Curious about politicos who brag and bloviate? Mark Leibovich has stories

New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich talks about the habits and hobbies of Washington A-listers.

Ralph Alswang
Marc Leibovich, chief national correspondent at The New York Times Magazine, skewers both politicians and media figures in his new book, 'Citizens of the Green Room'.

There is no one, at the moment, who matches Mark Leibovich when it comes to equal-opportunity skewering. Leibovich, the chief national correspondent at The New York Times Magazine, detailed the relentless striving of the media and political classes in his 2013 bestseller, "This Town".

Leibovich returns with a collection of his sharp profiles — most written for The Times Magazine and a few culled from an earlier stint at The Washington Post — in Citizens of the Green Room: Profiles in Courage and Self-Delusion. Among others, conservative commentator Glenn Beck and liberal counterpart Chris Matthews contribute to the self-delusional aspects, as do pols ranging from Dick Cheney to John Edwards.

Leibovich's specialty is finding and revealing the details and self-gratuitous tics that all of us, particularly those in prominent roles, strive to repress. Among the countless, wonderful examples in "Citizens of the Green Room": Andy Card, chief of staff to President George W. Bush, listing his appointments and obligations ad infinitum; Matthews, the MSNBC bloviator, regaling his interviewer with a running count of the number of honorary degrees conferred upon him; and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain cataloging his record-setting guest appearances on "Meet the Press" (69 as of December 2013).

Then, too, there is the spin-conscious language used by just about everyone in the political game. Of Ted Kennedy Jr., the author writes, "In the musty paralance of his heritage, he was being 'called to service.'"

On another occasion, encountering Bill Clinton, newly slim, Leibovich notes a feeling of "meeting a skinny older guy who is wearing a Bill Clinton mask."

Above all else, Leibovich explores how public figures differ, how their armies of assistants and staffers and public-relations consultants and harried lives change their day-to-day existence. He writes: “It is a privilege, of course, but also a big challenge to draw human texture from the lobotomized regimens of their bizarre lives.” Yes, that.

A profile of Politico writer Mike Allen, whose near-constant tally of Washington life, the Playbook, sets the agenda for much of the cable-news media and others, provides a peek into such ambition. Allen, Leibovich reports, “is childless and owns no cars or real estate.” But he can, of course, be found at any who’s who gathering in Washington.

Leibovich spoke with me about his latest book and the coziness of a capital too often portrayed as polarized when, in fact, its coziness causes as many problems as gridlock. Following are excerpts from our conversation.

Q. You are very nonpartisan in your mockery. Glenn Beck and Chris Matthews are sort of the bookends for that. Could you talk a little about the egos that come with not only politics, but also these larger-than-life media personalities?

Leibovich: One of the things I try to do, and one of the things that made "This Town" such a controversial book, is that I went after the media. I think the media tries to consider itself beyond reproach. "Well, we’re just in the media, we’re just telling the story." No, I think the media makes itself much more of a story than it ever did. Chris Matthews and Glenn Beck, for very, very different reasons, were very much at the center of the carnival politics in the year I was writing. [The Matthews profile appeared in 2008, Beck in 2010]. They still are in many ways.

Look, these are people who love to hear themselves talk. I mean, Chris Matthews – he’s not terribly happy with me and didn’t like the profile – but I think part of him was extremely flattered that someone, i.e., me, devoted the time and the space and the energy to actually writing about him.

The egos are as huge in the media as they are in politics and I think there’s a lot more overlap than people like to admit sometimes.

Q. Yeah, I don’t know if you know this or not, but Chris Matthews has a number of honorary degrees.…

Leibovich: [laughs] He does, as a matter of fact. As I was writing that, there were 21, I think. Although I’m sure there are more and I’m sure he’s kept track of exactly the number up to date. We might be up to the 30s by now.

Q. Another thing you document really well is the art of the humble brag, which I think Washington D.C. takes to Olympian heights. One of the examples is when you’re describing John McCain and you say, "He likes to provide unprompted recitations of his packed schedule." Talk a little about that.

Leibovich: They’re very touting of that. And then there are people who are always talking about how burdened they are because so many people are asking them to run for president. It’s so difficult for them. Chris Christie is now telling everyone how everyone is talking to him about running for president. He doesn’t know what to do with all these questions – such demand.

Q. A thread that runs through your stories is you are gently, maybe not-so-gently, mocking the egos, all of the self-importance, but, at the same time, you are stripping away a lot of that fame and that veneer and showing us the person underneath. They may not always be happy about that, but that seems to be your mission.

Leibovich: As reporters, as journalists, we sort of live in a tense zone. Politicians have an official story that they like to tell about themselves and journalists, ideally, will live in the world of reality. And there’s often a great gap between how a politician views himself and wants to be viewed to the world and how a journalist does. I try to write as true a story as I can and quite often it’s very much at odds with how the politician wants to be presented to the world. That’s why we’re not friends.

Q. How surprised are you that people still grant you access?

Leibovich: It is amazing. One of the profiles in here is of Chris Christie, which I wrote in 2012, and I just finished a profile of Gov. Christie [that appears in the Nov. 23 NYT Magazine]. And I talked to him and he said, “Hey, I just read your last book and it was really entertaining and really good, but why does anyone talk to you?” And I’m, like, “Well, you tell me, governor. We just spent three hours together.”

I don’t think for a second it’s because I’m so charming and likable. I think it’s because I’m attached to a major news organization and politicians are going to do what’s in their self-interest. Apparently, someone made the calculation that reaching the however-many-million readers of The New York Times is worth it for Chris Christie. It’s a risk, but I was going to write the story anyway, so they might as well get their voice in it.

Q. One of the best pieces in your book is when you go to Horn Lake, Mississippi, to watch the future governor of Virginia [Terry McAuliffe], Haley Barbour, then the governor of Mississippi and a longtime Republican strategist, and former President Bill Clinton. And it shows the incestuous nature of politics, power and money because all three of them are partners, in some way, with an electric-car factory in Mississippi. What was that like?

Leibovich: That’s one of my favorites. One of the dirty little secrets about politics — and I tried to reveal this in "Citizens of the Green Room" — is that behind the scenes, in the green room, these are all very chummy people. These are all people who, in the case of Haley Barbour and Terry McAuliffe, used to yell at each other on TV all the time, they’re business partners, they have a very cozy relationship. One of the misconceptions people have about politics in Washington is that it’s hopelessly divided. It’s really quite interconnected.

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