Mark Leibovich Channels Jewish Outsider Status for Beltway Bestseller 'This Town'

Spirituality and Partisan Fervor Intersects in Washington D.C.

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By Nathan Guttman

Published August 09, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
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An anecdote described in the opening of the new book that has been rattling the nation’s capital tells the story of NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell and former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein, who are described as “Jews by religion and local royalty by acclamation.”

Invited to a dinner party at the mansion of the Saudi Arabian ambassador on the eve of Yom Kippur, both felt “pangs of Jewish guilt,” according to Mark Leibovich, the author of “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.” But it ended up to be, the author wrote, “such a coveted social function” that the pair “could not say no to this most holy of obligations.”

Mark Leibovich
Ralph Alswang Photography
Mark Leibovich

“Spirituality in Washington can be more of a — I don’t want to say it — but, a networking opportunity,” Leibovich said in an August 5 interview with the Forward. “Religion is often used opportunistically in the political conversation.”

A month after the launch of his book, and after reaching the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list, Leibovich was vacationing in Cape Cod, trying to get away from the buzz that his book has created in his hometown of Washington. It is a brutally sober look at the back stage of the real Washington, where politicians, consultants and journalists make up a class of their own, an unelected elite for whom personal gain trumps ideology.

Some of Leibovich’s heroes are household names, at least for those following politics. But many are known only inside the close-knit Washington circle: press secretaries to congressmen, lobbyists working behind the scenes and local socialites who show up at every event. The book, Leibovich told the Forward, has become “a marker for disgust” felt by Americans across the nation toward their political system.

Leibovich, 48, is the son of a Jewish immigrant from Argentina. He grew up in Massachusetts, in a home that he describes as “not a religious household,” where his family “went to shul very sporadically.”

The author points to his background as a possible explanation for the outsider standpoint he has adopted in examining his surroundings. It’s a perspective Leibovich views as a gift.

“I think that part of being a good journalist, part of being an awake member of the world you’re in, is to view yourself as an outsider, and I always have, to some degree,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because my father’s from Argentina, that I’m the son of an immigrant, I don’t know if its because I’m Jewish, but I have always been mindful that the best insights occur when you have some kind of an outsider perspective.”


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