If you’re looking for a book that reflects the failures of U.S. social policy over the past few decades, there was probably no finer tome this year than George Packer’s The Unwinding. The book weaves back and forth among various characters, celebrity profiles and headline collages, with “Tampa” being one of those main players. It’s a richly rewarding work, earning the National Book Award for non-fiction last month.
But for political junkies, the best book of the year in terms of sheer entertainment was Mark Leibovich’s This Town, an expose of all that’s wrong with Washington D.C.
The theme of the book is depressingly succinct. Inside the Media-Industrial Complex that is the District of Columbia, political passions play second fiddle to making money, or getting mentioned in Politico. And once you’re inside this self-selecting club, you’re there as long as you want to be.
CL spoke by phone last week with Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, who was in his office deep inside the belly of the beast.
CL: This Town begins with a classic Washington moment — the funeral for the late Meet The Press host, Tim Russert, in June of 2008. Were you thinking back then about including this in your book?
I didn’t have a specific idea for a specific book. That was a moment I realized there was something that I wanted to bring to life, and I just started jotting down notes. I didn’t sign for the book until three years later … but knew that if I did do a book about Washington that was going to be a writ-large scene.
D.C. and Congress have never been held in lower esteem. Your book captures the inside baseball of D.C. — the lobbyists, politicians and journalists — an argument for why people don’t like it.
That was sort of what I was trying to get at. I was trying to get at the disconnect between how people view this city from the outside and how the government works (or doesn’t work) and how it feels inside, which is this incredibly comfortable, gilded, and kind of a reality-distortion field inside of the Beltway. That disconnect is really at the core of what I was trying to do. People talk glancingly about Washington being out of touch, but I wanted to take it a step further and really describe what it looked and felt like.
Let’s talk about Politico, the dynamic political website. You quote Mark Salter (former John McCain speechwriter) calling the site the “trivialization of news.” How do you and your colleagues at the NY Times feel about how they cover politics? Is it a force for good or a force for evil, as some contend?
It certainly has changed how people cover D.C. They have, probably better than anyone, really leveraged the Internet and the kind of junkie-ism that people have for politics here, and their goal has always been to do for politics what ESPN has done for sports. It’s an imperfect analogy but it does get to their ambitions, and, as far as the force for good or force for evil thing goes, look … I can only speak for myself. I’m a reader. I think they have very good journalists and I would actually counsel probably any young political journalists, especially if they’re just starting out, it’s a great place to get experience. Now they do something very different than what we do. I mean, they’re sort of the up-to-the-second political website, they focus on insiders, they focus on the political class. I mean the NY Times is a much more general interest daily newspaper, and I think there’s a place for both of us. I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition or even like a black-and-white proposition. I’ve been a critic of a lot of stuff they’ve done, I think a lot of people have. That shouldn’t preclude the fact that they have a lot of good journalists and we’ve hired some of them, and will probably hire more of them.
We all know about this revolving door with politicians leaving office and becoming lobbyists — part of the permanent political class in Washington. You write about former Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), who would leave office to become president of the Motion Picture Association of America, a job that pays him $1.2 million. You quote former Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska) as saying that he nearly took the job, but he doesn’t care about issues important to the MPAA, like piracy. But he told you in the book, “I don’t give a fuck about piracy … but for that money, I have to admit, I started getting a little interested in piracy.”
It’s mercenary. I have friends all over the country who are doing jobs for a lot of money, and they probably wouldn’t be doing these jobs if it weren’t for the pay. I think these opportunities have never been more abundant for elected officials, and I think sadly the ethic now is just to stay and get the next gig, and I think that that has to affect your perspective when you’re in office, and I think voters and people outside of Washington have a right to wonder whose interest they’re working for when they actually are elected officials.
Look, there’s a reason that half of all retiring or voted-out Senators go on to become lobbyists now, compared to three percent I think it was 40 years ago. So I mean obviously there’s a lot more money here than what there used to be and there’s a lot more opportunity now to do things with whatever your skill set is, and people assume because you have been a senator or a congressman or a staffer you know how this all works, and it makes sense to have you on this corporate payroll or that lobbying payroll. Unfortunately that’s the game now, and I think Senator Kerrey was pretty transparent about it, and so I appreciated that.
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