Why everyone hates Washington

By PETER KADZIS  |  August 30, 2013

An insider’s take

Leibovich may not be the ultimate insider, but he is pretty darn close. He joined the Times Washington bureau after writing for the Washington Post.

At the Times, Leibovich serves as the official, in-house wise guy, which is more or less the same role he played at the Post.

In its Style section, the Post has always flashed a bit of cheek, allowing designated writers to cop an attitude, to display a point of view — things that are verboten to the newshounds who bark more politely on the front page.

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LEIBOVICH demonstrates an appreciation for the absurd.
The Times is more staid, self-consciously establishmentarian, aware of its heritage — even in these fractious days — as the embodiment of quality.

Quality, of course, is an elastic concept: like pornography, easier to identify than to define.

In journalism, it’s built on reporting. And Leibovich is an excellent reporter. Why anyone in his or her right mind talks to the guy is another matter entirely.

Here I should confess an interest. Leibovich began his career at the now-defunct Boston Phoenix about the same time as I did, which is to say about 25 years ago.

At a paper populated by many hard-working young talents, I can’t remember anyone who worked harder. Like most, Leibovich left after a couple years. In his case, it was for a technology beat on the West Coast.

I can see the same qualities that characterized his work at the Phoenix blossoming in his daily newspaper work and achieving something like full flower in This Town. A slightly off-kilter way of looking at the world. Wit, for sure. But more importantly, an appreciation for the absurd. A sense of the sardonic that is usually disciplined enough to avoid snarkiness.

Add to these qualities of voice a graceful and colloquial prose style. If Ring Lardner were alive, I think he’d enjoy reading Leibovich.

Since Leibovich left the Phoenix, I have only seen him three times: a funeral, a Democratic convention, and an anniversary party for the paper. On those occasions, he did not seemed to have changed much. He seemed an older version of the young man I knew as a colleague. Married, a father, accomplished, grounded. His success, I think, is rooted in the fact that he is pleasantly on to himself. Surviving years of being the Times’ official-pain-in-the-ass to a place as ruthless as Hollywood and Wall Street is the definition of a high-wire act. Russell Baker pulled it off. So did Maureen Dowd. There may be a few others. But I’m hard pressed to name them.

Any potential conflicts that might be perceived in my writing about his book pale in comparison with the conflicts Leibovich encountered — and successfully juggled — in writing This Town.

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If This Town has a through line, it is the intersection of the press, politicians, and lobbyists. Leibovich practices tough love on the press and the politicians. If I’m reading between the lines of This Town correctly, it is the lobbyists — too often one-time holier-than-though Democrats — for whom Leibovich reserves his true measure of scorn. After finishing the book, I think Dante would be hard-pressed to invent a new circle of Hell sufficiently horrible for these well-shod, pin-striped influence peddlers with a taste for antique cuff links. (Nice touch, Mark.)

Leibovich, as others have done, likens Washington to high school. But it is not the particular characters that matter. It is the sheer concentration of stereotypes — former jocks, cheerleaders, brainiacs, cafeteria wise guys, debate stars, student councilors, and class presidents — that defines the place. It is, to revel in understatement, not a natural environment.

As a Timesman with a wide-ranging and high-profile franchise, Leibovich is one of DC’s cool kids. And he makes that work for himself with his confident tone and aggressive reporting. Perhaps most importantly, Leibovich’s status eased his access. And he appears to have used his right of entry with relative ruthlessness. Sure, I sensed a few pulled punches and maybe a tactful moment or two. But on the whole, the lack of discretion Leibovich displays is so astounding as to refresh.

Not to mention, how can you not love a book that opens at a funeral. In the case of This Town, the 2008 Kennedy Center memorial service for the host of Meet the Press.

“Tim Russert is dead,” writes Leibovich. “But the room is alive.” It’s buzzing, and so is this book. Its only drawback is that once you have finished it, you are going to want to take a long, hot shower.

Peter Kadzis worked at the Boston Phoenix for almost 25 years. For most of that time he served as editor or executive editor.
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