By 6:15 p.m. the folding chairs at Politics & Prose were nearly filled as the mostly elderly crowd got situated for the Leibo Show. Two seats contained “reserved” signs, so we were convinced they had to be for NYT‘s Mark Leibovich’s parents or someone equally important. Holy f–king shit! Was Tammy Haddad coming? Eventually an older couple arrived and sat down. They weren’t Leibo’s parents at all – just random psychology professors who placed the makeshift signs and went next door to eat. Very sneaky.
On Tuesday night, the crowd came to hear Leibovich read from his newly released book, This Town — the dumb thing that Politico has only written about 18 times.
To be sure, the scene felt less This Town and more Seinfeld, the Del Boca Vista episodes.
“How much did you have to pay for that front row seat?” an older gentleman asked a male friend he hadn’t seen in awhile. “Well,” replied the balding acquaintance, “my wife had to knock some people over.”
Later on, an elderly woman with silky bright white hair and a cane used her outside voice to gripe to the person next to her, “I HOPE THIS ENDS AT 8!” The Q & A was still going on at 8:06 p.m. Still annoyed, she added, “I’LL STICK IT OUT BUT I THINK SHE’S LETTING IT GO ON TOO LONG.”
Aside from this woman, if Leibovich was looking for love amid some of the harsher critiques he has received lately, accusing him of social treason and such, this was the place to be. Jim Butcher of the “reserved seat” fame gave the book two thumbs up. “I laughed so much!” he said. “I hope it was meant to be funny. We watch Morning Joe and they all show up on there. It’s one of the funnier books I’ve read in awhile and I read only serious books.”
Soon enough, the author waltzed in. He’s hard to miss – tall, with a shiny bald head, one sharp-edged ear and wearing a blue subtly checked blazer, dark T-shirt and jeans. A momentary hush fell over the aging crowd.
“Brad and I had to fight over who would introduce him,” said Lissa Muscatine, one of the store’s owners, who went on about how neither she, her husband nor Politics & Prose were mentioned in This Town. “As ex-WaPo reporters, far be it for us to be so petty — really, it’s kind of a good news bad news thing to be mentioned in this book.” She tried to articulate the mixed feelings people have about it, saying, “You laugh and then you scream.” This Town, she says, “is what Mark has chronicled so devastatingly and brilliantly.” Still, she cracked that the new beer and wine sold at the shop may make the talk more interesting.
Leibovich stepped up to the podium. “I’m not such a bad guy,” he said, looking down sheepishly. Then he proceeded to majorly suck-up to the owners, telling everyone to buy their books here. Which they did. Some 75 books sold that night, 200 in the past two weeks, making it their top seller for the moment. He mentioned Amazon briefly and then tried to press the verbal delete key when that was met with minor hostility. “This is not me trying to curry favor with the owners,” he said earnestly. “This is our family bookstore. I say this has someone who truly loves the store.” On a touching note: One of Leibo’s daughters posed with the book at the store. He hesitated to call Lissa, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, a source or a friend or even a “friend source” and instead said, “Lissa has always been offering valuable guidance to me.”
With the niceties complete, he dove into real the reason they were all there: This Town. “I will say This Town is essentially a profile of a city in a moment and a moment of a city transformed by wealth and new media,” he said.
Then he read a few passages of the book – a scene from Tim Russert’s funeral. He spoke of Kurt Bardella, a staffer to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). The audience chuckled along with him and seemed to be amused even if they had no idea who Bardella was or why his sharing of lawmaker and reporter emails generated so many stories. Of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Leibo spoke of how it has sprouted from one fairly simple party to a week of disgusting Hollywood pageantry. “Everyone knows it’s perverse, awful,” he said. “People claim to hate it. I just think it’s an embarrassment.”
He also took at stab at Washington’s pundit class, saying, “Punditry has replaced the gold standard of reporting for my profession.”
There was no shortage of curiosity. Once it was time for questions, people lined up at the microphones. They wanted to know if he’d be shunned, if his future reporting would suffer as a result of writing this book. One woman in a snug pink tank top and tight jeans seemed to want to challenge Leibo or put him in his place. She went up to the microphone more than once and didn’t stick to one question. “You certainly shed your objectivity for this,” she said with a slightly snide tone to her voice. “What was your process of writing it?”
Apparently a slow one. But Leibovich explained he took a year off his regular job at NYT Magazine and that his wife was very understanding. After that, he scrambled to finish, scrounging for bits of time when he could find it.
Leibovich shrugged off any tone the woman had and said, “I’ve had the ability to write with voice for many, many years. I am encouraged to write with a point of view.” What’s more, he said, “Objectivity is not measured by stripping bear adjectives in your sentences. In that sense, it wasn’t a big jump.”
As far as people he skewered, he said he welcomes the discomfort of his critics.”You try not to surprise them,” he said. “It’s a messy process. People are complicated.” No doubt, Tammy, Kurt and Bob look forward to the day the book is in the town’s rear view mirror. Until then, he said, “I welcome any discomfort or soul searching this brings about.”
On NBC’s Luke Russert: “He was prematurely given a job. I’ve gotten to know him. He’s a good guy. People try to posthumously network with him to get something. I am very empathetic to what he went through and think he’s handling it very well.”
On Politico: Ahhh…a shower off kisses for POLITICO. Leibo, who more than pokes at the high octane news outlet in the book, says, “There was obviously a need for it. They are appealing to a junky culture. …I read them a few times a day. I probably read them more closely than I do other publications. …I don’t quite know why they are obsessed with me and the book. But every time they write about the book it seems to help sales.” [Insert audience laughter here.]
How does he personally reconcile writing a book about an absurd system he’s obviously a part of? “What’s been interesting about the reaction is …. how dare he?” he explained. “Not that I violated any confidences, but the unspoken rule that I’m not supposed to write about members of The Club.”
One of the last questioners was a young man who looked to be in his early 20s. “As awful as they are, why aren’t we running them out of town?” he asked. The room erupted into applause. “These are the people who think they run your country,” he replied. “Mary, my wife, is always saying I get less partisan and ideological as I get older. It’s true. You get to know people’s character.” An answer earlier in the evening also seems to apply here. “You don’t lay out prescriptions,” he said of his work. “I think my answer is I hold a mirror to this culture.”
One senses relief in the expression he wears: “The best part about this book right now is its done-ness.”
Photographs by Austin Price.