In this episode of the Wait Wait… Washington, D.C., has long been thought of as a city filled with corrupt, cynical careerists who care only about themselves. Well, New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich has written a book called that basically proves it.
We’ve invited him to play a game called “You think you’ve got to suck up …” Leibovich may be an expert on Washington culture, but what does he know about the court of Versailles under Louis XIV?
Listen to the Story
PETER SAGAL, HOST: And now the game where we ask interesting people about things they’re not interested in. It’s called Not My Job. Everybody always thought of Washington, D.C., as a city filled with corrupt, cynical careerists who only cared about themselves. Well, New York Times reporter Mark Liebovich wrote a new book, called “This Town” that basically says we were all right. Mark Leibovich, welcome to WAIT WAIT.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Thanks, Peter, good to be here.
SAGAL: It’s great to have you.
SAGAL: So my first question is: What weasel talked you out of your initial title for the book, which was, I understand, “Suck-up City”?
LEIBOVICH: That’s a great question. I mean…
P.J. O’ROURKE: That’s a great title, too.
LEIBOVICH: My wife, basically. I blame her. No, we were talking, and we have young kids. It seemed a little crass and a little in your face. It was definitely close, and “This Town” won by a hair, sort of clean and generic, right?
SAGAL: I understand. Now you’d been in Washington for many years, right, as a reporter for the Post and for the New York Times.
LEIBOVICH: Yes, 16 years.
SAGAL: Sixteen years. And what finally put you to the point where you’re like I just have to write this book-length screed about these shallow, horrible people?
LEIBOVICH: I think it was probably a self – or an unconscious attempt to check myself before I became too much part of the club, maybe. But no, I don’t know. I mean, I think it was probably sitting at Tim Russert’s memorial service in June of 2008 at the Kennedy Center and seeing it degenerate into a cocktail party and people trying to book politicians and suck up to them while ostensibly mourning a giant in the news business.
So I figured Washington had then reached a tipping point of self-celebration and non-self-awareness, and it was time to write a book.
SAGAL: And there are a lot of parties in this book.
LEIBOVICH: There are, except I’m not invited to any of them anymore.
SAGAL: Yeah. Well, one of my favorite incidents in the book, it’s during the 2012 campaign. And this woman, who was working on the campaign, said, you know, something embarrassing, and the White House had to distance itself. And so the person from the campaign said oh, I don’t know this woman, and you say that just the week before they had been in a conga line at a Georgetown party.
LEIBOVICH: Yeah. Actually, well, one of the principals dispute there was a conga line, so I think I technically kept at dancing, although parenthetically I did include that I vividly remembered witnessing a conga line. But, yeah, I think that in a sense what – Washington has become one big conga line for conjoined interests, and Democrats and Republicans and people in the media and lobbying. And I think one of the myths about Washington is it’s hopelessly divided, but in fact it’s hopelessly interconnected into one big conga line.
O’ROURKE: And it’s like taking a bath in a tub full of live squid.
LEIBOVICH: Yeah, I guess it is.
SAGAL: You can quote him in the paperback edition, there you go. Actually, I wanted to ask you about that because this is a fairly frank book. You say a number of cutting things about a lot of people. And so what has been the effect on your, well, your social connections and your life in Washington?
LEIBOVICH: Oh, I’ve been out of town all summer. So I’m just now getting back and to experience the full scope of my pariahness.
LEIBOVICH: No, I mean, look, I have insulted many people by keeping them out of the book.
O’ROURKE: Exactly. Exactly.
SAGAL: Well, this is my question. You publish the book, and you say right on the back on the book, it says there is no index. If you want to find out if you’re in the book, you’re going to have to read it.
O’ROURKE: Did you really because that’s of course a famous Washington joke. That’s called a Washington read. A Washington read. You turn to the index and see if your name’s there, and then you turn to the page where your name is.
LEIBOVICH: So, you know, part of Washington read, which is you tell someone well, I didn’t read your book, but I praised it on television.
O’ROURKE: Which is better.
MO ROCCA: Can I ask about that cliche of Washington is Hollywood for ugly people? Is that right?
LEIBOVICH: Not really. I mean, it sort of gives Washington too much credit, I think, right.
FAITH SALIE: Mark, do you have a reluctant love for Washington, D.C. as well? I mean, you’ve devoted a lot of your years to covering it. It gave you a book.
LEIBOVICH: Yeah, I mean, I think I must. I mean, look, I choose to live here. I choose to write about politics. I mean, I’ve raised my family here. I mean, this is where life has happened, right? I mean, I like my job. My wife likes her job. My kids like their school, they like their friends, we love our neighbors. So here we are. So I guess you’d call that reluctant love, right, or either that or reluctant love-hate or something or maybe a secret wish to get run out of town.
SAGAL: Was there anybody upset at not being in the book?
LEIBOVICH: I think there were people pretending to be relieved. I mean, there was one very well-known talking head. He called me up and pretended to be very, very relieved not to be in the book, but in fact he was very, very aggrieved not to have been in the book.
SAGAL: Do you ever find yourself walking around or talking to these people and going oh my God, I am part of the problem, I’m behaving in a slimy, careerist way?
LEIBOVICH: Yes, sure. I mean, I think – look, I mean again, I’m pretty honest about this in the book, but I think people say, you know, are you part of the problem. I think I’m certainly part of the culture. And so maybe this is a cry for help in the form of…
ROCCA: I have something positive to say because I grew up in the suburbs, the Maryland suburbs of D.C., and D.C. has good museums. It has pretty monuments, and it’s one of the only cities where you can always smell cut grass. It’s true because there’s a lot of open spaces.
SAGAL: I love Mo’s idea it’s like this venal city filled with corruption that’s destroying the country inch by inch. But on the other hand, look at that lawn.
ROCCA: Well, and it used to be a swamp, and now it has very lush and verdant lawns. So…
SALIE: Hey, Mark, what is the craziest, most incommensurate thing you’ve ever witnessed at an insiders’ party? I mean, you know, you walked in on John Boehner being spray-tanned or Nancy Pelosi had a lampshade on her head. I mean, how did Cokie Roberts get her nickname?
LEIBOVICH: That’s funny, I don’t know.
SAGAL: All of us at NPR have to sign a statement saying we’ll never reveal that. Actually, I want to ask a different question because I did, I read the book, and I enjoyed it, it’s very funny, but it’s not very encouraging about the state of our politics or our capital. Is there anybody in Washington, I mean, and I don’t mean, like, you know, the gardener who takes care of the building, but in the system…
LEIBOVICH: Who takes care of the verdant grass.
SAGAL: Right. But who you actually admire, who you actually got to know this person, and you’re like wow, that is a great person who is not self-dealing, careerist or venal?
LEIBOVICH: Yeah, I mean, I meet them every day. I mean, I think – I mean, look, I…
SAGAL: People like yourself?
LEIBOVICH: I didn’t say that. I absolutely didn’t say that.
ROCCA: Lincoln was great, and he was in Washington.
SAGAL: Well, Mark Leibovich, we’re delighted to have you with us, and we’ve asked you here to play a game that this time we’re calling…
CARL KASELL: You think you’ve got to suck up.
SAGAL: So you wrote about the permanent culture that thrives in Washington, but things were even stranger in the royal court at Versailles, under King Louis XIV. We’re going to ask you three questions about the court of the Sun King. Get two right, and you’ll win our prize for one of our listeners. Carl, who is Mark Leibovich playing for?
KASELL: Mark is playing for Carly Riley of Chicago, Illinois.
SAGAL: There you are. Ready to do this?
SAGAL: First question. In the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, one very important job was coveted by the nobles, and it was what: A, the Royal Herder of Mistresses; B, the Remover of the King’s Morning Perspiration; or C, the Monarch’s Keeper of Lice.
LEIBOVICH: Oh, man. I’m actually going to say the morning – the person who takes the perspiration away.
SAGAL: You’re exactly right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
LEIBOVICH: I know that because we have one of those here.
SAGAL: I’m sorry, say that again, Mark?
LEIBOVICH: We have one of these in Washington.
SAGAL: Oh, you do, somebody who’s job it is to mop the brow of important people?
LEIBOVICH: Yes, exactly.
SAGAL: Well, the king getting up out of bed was a big deal. It was called the (unintelligible), and they had all these jobs that these nobles vied to do, and one of them was to sort of wipe off his night sweat. Now if you wanted the attention – this is question two – that was very good. If you wanted the attention of the king, you couldn’t just knock on the door. That wasn’t done. You had to do what? A, you had to stand outside his window and crow like a rooster; B, you scratched on the door with the fingernail on your left pinkie; or C, you had to hold your breath in front of him until he noticed you struggling and allowed you to breathe.
LEIBOVICH: I’m going to go with the left pinkie scratch.
SAGAL: Really? You’re right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: I’m impressed. How did you know that?
LEIBOVICH: I actually, I have to say, I just guessed. I mean, there was a little- I mean, yeah, I mean it just sounded the most plausible.
SAGAL: I mean, I imagine that, you know, I guess like oh, he’s such a long-nail is the equivalent of being a brown-noser, you know.
LEIBOVICH: Yeah, he’s a long-nailer.
SAGAL: Exactly. All right, let’s see if you can go for perfect here. I’m very impressed so far. If you were a courtier, if you were there at court, you didn’t just have to bow to the king, of course you did. You also had to bow to what? A, the king’s dogs; B, the king’s wig, when encountered sans king; or C, the king’s chamber pot?
LEIBOVICH: Oh man, I’m going to go with the dog.
SAGAL: You’re going to go with the dog. So if the dogs went by, you had to bow to the dog as if it were a representation of the royal personage.
LEIBOVICH: Yeah, didn’t Louis XIV, I think he was into dogs, right?
SAGAL: Yes, but in a noble way.
LEIBOVICH: Of course, a noble way.
SAGAL: No, actually, it was the king’s chamber pot.
SAGAL: If you happened to be in the corridor when the king’s servants were walking down with his chamber pot, you had to bow to its contents. Carl, how did Mark Leibovich do on our quiz?
KASELL: Mark, you had two correct answers, so you win for Carly Riley.
LEIBOVICH: All right.
SAGAL: So, Mark, I have to say if things end up being too hot for you in Washington, you can come to Chicago. Our politics are clean.
O’ROURKE: That’s right.
SAGAL: Mark Leibovich’s book is “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral and Plenty of Valet Parking in America’s Gilded Capital.” It’s great, it’s funny, it’s scary, pick it up. Mark Leibovich, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT…DON’T TELL ME!
LEIBOVICH: Thank you, Peter.
SAGAL: Great to talk to you. Take care.
Source: Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!More Series for You: