This Town

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).

For example,

“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)

Mark Leibovich

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.

Rodham

By Curtis Sittenfeld

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I’ve wanted to read ‘Rodham‘ since I learned it existed. I don’t know why I did – it belongs to a category of novels with which I generally have very little patience: the historical novel. I love history, and when I read it, I like knowing whether or not what I’m reading actually happened. Novels obscure that: they present real histories clothed in fiction, and readers (at least this one) can’t always tell the truth.

Rodham‘, though, is a little different. It’s an alternative history, a kind of novel for which I have even less patience. The only thing less likely to get you at the truth than a historical novel is a historical novel about a version of history which didn’t actually happen.

But I’ve been curious about ‘Rodham‘ for years. It’s such a ballsy thing to do, to write a novel about a living person, and about Hillary Clinton in particular, who will surely be remembered as one of the most polarizing and complicated political figures of our time.

Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton met at Yale Law School (in real life). They dated, and moved to Arkansas together to pursue his political ambitions. The first two times he asked her to marry him, she declined. The third time, she accepted. The premise of ‘Rodham’ is, simply, ‘what if she hadn’t?’

I wonder what Sittenfeld wanted to accomplish here. A description of the premise (‘What if Hillary Clinton had never married Bill Clinton?) promises a different novel than the one I have just finished. I suppose that ‘Rodham‘ was meant to answer a wish of Sittenfeld’s to know what Hillary’s life might have been like if Bill Clinton wasn’t the star of it. Unfortunately, Bill Clinton is also the star of ‘Rodham’, just from a more distant vantage.

Alternative fictions must start from a truthful premise, an anchor, from which they then wander off into speculation. The truth to which ‘Rodham‘ anchors itself is that Bill Clinton is the love of Hillary Clinton’s life. Though she leaves him in ‘Rodham’, because he is (both in our reality and in Sittenfeld’s, a philandering rapist), Hillary loves and misses him until well into her sixties. He is the sun around which her imagination revolves for almost the entirety of her adult life.

Which is kind of a bummer, honestly. I was so curious about this novel because I am interested in this idea: Hillary Clinton, more than almost any woman of political ambition that I can think of, is defined by her marriage. It’s not super heartening to think that, if we didn’t marry the great men we might have married, we might accomplish great things ourselves but we wouldn’t ever really get over them.

It might have been less of a bummer if Sittenfeld had given Hillary Clinton more dimension in fiction than her actual public persona suggests. One of the eternal ‘truths’ about Clinton is that she possesses no emotional warmth, that she is a cold, odd, calculating creature of pure ambition: planning her whole life for political attainment, not equipped with the normal spectrum of human feeling.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld basically accepts this unfortunate premise. Her Hillary is odd, and sort of cold. She accepts cruelty, betrayal, heartbreak, grave personal insult, without a normal human recoil. Sittenfeld doesn’t do a great job in persuading her readers that there are hidden depths to Hillary Rodham, and that’s a shame, because I suspect that there are.

Also, ‘Rodham‘ is a little too cute. Throughout her novel, Sittenfeld sprinkles events that happened in real life, weirdly specific ones. Her reasons for doing this are obvious: she wants us to understand that some things are inevitable, some dynamics and personalities will emerge no matter the path we choose, and fair enough. But I do not believe, for example, that if Hillary and Bill had not married and Bill Clinton had not become President of the United States, that Donald Trump would have ended up making his exact “Hispanics are rapists” speech, word for word, in 2016, albeit in a totally different context. And I do not believe that Bill Clinton’s supporters would end up chanting about Clinton, “Shut her up! Shut her up!”. I see what Sittenfeld is trying to do, but it’s too much, at least for me.

Ultimately, ‘Rodham‘ is, (perhaps inevitably), a novel about sexism. The interaction between Hillary and the public in 2016, the curious clashing of her personality, her history, her gender, and the prejudices and expectations of the public on both sides of the political spectrum, was dismaying and painful to a great many women. I completely understand why Sittenfeld might have felt the need to explore that experience in this way, and, essentially, I agree with her conclusions: it does seem to me that some things are inevitable in any timeline, and it does seem to me that we carry our characters with us, and that they inform our destiny at least as much as our destiny shapes them.

But I do wish, if Curtis Sittenfeld was going to go all out for Hillary, that she had given her a little more: more depth, more heart, and more independence. And, perhaps, that she had made her slightly less virtuous? It is precisely the impression (illusion?) of impervious, unemotional, competent control that so many people find alienating about Clinton (besides, of course, the fact of her having a brain AND a vagina) – might it not have been worth interrogating that a little? Trying to find some more complexity in her?

I don’t know. ‘Rodham‘ disappointed me, but perhaps I am being unfair. It’s hard to judge a book without knowing its purpose – maybe ‘Rodham’ was never intended to seriously illuminate the woman behind the persona, or interrogate feminism, or punish the wicked in fiction. Maybe it was only meant to be a weird little mental exercise. However, I think it could have been a great deal more, and I’m sad it wasn’t.