Washington, D.C. gets a bad rap: politicians love to run against it, voters love to complain about it — but New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich says he's actually an optimist about our nation's capital.
Leibovich's new book is This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — plus plenty of valet parking! — In America's Gilded Capital. It's a lively account of the sometimes incestuous mix of media and politics in D.C., and unlike many books about politics, it doesn't have an index.
"There's something called the 'Washington Read,' which is the habit of many locals to go into a bookstore, pull a book off the shelf, rifle through the index to see if they're in there," Leibovich tells NPR's Rachel Martin. So This Town's cover proudly notes its lack of an index — though, Leibovich says, The Washington Post has put an unofficial version.
On what he wanted to accomplish in the book
"It is a profile of a city that I think is widely misunderstood ... I think what people don't have a full appreciation of is just the full carnival that Washington has become. The way in which the city has been completely revolutionized by money, by new media, by the celebrity madness that's sort of engulfed the rest of the culture. And really, this has become really a gold rush in the nation's capital, at a time when the rest of the country has really been struggling economically, and I think that that's a part of the disconnect that I wanted to bring to bear here."
On depicting the funeral of Meet the Press host Tim Russert
"Tim Russert, this giant in Washington, I call him the mayor of Official Washington, he dies in the prime of his life. And there was a state-funeral-like scene where all of the brand names, all of the tribes convened. You had the Democrats, the Republicans, the Clintons, the newscasters, Barbara Walters, I mean everyone was there. And I remember sitting there, and I was struck by how this memorial service for a beloved newsman could so quickly degenerate into a networking oppportunity. People were throwing business cards around, people were trying to get booked on various shows. The funeral as cocktail party."
On claiming to be an optimist about Washington
"When you live in Washington, D.C., you do get a sense, in a very direct way, of the durability of our government and really, the greatness of the American system. Having said that, I think one of the important things for a journalist to do is hold a mirror to a culture, and I think that this is probably as good a time as any to hold a different kind of mirror, maybe a more cinemagraphic mirror towards Washington than what the city is used to having."
On profiling Kurt Bardella, former press secretary to Republican Congressman Darrell Issa
"This was a chapter in the book that I was very much a part of. As part of my agreement to follow Kurt around for a few months, Kurt and I decided that he would forward me a dozen or so emails a day that he was getting from other reporters, or from members of Congress, or whoever, to try to give me a realtime window into how he was spending his time. So every day a whole bunch of emails would come in, and eventually, he, I guess, told a few too many people, 'hey, I got this New York Times reporter following me around, and I'm sending him emails,' and a reporter for Politico eventually got wind of this, and wanted to do a story on it.
"And all of a sudden, I think, not surprisingly, the people who were having their emails forwarded without their knowledge were a little bit upset. There was a big investigation, Darrell Issa wound up firing Kurt for this, it was written about to death throughout the capital ... eventually Kurt got a job at the Daily Caller, which is a website, sort of a conservative website, he stayed there a few months, he was rehired by Darrell Issa a few months later ... he survived, the story came full circle pretty quickly, and that is also emblematic of the notion that there's really not a fall from grace. I mean, people have very short memories. Any taint of scandal was sort of quickly forgotten and sort of gave way to a neutral sheen of notoriety. And if you're in the news, if you're famous, it's all good for the brand. And I guess the take-away everyone was saying at the time was, well, this will be good buzz for the book! And what could be more important than that?"
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
Our nation's capital has a complicated reputation. For some people it is first and foremost a place of inspiration.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Freedom. History. Pride.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It shows everybody kind of almost our history and our journey from where we started out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's a place that every American should come see at least once in their lifetime.
MARTIN: Those are responses from some folks we caught up with in one of the most inspiring spots in D.C., the Lincoln Memorial. But when we asked people what they thought of the U.S. Capitol at the other end of the National Mall, we got decidedly different answers.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Stagnation.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Disappointment. Do you want one word or the ones you can say on the radio?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Bureaucrats.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It's in bad shape right now.
MARTIN: And that is the Washington New York Times magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich writes about in his new book. It's called "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral - Plus Plenty of Valet Parking in America's Gilded Capital." More than 300 pages of inside-the-Beltway dirt-dishing. But Leibovich says at its core this is a brutally honest reflection of Washington culture.
MARK LEIBOVICH: I think what people don't have a full appreciation of is just the full carnival that Washington has become. The way in which the city has been completely revolutionized by money, by new media, by the celebrity madness that sort of engulfed the rest of the culture. And really, this has become really a gold rush in the nation's capital at a time when the rest of the country has really been struggling economically. And I think that that's a part of the disconnect that I wanted to bring to bear here.
MARTIN: It begins at the funeral for the much beloved host of "Meet the Press," Tim Russert.
MARTIN: Which is kind of in odd place to start at this memorial service, but it was significant for you in what you were trying to illuminate. Describe the scene.
LEIBOVICH: Tim Russert, this giant in Washington, I call him the Mayor of Official Washington, he dies in the prime of his life. And there was a state-funeral-like scene where all of the brand names, all of the tribes convened. You had the Democrats, the Republicans, the Clintons, the newscasters, Barbara Walters. I mean, everyone was there. And I remember sitting there, and I was struck by how this memorial service for a beloved newsman could so quickly degenerate into a networking opportunity. People were throwing business cards around, people were trying to get booked on various shows. The funeral as cocktail party.
MARTIN: You were at the funeral. I mean, you don't hide the fact that you are part of this club that you write about when we talk about the pundits, politicians, journalists who make up this elite group.
MARTIN: You don't claim to be an outsider? You think that it's still OK to write this, that people should pay attention to what you have to say.
LEIBOVICH: I mean, I hope so. I mean to pretend I was an outsider or I am an outsider would just be dishonest. I mean, I am part of this world, maybe a part of this problem. But I also think that when you live here you do see things that others don't, obviously. And there has been some push-back towards me because no one likes to have the secret handshake revealed. But I - no, I thought that Washington had reached the tipping point of self-celebration, of self-perpetuation at a time when the rest of the country didn't fully understand this.
MARTIN: So let's dig into the book a little bit. There is a lot of gossipy stuff that's getting a lot of buzz and headlines, that people who follow the personality of politics will find interesting probably, maybe. But there are also some longer profiles of individuals and characters who you see as representing something fundamental about how this place, this town works.
MARTIN: Can you tell us about Kurt Bardella? Not a name most people would recognize.
LEIBOVICH: Right, I mean, Kurt Bardella is the press secretary - the former press secretary to Congressman Darrell Issa. He was someone who watched "West Wing" as a kid and became enthralled with the idea of Washington as this thrilling screen game. And he said, look, I'm not so much as a D or an R, I'm an O, I'm an opportunist. And essentially, he wanted a ticket to Washington because this game was so thrilling to him. And Kurt was very good at his job. He got Darrell Issa a great deal of press and I started following him around. And he was rather blunt about his own ambitions. He really flouted the ethic in Washington that you're supposed to cloak your own ambitions in nonchalance.
MARTIN: But you're even smiling now. There's something about that that to you find endearing.
LEIBOVICH: Absolutely, I mean, look. I have a bias towards transparency. I mean, Washington is a city of poses and posturing and very few people are willing to talk about how ambitious they are, to show their demons as nakedly as Kurt did. I mean, I think some of the characters that come off best - according to some readers - people like Harry Reid and Tom Colburn, who were two Senators from completely different sides of the spectrum and who can't stand each other, but there is a transparency about them and there was a transparency about Kurt that I was very, very enamored of because it's just much more out-front.
MARTIN: It's not your business to proffer up solutions. Inevitably, I would imagine that in writing this and researching, you had to have given it a little bit of thought when you are articulating the layers and layers of these challenges.
LEIBOVICH: I think you never can underestimate the power of shame over a long period of time. You also can't underestimate the power of the American electorate. It doesn't move as fast as you think. But there is a period of foment going on now. I mean, you've had three or four change elections. I'm making quotes with my fingers.
MARTIN: The air quotes. Yeah.
LEIBOVICH: The air quotes. Right. Meaning, that, you know, you have the Democrats sweeping out the Republicans in 2006, and then you have Obama coming in and 2008, and then you have the Tea Party in 2010. I mean, there is definitely a great impatience with business as it's done in Washington. And I think politicians will do things when it serves their interest. I mean, you know, the populist does have an ability to shape change, to sort of shape Washington, and I think, you know, again, that system is not going to go away. But, no, I mean, I guess I'm hedging on the grand solutions because it's just not - first of all, I'm not that smart.
LEIBOVICH: But, again, I mean, I'm just sort of trying to tell a story.
MARTIN: The book is called "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral - Plus Plenty of Valet Parking in America's Gilded Capital." Mark Leibovich joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C.
Mark, thanks so much.
LEIBOVICH: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.