By Mark Leibovich
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I used to be something of a news junkie.
When I was in my twenties, I used to check the domestic news constantly. I was one of those people who loaded homepages from the major news outlets every hour or so, who had alerts on their phones, who trolled Twitter for stories that hadn’t hit the outlets yet. I especially loved political news: there was something about the personalities involved – the human complexity, the chess-board-like quality of moves and counter-moves – that I found fascinating. My friends and I would stay all up night on election nights (even midterms), following the results from individual congressional precincts.
That largely changed after 2016. The news, especially the global news, started to feel hopeless and punitive, and I dramatically reduced my intake. I still read the news every day, but usually only once. I go to sleep at normal times on election nights, and learn what happened when I wake up the next morning.
I heard about ‘This Town’ when Mark Leibovich was interviewed on a favorite podcast of mine. He seemed smart and funny and honest, and so I put his book on my list, although I will admit to feeling ambivalent about it. I was worried that it would be bleak and depressing, and I’m not looking for reasons to be more depressed about the government of my country. I was also worried it would be too insider-baseball-ish, too many names dropped that I wouldn’t recognize.
The book certainly advertises itself as both depressing and insular. For example, the Economist blurbed it this way, “This Town may be the most pitiless examination of America’s permanent political class – aka ‘the gang of 500’ or ‘the beltway establishment’ – that has ever been conducted.” That doesn’t sound hopeful, and, frankly, I would have said that my interest in the ‘beltway establishment’ was basically nil these days. But there are very few subjects that aren’t worth reading about in the hands of a smart, funny person, so I read ‘This Town’ last week.
Goddammit, but it’s fun to read. It’s really fun to read. It’s wry, self-aware, and funny. It’s a cliche to say that there were moments when I laughed out loud; it’s true, but it is also insufficient. There were moments when I laughed so hard I had to stop, run into the other room, and read the passage to my partner (who also laughed out loud, which is big deal, because he’s French).
“In an interview in his office, I asked [Harry] Reid what he really thought of Tom Coburn. He paused for several seconds, and I imagined a little self-editing gerbil inside his skull hurling itself in the unimpeded pathway that typically connects his brain directly to his mouth. A look of slight agony fell over Reid’s sober countenance, the look of someone whose self-editing gerbil is not well-trained.” (p. 85)
How about another?
“Washington convention dictated that [Darrell] Issa must go through the all-important Process of Investigating this matter and then issue his Findings. Part of this would include him seeking me out for questioning. I would not cooperate in Issa’s “investigation” because (1) that would violate my ground rules with [Kurt] Bardella, (2) it would be partaking of a political exercise (which Issa’s “investigation” clearly was), and (3) “refusing to cooperate” with the authority is the badass thing for a reporter to do.
The next few days whirled. At least 150 stories were written about l’affaire Bardella in the seventy-two hours after the original “bombshell” was posted on Politico…Mike Allen devoted exactly half of Playbook to it on the Tuesday morning that it “drove the day.” He and others sometimes referred to me in print as “Leibo,” a nickname I acquired in about first grade that has persisted through every station of my life. As a general rule, I don’t mind the nickname. It was always a good early-warning system in college of which women would never consider going out with me…But I disliked being called “Leibo” in print because it suggested a level of coziness and clubbiness that, while pervasive, I’d rather not be so easily pegged with – especially since I’m writing a book on just that.” (p. 212)
As for insularity: yes, there are a lot of names. However, Leibovich handles them perfectly: clear identifications repeated just often enough to keep you on track, but not so often that it gets annoying. He has an instinct for the anecdote: he knows how to usher his characters through a story, showing their foibles and ridiculousness without humiliating them. He feels truthful but not sadistic. He communicates the absurdity of the situation while winking at his own place within it (and his clear fondness for it).
Leibovich does a beautiful job describing insider-Washington, such a beautiful job that it’s compelling even if you don’t care about insider-Washington, even if you find insider-Washington repellent (and I do). In fact, ‘This Town’ works particularly well if you have a healthy emotional distance from the subject matter, because Leibovich doesn’t demand that you take a moral position.
This is crucial to the success of the book. Leibovich doesn’t ask that you forgive or condemn the Washington establishment; in fact, he himself doesn’t forgive or condemn the Washington establishment. ‘This Town’ isn’t a polemic – it’s a depiction. Leibovich is only asking that you see Washington as it is.
I loved it. More than anything, ‘This Town’ felt like visiting a version of my self from an alternate timeline. Rather than making me feel depressed about the state of the world, it reminded me why I used to love following this stuff in detail: it reminded me how compelling the human drama of politics can be. It gave me a window into a different life, a life in which American politics might have stayed bearable – cynical, but manageable. Where I would have continued to love watching elections, where I would have cared who was running for Congress in that swing district in Ohio, where I would have known who these people were and followed their careers and lives with the same bemused avidity with which I watch my favorite TV shows.
It’s a testament to Leibovich’s skill that he got me to sit still with American politics for five pages, let alone an entire book. I loved this book so much I have already ordered the sequel.