Perhaps the most telling part of last night came at the end, when a stranger in the audience asked NYT‘s This Town author Mark Leibovich a question: “Who in this town most inspires you and why?”
Leibovich hemmed and hawed. “Besides David and Frank?” he replied, referring to his inquisitors, NYT‘s columnist David Brooks and The New Republic‘s Editor-in-Chief Franklin Foer, who convened for an hour of kibitzing at the Sixth & I Synagogue in downtown Washington. They came to discuss the newly released paperback version of the juicy 2013 Washington tell-all about the egos in the nation’s capitol.
Brooks eventually threw out a life raft to Leibovich, or so it appeared. He joked, “Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner.” As more of an afterthought or, in jest, Leibovich added helpfully, “Tom Coburn?”
I followed up in an email to Leibovich today, asking, “Is there really no one in Washington who inspires you?” He said, “I’m sure there are some people who inspire me here, but I couldn’t think of any on the spot. I wasn’t being intentionally
coy.” After I pushed a little more, he said, “Hey….yeh, lots of people inspire me here but none of them are famous — my kids teachers, ie — and I’d hate to single anyone out. I really don’t mean to be vague, but that’s what comes to mind.”
Maybe it’ll come in time, as the paperback marinates and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner descends upon This Town this weekend like a black fog of social misery.
Even on a night with an aggravating torrential downpour, a huge crowd of guests poured into the synagogue and took their places in the pews. A woman in one of the back rows was so relaxed she whipped out a bowl of food and began eating. Who in God’s name does this in a place of worship? Another woman in the row ahead of mine remarked to her female friend, “You haven’t read the book? Neither have I.”
Soon Foer’s mother approached the dais. She’s the director there and it’s a rather small world, This Town. She introduced Mark Leibovich as “Mark Layyybovich,” which was odd. Couldn’t Franklin have coached his mom on how to say the author’s name?
Complaints aside, and there aren’t many, a night of chatting among these three seemingly nice Jewish guys to a predominately Jewish audience was enjoyable. Rarely a lull in conversation, topics moved swiftly, dotted by much laughter along the way.
A tense moment came when Brooks attacked the late BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings for breaking a story on General Stanley McChrystal ridiculing White House staff and other civilian officials for Rolling Stone. Hastings died a few years ago in a fiery car crash in LA. Brooks attacked Hastings mercilessly, insisting, “When alcohol arrives, it’s off the record,” referring to conversations that Hastings was privy to in Afghanstian before writing the story that got McChrystal fired. Brooks reasoned, “Everyone bitches and moans about their bosses.” He argued that there aren’t enough good generals and that Hastings conceivable changed the trajectory of the war in Afghanistan and not for the better.
The audience roared with applause.
Still, it seemed criminal that Hastings wasn’t there to vigorously defend himself, as one might imagine he would have if given the opportunity.
Leibovich, who has been repeatedly trashed for breaking Washington’s unspoken off-the-recordish social rules for the content of his book, quietly took issue with Brooks. “If it wasn’t explicitly off the record, you have a right to quote it,” he said. Of Hastings’s story, he added, “I found that truth was served and I learned a lot.”
Before the discussion even began, Leibovich joked, “We’re off the record. Nothing will leave the building after tonight.”
At one point in the evening, Brooks threw out a philosophical softball, asking, “Do we all have these moments when we decide we’re going to do this?” This, meaning politics or journalism.
Leibovich said his first job was answering phones for the Boston Phoenix earning $12,000 a year. “I was so terrible at being someone’s assistant,” he recalled. “I screwed up messages.” Eventually they let him start writing and he said he had a lot of hard years of learning the trade. “Even my mother would say to me, ‘Mark, you know that story had a long middle,'” he said. But soon he was hooked: “I sort of became addicted to the whole holy terror of it.”
The author is unapologetic about the contents of his book, but admits that as he wrote it, he was terrified about “just getting stuff wrong.” And he continues to contend this: “Ego has been exacerbated by media outlets and the celebrification of politics.”
Words on the wall of the synagogue above their heads read as follows: “Faith in God is happiness.” Aptly, a question that seemed to make Leibovich ill at ease was this one from Foer regarding people: “Is there a Leibovich litmus test?” Leibovich seemed to be uncomfortable by the idea that he is on high, saying, “Look, people are complicated. There are gray areas.”
Brooks was by far the more in-your-face interviewer of the crew. “You’ve been mean to a lot of people,” he said brashly. “Who’s been mean back?” Leibovich replied, “Really, no one? There are clearly people who don’t appreciate my narrative compared to their self-narrative. I wouldn’t say anyone’s been mean.” He said he received flack in two ways: “Some people thought I was too mean. Some people thought I treaded too lightly because I still wanted to be a member of the club. There’s a high onus of truth and people obviously have sensitive feelings about their place in the stratosphere.”
As though a lightbulb just illuminated in his mind, Leibovich added, “I guess I did want to inject some discomfort into the media in Washington.”
Hence the parties Leibovich won’t be attending this weekend.