Read An Excerpt Of Mark Leibovich's 'This Town'

Washington is one of the two or three most popular destinations in the country (along with New York and possibly Los Angeles) for those seeking self-creation, reinvention, and public purpose on a grand and national scale. People work obscenely hard, and they do it despite/because of the baggage they bring. And they do it, in many cases, with a desperation that, to me, is the most compelling part of the Washington story, whether now or before: it is a spinning stew of human need.

I make no claims of immunity. Or-Lord knows!-superiority. I am part of this culture and under no illusion that it cannot rein- force my worst tendencies at times: vanity, opportunism, pettiness- it's all there on the psychic résumé. I struggle with all of it and more. But this is my home and my experience and I write from it willingly.

It is also, of course, a position of privilege. My job allows not only for a prime spot against the glass but also forays behind it to see the momentous and ridiculous up close. I have profiled hundreds of political figures over the years and have spent considerable time in their presence (and who knows why they continue to allow this?). They will often play to caricature-their own and the city's-but they are also human beings who are usually engaged in important work. The entertainment value here can be great but ultimately incidental. Washington is not Hollywood (or "Showbiz for Ugly People" as the dumb cliché goes). The stakes are real and higher.

In the words of Republican senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, today's Washington has become a "permanent feudal class," a massive, self-sustaining entity that sucks people in, nurtures addiction to its spoils, and imposes a peculiar psychology on big fish and minnows alike. It can turn complex, gifted, and often damaged individuals into hollowed-out Kabuki players acting in the maintenance of their fragile brands. I have seen this up close, too, often in the most fateful environments, like this, Tim's send-off, the biggest tribal pageant This Town had seen in some time.

You know someone big has died when they play "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes and interrupt the president with news of the passing: George W. Bush was told of Russert's death while dining in France with President Sarkozy. They have metal detectors at the funeral entrance, because so many high-value targets have come. And many men in the crowd are glowing with Queen Elizabeth levels of Pan-Cake makeup as they are coming straight from their TV stand-ups, or "hits."

"I feel almost like we did when somebody-when Jack Kennedy or even Katharine Graham died," blogged Sally Quinn, a former Washington Post reporter who is a Georgetown hostess and the wife of the Washington Post 's illustrious former editor, Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee. Sally is shattered. But looks fantastic, at almost seventy. So does Ben, even better (nearing ninety). Will the silver-haired BFF to JFK get a send-off like this? Lord knows he will deserve one, but it will hopefully not happen for the longest of whiles. Ben was the Washington alpha journo of his day, with a presidential scalp to end any discussion. He also played the transactional local game as well as anyone. "Did he use me? Of course he used me," Bradlee said of his late friend John F. Kennedy in a 1975 interview. "Did I use him? Of course I used him. Are these the ground rules down here in Washington? Hell, yes." Ben Bradlee is the Man. He is The Club.

Tim Russert was the mayor of it. He was a superb journalist-not so much in the sense that he wrote or produced stories or unearthed wrongdoings, but in the sense that he was a guy on TV whom everyone knew, who asked the "tough but fairs" of important newsmakers and did so in a way that was distinctive and combative and made for good TV. If you were a politician of serious ambition, an invitation to his set was your rite of passage and your proving ground. "It was like you were being knighted," Bradlee said of get- ting on the show. "All of a sudden you went up a couple of ranks in their class." And then, when the program was done, everyone would rate your performance.

Russert became more famous than most of the people he interviewed. After a while in Washington, the fame itself becomes the paramount commonality between the parties. You are a commodity, Someone on TV, with an agent and a chief of staff. (Even Chelsea Clinton has a chief of staff now!) You start using "impact" as a verb.

After a while, the distinctions between the clans all run together-the journalists, the Democrats, the Republicans, the su- perlawyers, the superlobbyists, the superstaffers, the supercommittees, the David Gergens, the Donna Braziles, and the loser on Facebook who says he'll be on Headline News at 2:20 p.m. They run together like the black-tie dinners, or the caricature drawings of no- table Washingtonians on the wall at the Palm on Nineteenth Street. If you're lucky and you stay long enough, you can get your picture taken with some really notable Washingtonians and then show off the photos on your office "Me Wall."

Yes, Russert was the mayor of This Town. To be sure, the "real" city of Washington has an actual elected mayor: black guy, deals with our city problems. But that's just the D.C. where people live, some of them (18.7 percent) even below the poverty line, who drag down the per capita income to a mere $71,011-still higher than any American state but much less than what most anyone at the Russert funeral is pulling down. Yes, Washington is a "real city," but This Town is a state of belonging, a status and a commodity. Russert was such an intensely present figure, his face filling the whole screen like he was right there in front of you. People would approach him at Reagan National or after one of his paid speeches, where he would tell the same jokes and stories over and over, like a politician does. Non? Meet the Press?worthy lawmakers chased him into the men's room, trying to make a charismatically folksy impression. Strangers told him all about their cousins from Buffalo and commended Tim for "holding our leaders accountable" and for being so real, because somebody in Washington had to be real. That was Tim's job. Fans would ask him to deliver a message to the president, as if everyone in This Town lived together in the same high-rent group house and bickered over the rent and shared Bob Dole's peanut butter.

Tim possessed all of the city's coveted big-dog virtues: He was not to be fucked with. He seemed happy and excited and completely confident at all times, and why not? His killer persona combined a Guy's Guy exuberance with gravitas. Tim had a great table at the Palm and drank Rolling Rock from a bottle and ate good, manly food that wasn't drizzled with anything. He testified at the Scooter Libby trial. He had great seats for the Washington Nationals and people asked him to sign their tickets between innings, and maybe Greenspan had signed the ticket before, and James Carville, too, and also Bob Schieffer, all of them together on the same ticket- like a D.C. version of a '52 Mantle baseball card.

Russert, of course, had many friends, which he worked at with a politician's attention to gesture. He would handwrite sympathy and thank-you cards and send baby pillows embroidered with the name of your newborn. He went to spring training every year and brought back a Jason Giambi autograph for E. J. Dionne's son. Tim was classy that way. When the former Senate leader Tom Daschle's father died, Tim sent his widow an ensemble of T-shirts, hats, and a jacket bearing the Meet the Press logo. Mrs. Daschle could be seen for years wearing the jacket around Aberdeen, South Dakota.

I probably had about a half-dozen conversations with Russert over the years, usually about sports or politics. Our last in-person encounter was in February of that year, 2008, at a Democratic presidential debate in Cleveland, which he was moderating. He had just finished a workout in the gym of the Ritz-Carlton and was walking through the lobby in a sweaty sweatshirt, long shorts, black loafers, and tube socks. A network spokesman tried to declare the mayor's outfit "off the record," which I of course made a point of mentioning (gratuitously) in a future story in the New York Times Magazine.

Before I did, I called Russert to give him a heads-up about this, because nothing is more important in Washington than giving or getting a "heads-up," the better to avoid the intolerable humiliation of being surprised or blindsided by some piece of information. One could argue that an entire boom industry, lobbying, is predicated less on influencing the government than on giving heads-ups to big- paying clients about something that is going to happen whether or not they paid a lobbyist a $50,000-a-month retainer.

Anyway, so I called the mayor to give him a heads-up about how I would not be honoring the flack 's off-the-record outfit request. He laughed so hard I had to move the phone away from my ear. "Just do me one favor," he said. "Say they were rubber-soled shoes, will you?"

He laughed again, and we talked brief ly on the topic of how so many people in This Town are obsessed with where they rank in the great pecking order. Concern over one's place is hardly original to these times in Washington. But the orgy of new media, news-about-news, and the rolling carnival of political moneymaking and celebrity has only exacerbated This Town's default vanity.

Source :

Read an Excerpt of Mark Leibovich's 'This Town'
Review of Mark Leibovich’s ‘This Town’
Politico Has Published an Astonishing 17 Items on Mark Leibovich’s “This Town”
Read an excerpt of the mystery book featuring Barack Obama and Joe Biden as action heroes
Grading every NFL team's offseason: Browns and Eagles earn top marks, while Giants and Texans finish last
The Twenty-Five Most-Read New Yorker Archive Stories of 2018
Coziness Befits This Town
10 rules for succeeding in Washington, ‘This Town’ style
SoCal theater listings, June 16-23: ‘Anne, A New Play,’ ‘Death of a Salesman’ and more
Behind the Cringeworthy Curtain