BILL MOYERS: You say that political Washington is “an inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in ‘The Club.’” And you describe “The Club”: “The Club swells for the night into the ultimate bubble world. They become part of a system that rewards, more than anything, self-perpetuation.”
MARK LEIBOVICH: Self-perpetuation is a key point in all of this. It is the question that drives Washington now: how are you going to continue your political life? I mean, the original notion of the founders was that presidents or public servants would serve a term, a couple years, then return to their communities, return to their farms. Now the organizing principle of life in Washington is how are you going to keep it going?
Whether it’s how you’re going to stay in office, by pleasing your leadership so that you get loads of party money. Or by raising enough money so that you can get reelected, and then getting another gig — in lobbying, in party politics — after you leave.
BILL MOYERS: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it ain’t.
MARK LEIBOVICH: No, it isn’t. And look, I tried to find a Mr. Smith character. I wanted to… And I thought there would be people that I could root for in Washington: a person who was there for the right reasons. But I couldn’t find him or her. And ultimately, I gave up trying.
BILL MOYERS: What does that say to you?
MARK LEIBOVICH: I think ultimately it says that this is a very cautious culture. And I think cowardice is rewarded at every step of the way.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Moral cowardice is rewarded in Congress. Everything about the Congressional system — whether it’s leadership, whether it’s how money is raised — is going to reward cowardice. The true mavericks are going to be punished. If you want to build a career outside of office when you’re done, you are absolutely encouraged to not anger too many people.
BILL MOYERS: Not take a big stand?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Not take a big stand, right. No truth is going to be told here, because of this cowardly, go along to get along principle. And I think that there are many ways in which the system is financed — the politics are financed, the way the media works — that will not under any circumstances reward someone who takes a stand.
BILL MOYERS: As you and I both know, many Americans see Washington today as a polarized, dysfunctional city. One that is not sufficiently bipartisan. But you describe it as a place that “becomes a determinedly bipartisan team when there is money to be made.”
MARK LEIBOVICH: That is absolutely true. I mean, ultimately, the business of Washington relies on things not getting done. And this is a bipartisan imperative. If a tax reform bill passed tomorrow, if an immigration bill passed tomorrow, that’s tens of billions of dollars in consulting, lobbying, messaging fees that are not going to be paid out…
The problem is excess. To some degree, it is perfectly emblematic of the reality distortion field inside of Washington; that our political class just has no sense whatsoever that the rest of the country is struggling, that the government is, financially, in very, very bad shape, and that Washington is not doing a good job…
And I don’t think this can be sustained. I think it’s indecent. I think it is not how Americans want their government and their capital city to be.
Mark Leibovich discussing his new book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America’s Gilded Capital with Bill Moyers.
A friend in D.C. who happens to be neighbors and acquaintances with Leibovich tells me that, originally, Leibovich was planning to make the subtitle of the book “How to Succeed in Suck-Up-City,” but that his publishers swapped it out at the last minute. I think it would’ve been a slightly more pungent description of a book whose tone is as cynical as its subject matter.
If you don’t have time to read the book — or if you are unsure if you want to read it — check out the entire Moyers-Leibovich discussion below. It’s one of the most lucid and demystifying (and utterly infuriating) conversations about our broken political system that I’ve seen in the past year.
Moyers introduces the program by saying, “Whatever you’re doing these last days of summer, stop, take some time, and read this book. I promise, you will laugh and cry and by the last page, I think you’ll be ready for the revolution. The title is “This Town,” an up-close look at how our nation’s capital really works. I can tell you, it’s not a pretty picture.” And I couldn’t agree more.