'This Town' and Washington's Bipartisan Culture of Dysfunction

Reporter Mark Leibovich explains the self-perpetuating nature of Washington.

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While many D.C. insiders pursue politics as a career, Mark Leibovich refers to it as "a game played by the nation's most ambitious and insecure class." In his book "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking – in America's Gilded Capital," Leibovich offers an exposé of what he calls the hopelessly interconnected, self-serving entity that Washington has become. The chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine examines the city that everyone loves to hate. He recently spoke with U.S. News about the self-perpetuating nature of Washington, how it has changed, and how Americans perceive its dysfunctional "Suck-up City" culture. Excerpts:

When and why did you decide to expose Washington?

I guess I could sort of argue that that's what journalists are supposed to do. I've been working here for a while, and I think every good journalist tries to reveal a little something about the person or institution or culture they're writing about. There wasn't an "aha" moment, but I do think that Washington had reached a tipping point of self-celebration that I wanted to explore in some greater depth.

What should Americans know about the capital city and the way it operates?

One thing that I tried to flesh out was that there are a lot of misconceptions. For as disappointed as so many Americans are in their government and in their nation's capital, there are a lot of myths. One is that Washington is very divided, but in fact, Washington is hopelessly interconnected. Everyone – Democrats, Republicans – are thriving in Washington, largely around a lot of the dysfunction that has been bad for the country.

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Why do you begin the book with Tim Russert's funeral?

I was just struck by this massive spectacle for this beloved newsman. He had this huge memorial at the Kennedy Center after he died tragically in June of 2008, and just watching the spectacle of people trying to work the scene and all the networking that was going on and all the angling. It really was this moment in which you saw just mourning as networking opportunity, and I was struck by that.

Does President Obama fit into the "Suck-up City" culture?

Not necessarily. I think a lot of people have criticized him for not playing the game enough and not socializing enough with people from Congress and not stroking the egos of people he might need on the other side in the way maybe Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton did. But the presidency is kind of its own ecosystem. It is such a superhuman job, and such a scrutinized job and such a bubble job that I don't really even know. In a sense, they're physically in Washington, but they're in such a different universe that it's hard to even judge.

How have the "usual suspects" contributed to the growing partisan polarization in Washington and throughout the U.S.?

I think one thing you learn from living in Washington is disagreement is very, very good for business. And lobbyists aren't going to get paid very much if issues are resolved and everyone is satisfied. The perpetuation of conflict is very good for the people who are billing hours consulting in any number of ways. A big industry depends on a perpetuation of conflict, and frankly, cable news depends on conflict and black-and-white assessments of reality when, in fact, Washington is a big gray area in many ways.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

When did Washington change, and when did politics become an industry here?

Politics has been an industry in D.C. for many, many years. One of the things that has changed now is that with the boom in consulting and the boom in political advice and the celebritization of politics over the last few decades, it's become one big business, but also a much bigger, more Hollywood version of itself.

Can Washington ever go back to how it used to be?

Probably not. Also, I'm not overly nostalgic. I'm not one of those people who thought, "Well, it was so much better in Nixon's time or Roosevelt's time." I think change is always on a continuum. I don't think anyone is suggesting that we get rid of the Internet and move the capital to Cleveland or something. I think one of the things you do as a journalist is try to hold the mirror to a culture and hope that people can see it in a way that's constructive to them, and if it brings about change, great.