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Is Mark Leibovich Too Soft on Washington? (An Interview)

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Mark Leibovich's new book, This Town, comes out Tuesday and has been excerpted by The New Republic. I talked by phone with Leibovich yesterday about Washington cynicism, "House of Cards," "Veep," and whether he was too much of an insider to write the book.

Isaac Chotiner: You talk in your book about various people’s roles in Washington. You call Tim Russert “The Mayor.” What do you consider your own role in that circus?

Mark Leibovich: I guess the classic Washington answer is that “I’ll leave that for others to say.” But look: I am a print reporter, with occasional television appearances and punditry. I have been a print reporter my whole career. It’s all I ever wanted to be. I specialize in political profiles. I have probably profiled hundreds of people over the years, people in very powerful positions. People don’t always like what I write, but most people still talk to me. I know this is a classic duck, but I wouldn’t characterize my own role in any way except as a print reporter.

IC: A lot of your stuff seems very meta, as if you got sick of straight reporting about the ins and outs and Washington. And now you want to observe it with a distance.

ML: I have always been a big meta guy because I think the way journalism is practiced in Washington, and the way everyone sort of cohabitates in the same fishbowl is ultimately a bigger part of the story than people outside of the fishbowl really know. I think maybe this book is the next step. It’s another level of meta. Maybe it’s an unconscious way of checking myself before I become too immersed in the club. I think the media is not very interested in holding a mirror to the larger role they play in the culture. And that’s what I tried to do here. It’s never comfortable to give away the secret handshake, if that’s in fact what I am trying to do.

IC: Did you ever feel compromised writing this book—that you were too inside to do it?

ML: It’s something I battled with. I had to be very, very careful. Not careful actually, but up-front, in the early pages of the book. I think if I did not account for my own role, it would have been dishonest and sanctimonious. I don’t have the luxury of being a foreign correspondent and just swooping in and then just leaving. This is my perspective and I write from it willingly.

IC: Any particularly interesting reactions to the book?

ML: There have been some. It’s been pretty muted. There have been a few calls and a few e-mails. But nothing major yet. The feedback’s been really good. There has always been a two-step around this book: It is, “Oh boy, I don’t want to be in the book at all, but make sure you write this about that person.” There have been a lot of people rooting me on—off the record. A classic Washington play.

IC: Care to share names?

ML: I probably shouldn’t.

IC: You said the feedback has generally been very good. If Washington has reacted positively, does that say something about how tough the book is on the city?

ML: Not really. Washington has always had a pretty healthy amount of self-loathing. People inside of Washington are always rolling their eyes and saying, “In this town … ” Here’s what’s interesting: Look at “Veep,” a very well done series for HBO, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a complete idiot vice president—not a show that in any way, shape, or form glorifies politics—and “House of Cards,” which is an utterly perverse picture of how politics works; when Kevin Spacey and Julia Louis Dreyfus showed up at the Bloomberg White House Correspondent’s Associations party, they were mobbed by the people they were mocking. I think there is a grudging relationship that people have with treatments that are not sympathetic. It’s an odd dynamic.

IC: There are definitely people in the book you are critical of—like Andrea Mitchell—but you also go out of your way to pat her on the back as a really good journalist. Do you ever feel like you are playing the same Washington game, being tough on people but also complimenting them?

ML: I think in the case of Mitchell it’s the fairness game. If you are going to write about her in the way that I do, you have to give Andrea her due as a reporter. That’s absolutely genuine. She’s a terrific reporter who has broken tons of stories. But I also think that she is someone who is very, very inside, and whose professional life and social life and personal life very closely overlap. I don’t feel like I was wanting to have it both ways. I would be doing a disservice to readers and to Andrea if I didn’t point out her real skills and very distinguished career.

IC: It just seems that it’s very hard to be where you are and write a nasty book. Do you feel like being nasty would have inhibited your ability to do your job, because Washington is so insular?

ML: Maybe. There is a line I always try to walk, being incisive and critical but not going over into mean. It’s a very fine line. I may have failed to walk it on occasion. But look there is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t. Some reviewers say I am cruel, some say I have been too easy.

IC: Was it true that Lanny Davis [the former Clinton special counsel] e-mailed you about not being in the book?

ML: Yes it is.

IC: Was he actually upset?

ML: It was a classic Washington e-mail. He writes an e-mail in which he talks about how relieved he was to not be in the unauthorized index. Having known him for many years, or knowing of him, I knew that there would be a few lines in which he talked about “maybe I should be insulted.” It was a classic Lanny Davis e-mail. Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast asked me about this and then wound up talking to Lanny Davis for his story about the book, so Davis became a centerpiece in a story about a book that didn’t mention Lanny Davis. It was a perfect play.

IC: You can’t write a book without Lanny Davis. You paid the price for trying.

ML: Yes. [Laughs]

IC: I want to ask about Washington’s larger role in the culture. What is the effect of everything you are describing, on public policy, or the political system? Why does This Town matter?

ML: I think there is an effect. Many businesses in This Town do extremely well when problems are not solved. If a bill is not passed, or a debate continues for years, or an issue spins its way through any number of committees, lobbyists and consultants are going to make that much more money. And also, if you disagree with people at a high volume, you are going to have an easier time making a brand for yourself, whether on cable or Twitter or whatever. I think what this does is amplify the division in politics. And then there is the nature of groupthink in Washington journalism and the media establishment, which breeds conventional wisdom, like the fact that America is not ready to elect a black president, or Hillary Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee in 2008 or 2016, or there are WMD in Iraq. All of these were proved wrong, and all of these pieces of conventional wisdom were products of the fact that people have the same conversations with the same few hundred people every day. I think you have to be careful not to get caught up in the insularity.

IC: That’s a good answer, but you are wrong about Hillary in 2016.

ML: You might be right.

IC: I want to ask you about the Kurt Bardella chapter. [Bardella is a former aide to Congressman Darryl Issa, who got in trouble for sharing e-mails with Leibovich. There is a long chapter about him in This Town, which was excerpted by The New York Times Magazine.] How is Bardella different than the type of person who exists in every ecosystem? He is an insecure guy trying to rise to the top. He exists on Wall Street and in all Hollywood. What is specifically Washington about him?

ML: He is very emblematic of a kind of desperately ambitious operator that you will find in Silicon Valley or Hollywood. I think what makes Kurt different is that he is responsible for taxpayer money. He was serving a boss in an incredibly influential position who impacts policy.

IC: I have been in the political journalism world a while, but I have never met many of the people you have written about. You are writing about a small slice of even the This Town world. There are also all sorts of people who have come to do good, in terms of public policy, NGOs. Do you think you are particularly cynical about Washington?

ML: People’s motives are complicated and I don’t draw a lot of black and white distinctions. People like Bob Barnett and Tammy Haddad and Mike Allen are emblematic of the people I am writing about. The do-gooder book is absolutely something someone should do.

IC: I am just grumpy about not getting invited to parties in Washington.

ML: You are probably better off that way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.