would absolutely reject all traditional forms of influence peddling, of access peddling. And that, in a sense, has been part of her, her value proposition.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the town you describe has reporters and pols constantly at the same parties, exchanging not only air kisses but also favors and considerations and generally conducting themselves, not as adversaries but as members of the same club. And yet, Mark - and I know this is a question you prepared yourself to answer probably before you wrote the first word - you could not have written this book yourself, if you were not one of “them.” You attend the parties, you extend some courtesies, you get book deals. So are you part of the solution or are you part of the problem?
MARK LEIBOVICH: I am absolutely an insider. I work for a major news organization. I would say that I am not invited to these because I am Mark Leibovich, charming, good-looking figure. I am invited because I work for the New York Times, and many people obviously think it’s in their self-interest to be dealing with me or to have me in their rooms, for whatever reason. I do have to be transparent about this, though. I mean, this is where I live, this is the life I’ve chosen to lead. I’m a political reporter. And yeah, maybe it did color my view a little bit, but I think it also gave me a kind of institutional knowledge that served me well. Ultimately, this book has been uncomfortable for me, in many ways. I mean, it’s made a lot of people uncomfortable. I think a lot of people are probably trashing me behind my back.
One criticism has been that I violated an unwritten rule in which insiders should not speak critically of other insiders. I will plead totally guilty to that.
BOB GARFIELD: This Town is a bestseller, which is a good thing because it does expose the, the vanity and the posturing and the lying and the self-dealing and the professional incest earlier referred to. Is there any chance in the world that anything you have written will have a material change, at all, on business as usual in our nation’s capital?
MARK LEIBOVICH: This, this is a book that does not have the chapter at the end in which I lay out the ten clean bullet points in which – how we can make the capital work better and, you know, how I, I come out for campaign finance reform or a third party candidate or overhauling all the media, or something.
One of the things that, frankly, disappointed me about this book is that I actually thought it would start a more animated conversation, even an argument, inside of town, that there would actually be an occasion and someone would actually have their back up and someone would defend this way of life. And no one has. I mean, there’s - there's been this level of, yeah, he's right, wow, don’t we feel dirty, and like when’s the next party? I mean, to be honest with you, if, if this book gets me invited to fewer, you know, brunches or book parties, I, I think that’s a positive unintended consequence.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Leibovich is the Chief National Correspondent for the New York Times Magazine. His new book is titled, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—plus plenty of valet parking!—in America's Gilded Capital.
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And I guess I should mention because, of course, I’ve known and lunched with Mark for –
MARK LEIBOVICH: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - 16 years.