mark-leibovich

Early in my ramble as a political reporter, I would come back to the office after a trip to, say, a Presidential debate, or a convention, or a campaign event with candidate so-and-so. Steve Reiss, my sagacious editor at the Washington Post’s Style section, would always begin his debriefing with the same question: “What was it like?” It struck me as a strange construction. He would not say, “How was your trip?” or “What’d you get?” or – in the case of an encounter with a profile subject – “What was he/she like?” He always said, “What was it like,” and after a while I took the “it” to incorporate the whole unnatural experience that these subjects endure on their daily high wires. In halting responses, I would share with Steve little stories and impressions and off-color details about my expeditions: how, say, John Edwards walked like a duck, or that Dick Cheney had no idea who John Travolta was, or that Nancy Pelosi had never heard of curly fries.
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Well, that last sentence might have made the opening paragraph of Mark Leibovich’s Citizens of the Green Room: Profiles In Courage and Self-Delusion (BOOK | KINDLE), the best opening paragraph ever.

Also, shouldn’t a candidate for election be required to notify the voters if they don’t know what curly fries are? If you were running against Nancy Pelosi, wouldn’t you make a campaign ad that focuses solely on that important fact? If I were running against Nancy Pelosi, I’d make a commercial where I just ate curly fries for 29 seconds and then said, “I’m Anthony Bergen; curly fries are the bomb, and I approve this message.

The principal players in This Town…trend old. Blacks…Hispanics, and gays are in short supply. So is the 99 percent. The gaping demographic disconnect between the town’s aging aristocracy and the rest of the city’s citizenry, not to mention much of the nation beyond the District’s borders, in some ways parallels the crisis of the present-day Republican Party…[but] the book is as much an indictment of the Democratic Establishment as it is of the Washington Establishment. And the two are often synonymous. That’s why the book is funny only up to a point.

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With a new season of House of Cards just around the corner, it’s time to lay in some reading for the inevitable post-binge withdrawal. Here’s a list to satisfy the inner Machiavellian megalomaniac in everyone.

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren 

One of the most iconic works about American power and politics charts Louisianan populist Willie Stark’s transformation from an idealistic lawyer to a powerful, corrupt, and charismatic governor, and the interwoven story of the narrator, journalist-turned-aide Jack. 

Primary Colors, by Joe Klein 

This classic work of political not-entirely-fiction was originally published anonymously, and follows the presidential campaign of a fictionalized Bill Clinton. 

Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury 

Scandal and shady dealings surrounding the confirmation battle over a new Secretary of State during the Cold War. 

This Town, by Mark Leibovich

The New York Times Magazine chief national correspondent gives an often hilarious and downright alarming inside look into the world inside the Beltway. 

Richard III and Othello, by William Shakespeare 

Francis’ stylistic forbears Richard and Iago monologue their way through their manipulations, forcing their audience into complicity. Richard especially would appreciate Frank’s methodical removal of anyone in his way, and the sex, threats and schemes he uses to do it. 

The Last Magazine, by Michael Hastings

The late Michael Hastings’ posthumously published last novel is a vicious roman a clef about media and political coverage. 

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep author Curtis Sittenfeld’s First Lady is loosely based on Laura Bush. 

House of Cards, by Michael Dobbs

The book that inspired the original BBC production that inspired the current Netflix show. 

King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett 

One of the greats of historical fiction tackles the real life treachery and ambition behind the Scottish Play. 

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro

Volume three of Caro’s doorstopping series, Master of the Senate, is particularly apt for its exploration of Johnson’s ruthlessly efficient tenure as Majority Leader. 

Longreads Member Pick: 'This Town,' by Mark Leibovich

This week’s Member Pick is from the new book by Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and a writer who’s been featured on Longreads frequently in the past.

This Town, published by Penguin’s Blue Rider Press, is Leibovich’s insider tale of life inside the Beltway bubble of Washington, D.C., and how the social lives of political lifers, journalists and hangers-on complicate the truth about what really goes on in the capital. The prologue and first chapter, featured here for Longreads Members, take place at the funeral for NBC Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert.

Read an excerpt here.

Become a Longreads Member to receive this week’s pick.

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Illustration by Kjell Reigstad; photo from Wikimedia Commons

Like anything, a great journalism career requires some luck – but it’s also a very meritocratic field. It’s hard to hide incompetence. If you can’t write/report, you’ll be exposed soon enough… And yeah, not a lot of people get into journalism – certainly print journalism – to get rich. But I would argue that the perspective and experiences and worldview journalism allows for makes it worthwhile.
—  THIS TOWN author Mark Leibovich on journalism. Read more of his Reddit AMA here.
And while living in D.C. can encourage cynicism, it can also breed daily wonder. When I drop my daughter off at kindergarten, I watch her and her friends stare out the window at the vice president’s motorcade as it sirens past en route to the White House. In the day-to-day, we can all be those kids with noses pressed against the glass.