Mark Leibovich’s new book This Town, a critical expose of the Washington power structure and New York Times best seller this summer, is as popular with the right as it is with the left. Or with anyone who believes that government is broken.
Amid the joyful sounds of summer vacation at the Sutton/Leibovich house in Aquinnah just before the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival two weeks ago, the author took a few minutes to talk about his book. His many years of experience as a writer and editor of The New York Times Magazine in Washington has given him a unique place from which to observe the workings inside the beltway. He spoke about reactions to the book and his own view of it.
“People have the impression that Washington is a hard place filled with strong, principled people doing the country’s work, while the opposite is actually true,” he said. “Washington is a soft place filled with self-serving people looking to the next job and anyone they have to please to support that agenda. They are in a constant state of insecurity and it goes to the very roots of both parties, money being the primary motivator. About 50 per cent of retired senators become lobbyists and it runs through the entire system on both sides. They are more afraid of offending the wrong person than anything else.”
Despite the book’s popularity, the author said he comes away with no clear answers for how to fix the problem. “It goes so deep into the system that I can’t see a cure short of the creation of a third party from either the left or the right that has the support of the people and will put the nation’s business ahead of their own,” Mr. Leibovich said.
“President Obama is a perfect example of an intelligent man with a vision coming to Washington and falling victim to a system that worries too much about itself as opposed to the agenda that it becomes an impediment rather than a vehicle for the vision he was elected to fulfill. The gap between the right and the left is only part of the story.” As for reaction from those named in the book, he said: “The most notable reaction was the lack of reaction. I thought that I would be flooded with righteously indignant emails, but nothing. People in the book are either making nervous jokes in public or just keeping their heads down and waiting for it all to blow over.
“I got an email from a longtime politician whom I will not name who said that reading the book was like looking at himself through a cracked mirror. It wasn’t pretty to look at but something we all need to do from time to time.”
His work as editor at The New York Times Magazine is mostly distinct from the newspaper. “We are pretty much autonomous but if big things come up, I usually consult with them,” he said. “I probably should have done that before writing this book — which I didn’t do — but they have been very supportive.”
Meanwhile, he has been keeping a brisk schedule on the book signing and interview circuit this summer. He said the interviews have covered a wide range.
“Interviewers like Charlie Rose and The Daily Show have a real interest and have prepared themselves well and are hard in that they have real questions about parts of the book,” he said. “Then there are the people who have an agenda and are just looking for you to confirm it. I have to figure them out early and say to myself, aha, so this is the game we are playing.”
Time ran out on this interview and Mr. Leibovich had to get to the book festival and then to an interview with Glenn Beck.
He comes from Boston and began his career in journalism answering phones at the Boston Phoenix. He has a wife and three daughters and is the kind of person you’d like to sit and have a beer with. He has been vacationing on the Vineyard with his parents and family for years.
Perhaps ironically, so have many of the people named in his book.