The veteran political journalist dissects his text, This Town, one of the hottest political books of the year.
Journalist Mark Leibovich
Tavis: The premise of an hilariously funny and ultimately alarming new book about how those in power in our nation’s capital really operate can be summed up, I suspect, in this phrase: Washington may not serve the country well, but it has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself.
That’s the takeaway from the new book called “This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral, Plus Plenty of Valet Parking in America’s Gilded Capital.” It is written, of course, by journalist Mark Liebovich, who is the chief national correspondent for “The New York Times” magazine and joins us tonight from, where else, this town of Washington. Mark, good to have you on the program, and congrats on the wild success of the text.
Mark Liebovich: Thanks, Tavis, it’s great to be here. I think I’m in a protected room. I think this is the only room in Washington where I’m safe anymore, (laughter) because I might get run out of town. But no, it’s been a lot of fun, especially getting to leave. But here I am, still here.
Tavis: You now famously were going to name the book, or considered naming this book “Suck-Up City.”
Tavis: You went with “This Town” instead of “Suck-Up City.” Why the change?
Liebovich: My wife thought it was a little bit crass. I’ve got young kids. I didn’t want them sort of – with such a crass phrase around there. But no, it’s a good title.
You sort of know where you stand with it, and it sort of gets to the sycophantic culture of this town, but it also gets to people come here and they kind of get sucked up in all the excitement and the vanity and the money, and all the stuff that Washington really provides for people now.
Frankly, this is a dramatically changed city, and that’s one of the things I really wanted to sort of chronicle in this five-year period that I covered in the book.
Tavis: Before I jump into the book specifically, Mark, I’m wondering whether or not the rules of engagement, for lack of a better term, that you lay out in this book for how Washington works, does that get set aside, does that get tabled at a moment of serious dilemma and drama like this, where we’re considering going to war or certainly, if not war, militarily engaging a place like Syria.
Tavis: Are the rules set aside, or can you see the rules of engagement at work even on a conversation like Syria?
Liebovich: I think I would like to think, and I think we would all like to think, that a situation this serious, especially when there’s life and death involved, people could put everything aside. But I think no.
I think you see a lot of the same political posturing, a lot of the same special interest arguing, a lot of the same grandstanding that’s become so essential to the Washington story.
So no, I think this is as political a story as any. You would think that people would look at this as a matter of conscience that really does transcend Democrats and Republicans, and also the politics of the day.
Maybe this would have been true 20, 10 years ago, but now I think we’re seeing a lot of the same politics play out.
Tavis: You mentioned special interests a moment ago. One of the things that comes through loud and clear in the book, and there’s a lot of funny in the book and I promise we’ll get to some of the funny.
But there’s a lot of serious stuff in the book as well, and your reference to special interests now reminds me that one of the strong through-lines, to my read at least, in the text is that so many of the people who used to serve in government leave and become part of the special interest group.
That is to say they become lobbyists. But the part that’s almost sick about this is that they become lobbyists, and oftentimes end up making money representing positions and viewpoints that they were opposed to when they actually served in Congress.
Liebovich: It’s true. I think a great example of this is Richard Gephardt, who was one of the leading Democrats in the House for many years. He was a big champion of the Armenian – he did some work trying to advocate for the Armenian genocide, or to condemn the Armenian genocide.
Then he went back and was doing some lobbying for the government of Turkey, and then sort of reversed himself and said, “We oppose the term ‘genocide’.” So I guess they were paying him, like, $70,000. I think at those rates, genocide goes down a little bit easier.
But no, look, I think the big divide in Washington isn’t so much Democrats and Republicans, it’s insiders and outsiders. I think once you’re in the club, whether you’re elected into it or you stay in town and you join a lobbying firm, which is going to snap up any member who’s not serving anymore, you’re in very, very good shape. So you’re an insider, and that’s a value proposition.
Tavis: So when you’re an insider, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, is the game, the contestation that we see played out in the news every day on the cable news networks, is that real or is that faux-fighting?
Liebovich: Right. Well, I think there’s a lot of faux-fighting that goes on. I think one of the overriding points of this book is that Washington does very, very well when things do not get done.
If a tax reform bill passes tomorrow, if an immigration bill passes tomorrow, that’s going to be tens of billions of dollars in lobbying fees that are not going to be paid out, or consulting fees, or shouting matches on cable.
The city in some ways thrives on disagreement, on problems not getting solved. This is good for a lot of the people here. Unfortunately, it’s not good, usually, for the citizens that the people are here to serve.
Tavis: So this storyline that we’re starting to see develop, that if the president loses on the Syria vote, it might well be because he couldn’t hold a lot of Democrats, or couldn’t get Democrats to give him the authority he’s asking for.
But this storyline that Republicans would love nothing more, this would be the ultimate slap in the face, the first president ever denied an opportunity, or a vote, I should say, to engage someplace in the world militarily. How does the issues that you’ve raised in the book play itself out in a dynamic like this?
Liebovich: Well, I do think that – really, the modus operandi of certainly a lot of the Republicans on the Hill, if not most of the Republicans on the Hill, is to defeat Barack Obama no matter what it takes.
I’m certain that the calculus of their decision is geared in some way by some kind of partisan concern about what would make the president look bad. Now look, I don’t – I do think that a foreign policy, a war or peace matter like this, is probably in a separate category. But I also think that politics are central to this conversation.
Tavis: When I say “the story line that’s developing,” obviously story lines are not developed in a vacuum or magically. There are writers like yourself who bring us these stories day in and day out.
There’s some fascinating stuff in the book about old media versus new media. I’ll let you take it from there.
Liebovich: Well look, media has changed dramatically, as you and I know. We’re in a world now where you’re rewarded for being outrageous. Punditry has replaced reporting as the gold standard of journalism.
When I was coming up and for most of my career, it was like well, what stories did you break, nice job today, you told a good story. Now the people who are doing really well and who are getting stopped in airports are the people who are going to say the more outrageous things and get on TV and state their opinion on a regular basis.
So I think that that’s a very, very big part of the industrial complex that we’re talking about. Look, Washington has always sort of, especially since Watergate, has always had a pedestal, it’s sort of an unusual pedestal, for the media.
I think that’s been sort of turbo-charged in this age of very easy platforms and Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and so forth, where everyone can be an insider.
Tavis: Speaking of Watergate, this book comes out obviously in advance of Mr. Bezos of Amazon purchasing “The Washington Post.” To use your phrase, might that change the calculus in Washington?
Liebovich: (Laughs) It might. Look, I’m sort of fascinated by that story, both as an alumnus of “The Washington Post” – I spent nine really good years there.
Liebovich: I care about the paper, I care about journalism. Jeff Bezos is an interesting guy. I don’t know – I guess the big question I would have is, is this just a hobby for Jeff Bezos? How much does he really care about this?
When you’ve got $25 billion or whatever, $250 million is not that much. I don’t speak from experience, obviously. (Laughter) But no, look, he’s an innovator; he’s been a winner in an industry.
I think it’ll be an interesting, if nothing else, collision between the new economy and what he’s built out on the West Coast, and an industry that’s really struggled here back on the East Coast.
Tavis: How much of the “news,” I put that in quotes, the “news” that we get out of Washington is really in-depth and I don’t want to say reliable. I guess I’ll just hold at “in-depth.”
How much of it is really in-depth reporting versus headlines that lead to clickthroughs? It seems to me that what people want more than anything are those ready and reliable clickthroughs, and the depth, the drill-down on the story, never mind.
Liebovich: Right. Look, that is – it’s all right there in your question, Tavis. We didn’t have the word “clickthroughs” 20 years ago, right, when we were starting out in this.
Right now it’s about what’s going to get readers’ attention, it’s going to get people, what’s going to get people to stay on their website. That in itself is usually sort of the enemy of depth and the enemy of long, nuanced, sort of gray-area reporting, which is what newspapers do.
Now obviously the media changes, the delivery systems change, but I do think that – and I think this is laid out in the book – I think the culture of the media, especially in a place like Washington, has completely been turned on its head by this ethic of speed, by this ethic of clickthroughs and sexiness and sleekness and just getting everyone’s attention.
That’s, again, that’s not what we got into the business for. We got into the business for writing good stories and hopefully being right.
Tavis: Of all the options that you had, Mark, for how to start this text, you start the tome at the funeral of the late, great, Tim Russert.
For those of us who have read the book, we get why you started with the story of the funeral of Tim Russert, but for those who have not yet read it, and there may be two or three Americans, the book is selling so well. There still may be two or three people who haven’t read the book yet. But for those –
Liebovich: There’s more than that, yeah.
Tavis: For those persons, tell us why you start with the funeral of Tim Russert.
Liebovich: Well, oh, yeah. So Tim Russert, struck down in the prime of life in 2008. He was 58 years old. His memorial service at the Kennedy Center was just this state-funeral-like event.
It was like a president had died. You had the Clintons there and the Obamas there and the McCains there and the Bushs there. The media was there, the Democrats, the Republicans – everyone was there.
It was obviously this big, solemn event. It was on live television. What I was struck by, and I knew Tim a little bit, not well, but I knew him well enough to be invited to the memorial service, I was struck by just how the thing just immediately degenerated into a cocktail party.
You had people throwing business cards around; you had people elbowing each other, trying to get on TV. You had people trying to position themselves to be Tim’s replacement on “Meet the Press,” all at his funeral.
I remember sitting there, and I had my program in front of me and I’m thinking, okay, this is like an epic Washington scene that has to be a jumping-off point for a book.
As it turned out, I hadn’t really thought through what the book would be yet, but it was a moment that I wanted to really capture, and also it became really the jumping-off point for what the last five years have been, and sort of taking us right up to President Obama’s second inauguration. It’s been a pretty formative period.
Tavis: I did know Tim pretty well, was honored to be a frequent guest on “Meet the Press” when he was alive, and considered him a friend. I hope he considered me a friend.
I say this with all due respect to Tim, but isn’t that what everybody in the media in Washington wants? If, in fact, you have to die, and I don’t know any other option; it’s going to happen for all of us.
Tavis: Don’t you want your funeral to be like a state funeral? Don’t you want to be feted; don’t you want to be toasted by presidents? Isn’t that what it’s all about in Washington, being the toast of the town, alive or dead?
Liebovich: Yes, I guess in some readings of it, that is what it’s all about, although I think if you were to ask Tim if he would have traded that for another year on the planet, he probably would have taken the latter.
I think look, one of the things about that funeral scene, and just about that whole, the carnival that I’m describing here, is no one would have found it funnier than Tim.
Tim, yes, he would have probably felt good that presidents are mourning him and paying tribute to him and so forth, but Tim got it. Tim got the whole Washington game, and he knew that for all of the tributes to him and speeches and people getting on TV to talk about him, he knew that this was all about the people left to scrape their way up the pecking order in his absence.
Tim was on to all of this, and that was, I think, one of the reasons he was so successful, but also one of the reasons his personality was so infectious.
Tavis: There’s some funny stuff – speaking of infectious, there’s a lot of funny stuff in this book. The scalp stare, the forehead stare. (Laughter) You talk about how –
Liebovich: Yeah, that’s when you’re at a party and someone’s looking over your head.
Tavis: Yeah, right.
Liebovich: This happens to me all the time, because no one wants to be talking to me, really. (Laughter) They just sort of – I start talking to them and they’ll look over my scalp, and I’ve got a big scalp here.
They’ll see who more important is in the room that they could be talking to instead of me. But no, yeah, that’s a – it happens in every city. I think it’s pretty pronounced here in D.C.
Tavis: How did you get anybody to cooperate with you for this book? Before you answer that, let me put the complete question out, because in my mind at least, I see two sides of this coin.
On the one side, if you’re in Washington and you know that Mark Liebovich is writing this book, you don’t want to be anywhere near this guy. To your point a moment ago, nobody wants to talk to you. Stay away from this guy, he’s writing a book, he’s going to expose everything about Washington, and you don’t want to be anywhere near that.
The other side of that coin is I want to talk to Mark because Mark is writing a book –
Liebovich: Yeah, I want to be in there, yeah.
Tavis: – and I want to be in the book, because it’s going to be a best seller. So how does that work?
Liebovich: Oh, I don’t know how it works. Look, people – I always thought – one of the things about Washington, and I do happen to live here, is you’ve got to choose your friends really, really carefully.
I think people – I don’t think people talk to me, or they’ve talked to me over the years because I’m such a good, charming, good-looking guy. I don’t – whether that’s true or not.
I think they do it because I work for a major news organization, and they think that it can probably be helpful to them and their business interests or their personal interest and what have you.
So look, I think that what you laid out, though, is a perfect snapshot into what we’re talking about, which is so many people just wanted to be in the book. It doesn’t matter if they’re being –
Liebovich: – embarrassed (laughter) or criticized or whatever, as long as (unintelligible).
Tavis: Just get me in that book, yeah.
Liebovich: Get me in that book so I can tell people. I can go in the bookstore, I can show my friends. No, I mean, it’s sort of funny. There was a moment where Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, a few weeks ago was actually asked in a daily briefing, “Have you read Mark’s book, have you read ‘This Town’ yet?,” and he said, “I haven’t, but I’m hoping to be invited to the book party.” (Laughter)
Of course I emailed Jay and I said, “Jay, you can come to the book party.” He said, “I can’t believe I’ve been reduced to groveling from the podium.” (Laughter) So that was a great moment. But it’s taken on a life of its own, and I don’t think it’ll impede my doing my job in any way.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. I was just about to ask – the compliment from Jay Carney notwithstanding, that’s high cotton, as my grandmother would say, when the White House press secretary is groveling for an invite from the podium –
Liebovich: Well, I don’t know if he was. I think he was kidding, but still. But I thought it was pretty funny.
Tavis: I’m sure. It was funny. But what may not be funny is how you have been treated or maltreated since the book. First of all, did you get anybody in trouble; did anybody get fired for talking to you, for cooperating with you?
Liebovich: Not that I know of. A lot of it was done in the context of other stories I was reporting over the years. A lot of these people I’ve written about for various newspapers and magazines and stuff.
But no, I haven’t been mistreated. There have been no – I’m sure people are badmouthing me. I think one of the interesting parts about the criticism has been the tenor of “how dare he.” How dare an insider speak critically about other insiders?
Because I’ve got to be honest. I live here, I work for a big newspaper, and I guess I’m an insider. I don’t have the luxury of calling myself a foreign correspondent and just swooping in and then leaving.
This is the world I write in, and I write from it willingly, and I’m pretty transparent about it. But I do think that there is this “how dare you” thing which is just bizarre, because look, I think the job of a good journalist, especially in Washington, is to create discomfort, and I think for a certain class of people, and for whom life is quite comfortable, I’ve created discomfort. So I take that as a badge of honor.
Tavis: Badge of honor, but do you expect that there might be blowback when you try to get access to folk in the future?
Liebovich: I don’t think so. First of all, I’ve done a lot of tough stories over the years. I’ve done a lot of profiles over the years that have not always been, shall we say, helpful for the person who is being written about.
It never really has shut any doors. I think as long as you’re straight with people, as long as you honor ground rules, as long as you serve your readers, you’re going to get the door opened for you.
But now I haven’t actually seen any at all. I’ve heard a few things, but nothing that really alarms me.
Tavis: When you’re going to write a book like this, how involved does your employer in your case, now “The New York Times,” how much do they want to know, how much risk do they want to be exposed to?
Liebovich: Yeah, that –
Tavis: What does your employer say to you when you want to write a tell-all like this?
Liebovich: That’s a great question. It’s funny, no one’s asked me that question, and it’s a really good and I think core question.
They wanted to see it. I think editors up the chain wanted to see the manuscript before it went out. They wanted to know if there was anything objectionable there, because I would have given them veto rights because they basically – they’re my employer.
They were amazingly supportive. They gave me a lot of time to do it, they backed me a lot in some of the not controversies, but they have always been very, very helpful.
Jill Abramson, the editor, the executive editor, she read it. She has been really, really great. So yeah, but look, this is one of those books, it’s not a book about the Grover Cleveland administration. It’s not like a piece of sort of discrete history.
This is a sort of ongoing, somewhat not explosive, but definitely a book that people are nervous about, and I let them see what they wanted to see. But they were generally, actually across the board, terrifically supportive.
Tavis: There’s a great notion, a great line, referencing the text, that you know you have made it in this town, you know you’ve made it in this town when you can use the word “impact” as a verb. (Laughter)
Liebovich: Yeah, it’s true. It’s one of the many verbal tics that are unfortunately very, very, very common in this town. “Well, I’m going to impact policy.” (Laughter) Yeah, impact wasn’t a verb 20 years ago, was it? I don’t think so. My English teacher would have said something if I tried that.
Tavis: What do you make of how, then, the book has been received inside Washington? I say “received” because, as I can tell, looking at the best-seller list, it didn’t just chart on the “Times” list worldwide, it charted on “The Washington Post” list, which means that a whole bunch of folk inside Washington have been reading this over the past few weeks as well.
Liebovich: Right. Yeah, no, look, I actually knew that it was going to get quite a bit of attention in Washington, because nothing – Washington is extremely interested in a topic that is themselves, and so the book is about Washington. (Laughter) I knew that they would – Washington puts the “me” in “media” also. That’s another line.
But the reaction inside of town has been very kind of not gossip-driven, but it’s been very titter-tatter, like who wins, who comes off best, who comes off worst, who is Mark nicest to and meanest to.
The best, most gratifying part of the reaction has been from outside of town. It’s been really amazingly received outside of town. People, I think, have been a combination of alarmed, troubled, but also entertained, which I think is a pretty good place to be.
But I also – it does give me a bit of hope that maybe there’s not a full awareness of exactly what kind of circus this has become here. Look, there seems to be a real hungering for change and a real hungering for something to just shake this up.
I never thought of myself this way, but I guess if a book can do that, or at least can start the conversation, I’m thrilled about it.
Tavis: It’s one thing to have as your goal to make people aware of what happens in this town, but once they’ve been made – I’m talking now about everyday people in the demos –
Tavis: – and book-readers across the country. Once they have been made aware of it and entertained by some of it, just sickened by other parts of it, but once they run that gamut of emotions when they read “This Town,” what, pray tell, can they do about it?
Liebovich: What can they do about it? Yeah, this is usually the part of the conversation where I throw my hands up and say, hey, I’m just a journalist. I shine a mirror to the culture. I give the cop-out answer.
But look, all I can say is I don’t think this is sustainable. I don’t think the level of self-satisfaction in Washington and revulsion for Washington, outside of town, I don’t think that that imbalance is sustainable for much longer.
I think there is such a level, such a hunger on both sides, for some kind of change, some kind of – whether it’s a third-party candidate or a term limits thing or a campaign finance reform or something that can just sort of shake up a system that has become so utterly comfortable.
Again, I think one of the dirty little secrets that I try to reveal here is that Washington is not hopelessly divided. It’s very interconnected. We’re talking about people sort of feeding from the same insider trough, where if you are known as an insider, you are going to get paid and do very, very, very well. It’s a very easy town, and that was not true many years ago.
Tavis: So long as money is the mother’s milk of politics, and the insiders obviously want to do nothing about that except make more of that money, how do you see the conversation about change getting any traction?
Liebovich: I don’t know. I think people are susceptible to a charismatic, convincing, authentic figure. I think Barack Obama was able to convince people that he was that in 2008, I think there were a lot of Tea Party candidates in 2010 who thought, who could do that.
I think once you get here, that’s the $64,000 question – what can you do to govern. But I think people are very, very hungry for some kind of message, whether it’s deliverable sort of remains to be seen.
Tavis: The latest text from Mark Liebovich is called “This Town.” It has now been for weeks on all of the best-seller lists, and still there. Hence our conversation tonight. Mark, good to have you on. Congratulations, and all the best to you, sir.
Liebovich: Great, thank you, Tavis. This was great.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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