Of all the irritating things about Washington — the phoniness, the showy cars, the utter inability of a metropolitan area of 6.9 million people to produce a single decent slice of pizza or a passable submarine sandwich with oil and not mayonnaise — none is more infuriating than the local insider habit of referring to the place as "this town," as in "He's the most important power broker in this town" or, more likely (and worse), "The way to get ahead in this town is to seem not to be trying to get ahead."
So when Mark Leibovich sketches a portrait of the nation's capital — a phrase used only by people who don't live there — and calls it "This Town," you know he's got a sharp ear, and a sharp eye to accompany it.
You also know that he's got the sharp knives out.
Here it is, Washington in all its splendid, sordid glory: the pols, the pundits, the Porsches. Plus the hangers-on, the strivers, the image makers and the sellouts, all comprising what Leibovich calls "a political herd that never dies or gets older, only jowlier, richer and more heavily made-up."
He's an insider, Leibovich — first a reporter at the Washington Post, now the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine — yet he seems to wear those special glasses that allow you to X-ray the outside and see what's really going on. An unusual parlor trick that, particularly in light of the A-list insiders jammed into his acknowledgments, not a single one of whom could have pulled off this book, even though half of them will email me and say they could. (Memo to all of you: Don't.)
He opens with an account of the 2008 funeral of the NBC Washington bureau chief and "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert, and as a quarter-century resident now in happy exile, I suppose I should stick to form and mention, hideously, that we — Tim and I — came to Washington at the same time and were friends, although mostly because I had a wife from Buffalo, and he delighted in teasing her about her bowling. The people at this funeral (and as I recall, this was an invitation-only rite) adhered to what Leibovich calls "the distinctive code of posture at the fancy-pants funeral: head bowed, conspicuously biting his lips, squinting extra hard for the full telegenic grief effect."
The book is already generating buzz over Leibovich's account of White House efforts to shape a profile in the New York Times of the first friend Valerie Jarrett and the administration's apparent push to encourage Capitol reporters to disparage the conservative stalwart Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Start to finish, this is a brilliant portrait — pointillist, you might say, or modern realist. So brilliant that once it lands on a front table at the Politics & Prose Bookstore on upper Connecticut Avenue, Leibovich will never be able to have lunch in This Town again, not that there is a respectable non-expense-
account lunch to be had in those precincts.
That said, this is a different Washington from the one I departed from a decade ago (Pittsburgh: what a relief!) and surely a different one from the era when, among the Washington royalty, only Alsop (and not Reston, Broder, Kraft, Evans or Novak) required a first name, and only because there were two of them (Stewart and Joseph).