Mark Leibovich: Bard of the Beltway 

Talking with the author of This Town, the book of the year for political junkies.

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At its best, This Town has elements reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1974 classic Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Are you a fan of that book?
It’s sitting right here, it’s one of my bibles. I haven’t actually read it in a long time, though I do have a collection of books that I like to read a paragraph from before I sit down to write just to put me in the right frame of mind, and that’s always been one of them. He was great. I think it was a different time, I think that the days of Richard Nixon’s handlers putting a completely gonzo reporter in the limousine with Nixon to talk football are probably over? (laughing).
I also don’t think I would have the physical stamina, or the kidneys, frankly, to try to do what he did.
I think one of the unfortunate things about Hunter S. Thompson and a lot of writers of that generation is they have spawned a lot of lame imitators among the blog generation, and everyone thinks, “I’m the next Hunter Thompson, and I might be 23 years old but I think it’s important that you can get my take, and you get my attitude and this is what I’m going to do,” and you sort of lose sight of the fact that Hunter S. Thompson was a real reporter. He had a real job, and he had real balls, and he accomplished a lot of just really great journalism, and was a real groundbreaker. I don’t know. I love Hunter S. Thompson, but I also think that people easily miss how much work goes into being like him.

I have to ask you about Chris Matthews. You charitably write that his “verbal filtering deficiency makes him a refreshing oddity in this overfiltered environment” — it’s not a secret that he’s not a big fan of yours …
He’s not, no.

You didn’t get on Hardball for this book.
Not for this book, but he had me on Hardball about a year ago to talk about [Joe] Biden and I was shocked because he always like – he’s always been very mad at me, and I was sort of worried that maybe it was going to be some sort of ambush situation and I was going to be one of these cable shouting matches all over YouTube. But no, he was a perfect gentleman. Look, he’s an odd guy, he’s an original. He has a franchise. People love him, they hate him. Which I guess makes good cable. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He’s different.

Do you ever worry about being too far inside what Mark Halperin called The Gang of 500? You are part of that, and yet you’re taking a very different perspective of it.
That is me, unfortunately or fortunately. That’s the perspective I write from. I don’t have a choice other than to be up front about it, because to pretend I’m some bumpkin off the turnip truck would have been a ruse. I think that being from here and knowing the characters and working here and living here helps me to know a lot of the shorthand and see a lot of the tropes and lies up close. But it also can be very anesthetizing, which is something that I’ve had to fight against, and all good reporters in D.C. have to fight against, because it’s a very comfortable place and there’s a real danger in being seduced by the comfort and the sort of chumminess and opulence rather than remember what we’re here for as journalists, which in my case hopefully will be provocative and get people to think about something in a way that they hadn’t before.


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