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.”
“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.”
Before embarking on his attempt to document Washington’s follies, Leibovich spent two decades profiling America’s political players, first for The Washington Post and later as chief national correspondent for The New York Times.
Life in Washington has introduced Leibovich to every type of political networking, including the kind that goes on in a synagogue. He is a member of Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in the tony Washington neighborhood of Cleveland Park. During the High Holy Days it’s the place to be, where politicians, diplomats and journalists mingle between, and during, prayer services.
Networking, Leibovich stressed, “exists in all spiritual communities,” not only in Jewish settings. He explained that in Washington, any venue and any circle, whether it is a faith community, a child’s school or a neighborhood, is used for asserting one’s social standing. “I think shul should be a sanctuary from all that, and I hope that people remember that, but I don’t think they do,” he said.
Jewish power, a long-standing myth or reality in Washington, depending on your viewpoint, was not a focus of Leibovich’s book. But Leibovich could not help observing some of the Jewish players in action, including the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren as he “hovered dangerously over the buffet table, eyeing a massive Christmas ham” during a high-profile reception. Oren’s security detail, the book noted, “was trained to protect him from terrorists, not treif.” (In a statement to the Forward from his press officer, Oren, who states he keeps kosher, adamantly denies having partaken in any ham.)
Leibovich portrays Jewish players in the nation’s capital in the same unflattering light as other power brokers trading favors there. The heavy atmosphere of cynicism, status seeking and money chasing does not discriminate. But Jews, for better or worse, are strongly represented in the book for the simple reason that they are vastly overrepresented in Congress, in the Supreme Court and in the executive branch.
At the same time, “This Town” could deliver a blow to many in the community who believe in the power of petitioning government for the common good, and to those who view serving in government as a calling.
“There are still believers everywhere, even in Washington,” Leibovich responded. “There’s a lot of belief throughout the country, and ultimately, that could be our salvation.”
Leibovich stopped short of offering solutions, stating that his goal is solely to “hold up a mirror to the world and write it as truthfully as I can.” But the intense response to the book, he said, conveyed a guardedly optimistic message. Readers may be willing to move away from business-as-usual politics, he said.
In emails he’s been receiving, Leibovich found people outside Washington expressing their frustration at the system, and players from within — a few, not many — who “were quite humbled and quite soul-searching,” after reading about the conduct of their colleagues and themselves.
Most, however, simply thanked Leibovich for mentioning them in the book (which purposely does not include an index, so that self-proclaimed players will be forced to read through the entire 368-page tome to know if their name has been dropped). Only a few, he said, were genuinely offended by the book.
“Certainly this book made some people in Washington uncomfortable,” Leibovich said. “I’ve lost some Washington friends, but I don’t think I’ve lost any real friends.”
The Forward previously reported that Oren reached for the ham, which misrepresented what Leibovich wrote in his book. Leibovich’s account never insinuated that Oren ate the ham. The Forward regrets the error.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.