NYT mag writer and This Town author Mark Leibovich appeared at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Upper Northwest Washington Monday night to discuss his new book, Citizens Of The Green Room: Profiles in Courage and Self-Delusion. The crowd wasn’t as bloated as the one that swelled for This Town.
But the event was nonetheless provocative.
Dressed in what appeared to be a wrinkle-free gray button-down shirt and blue jeans, Leibovich appeared at ease in front of the sparse crowd. As well he should considering he’s been crisscrossing the country for the past year to promote This Town. What’s more, this is his third book. His first was The New Imperialists: How Five Restless Kids Grew Up to Virtually Rule Your World.
A question that popped up throughout the evening: Why does anyone let Leibovich in for an interview? In fact, Gov. Chris Christie, the subject of a Leibovich story in the NYT Magazine this weekend, asked as much. Christie told Leibovich that This Town was entertaining and all. “But why does anyone talk to you?” he asked.
(We’ll find out this weekend if Christie should’ve locked his door.)
So…Citizens of the Greenroom — what is it and how does it differ from This Town? As he explained it, Citizens is a compilation of stories that Leibovich has written since the early 2000’s. The book’s central theme is the “imaging and bullshit that really the political economy is built on,” he explained to laughter over his use of the b-word. Leibo quickly asked if any children were around.
He beefed about other journalists’ work, saying, “So much political reporting is larded up with things that are obligatory instead of what is entertaining.”
“Essentially what my beat has become is a chronicle of public life,” he said. “…How much of this is people playing a shtick?”
Part of his reporting process of cutting through the muck, he explained, is asking “goofy, random” questions.
And later, another journalism tip: “After awhile, you learn to listen to what surprises you.”
He talked about the process of his profiles. “I’ve had people who have not cooperated with me,” he said. “Sometimes I go away. [Other times] I keep showing up. You learn to use different senses. Some of the best stories I’ve done are calling that many more people around them. It’s like losing your sight. You hear better.”
Another tactic: offering a false sense of security.
In the case of Glenn Beck, he asked those around him really “easy questions,” saying he knew it would get back to Beck. “There are a number of ways to wear people down,” he said, explaining that sometimes he says he just wants to “fact check” the story with the person — and that becomes the interview he was trying for in the first place.
At one point Leibovich struggled to find a section of his book that he wanted to read aloud. As he sifted through, a heckler in the audience cracked, “Post it notes?”
Washington’s highly educated class isn’t always so pretty.
Eventually the author began talking about former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton in a way that certainly her aides would have applauded. In his book is a section on her that gives a reader an alternate way of knowing the woman even she says is not accurately known by the public. Years ago, Leibovich learned of an old male friend with whom Clinton had exchanged many letters when she was a young woman. Leibovich was beyond intrigued — he looked up the old friend and, much to his amazement, got him to let him make copies of the letters.
Leibovich seemed mesmerized by this younger, perhaps more authentic, deeper version of Clinton. “I certainly came away from that story appreciating a fuller sense of her being,” he said.
As with most book appearances, weirdos show up.
During the Q & A, a wild-haired man who said he was from the Caribbean approached the microphone. He kept talking about “political sushi” and eventually posed some sort of question.
Leibovich didn’t flinch too much, but he squinted and looked slightly perplexed as to what on earth Wild Hair was talking about. The author later told The Mirror,”Yeh, I didn’t really have any idea what that dude was talking about. Something about politics and sushi, I think.”
He’s used to sticky interactions. He spoke of asking politicians simple questions they couldn’t possibly answer, and mentioned the many windows he has had into how “depressingly cautious” politicians must be. For instance, in 2008, after hours of casual drinks in New Hampshire, he asked Hillary Clinton for her favorite and least favorite state. She refused to answer, knowing it was a lose-lose proposition for a presidential hopeful.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, didn’t quite think things through. The senator told him that Milwaukee was the one place he’d never want to live — an answer that later haunted him in the election as it was used against him in Wisconsin.
At various points during his appearance, Leibovich faced critics of This Town. One woman wanted to know why he didn’t write about the normal, decent people (presumably like herself) who lobby Congress on good causes. He tried to reassure her, saying that This Town really wasn’t about the public interest community but instead the people who’ve been “swallowed up” by this town. “One of the misconceptions about This Town is that it takes the entire city down,” he said. She left the mic looking less than convinced.
A member of the Politics & Prose audience even tried to turn his game on him and asked: “Of all the people [you’ve interviewed], who is your least favorite human being and your favorite?”
Leibovich initially looked like he might really answer. As in, you saw words coming out of his mouth.
“I guess the only way to duck this is to announce my candidacy for the presidency,” he joked. And with that, he began earnestly trying to come up with an answer: “There are some people who are completely full of crap. I have great respect for those people who live this dehumanized…” He stopped abruptly to explain, “I’m totally ducking your question.”