When Mark Leibovich's This Town first hit this town in mid-July, I got my copy and was all set to interview Mark and do a fun piece about how awful so many people in Washington are.
But instead I ended up spending 20 days in the ICU at George Washington Hospital with his book in my tote bag. I was with my husband of 30 years, who died on August 3.
I mean, poor Mark Leibovich. This shocking event in my own life has now put his nicely written but snarky book about the corruption of media and government in Washington in the same posting as the death of John Palmer. Because like many other great reporters, John spent a good part of his long career with NBC News here in Washington, and lived a life with values very different from those Leibovich glibly assigns to so many in "this town."
How do I balance writing something that was going to be fun, funny and a little mean with the loss of the kindest and best person I ever knew?
This is all about tone. Tone and intent, really. Oh, and love.
I was born and raised in Washington and have spent many years knowing a wide array of journalists and other 'players' here. A place Leibovich cleverly labels a "thrilling cocoon" where "citizens of the green room " engage in "inside beltway masturbation" and practice "friendship as craft."
This book promised to skewer a few easy targets whom I know well and who drive me crazy, too. Plus I have a fully developed mean girl side that really loves to laugh at people behaving badly.
I thought This Town might be the perfect book to breeze through while John was recuperating in the hospital. But then real life intruded and our family's journey went from a passing health worry to a denouement that was both beautiful and devastating, and now I can't see This Town as a fun little summer smack-down, but instead an example how hollow and clueless it is to reduce this city to players and games.
I found myself circling passages of the book and punctuating them with huge exclamation points. And snapping the book shut. The meanness. The cheap shots. The casual, extraneous put-downs. The ever-present instinct to assume the worst of people and the nasty asides that give the author away as complicit rather than accusatory.
This Town is a disappointment of not epic but high school proportions. There are valid lessons to be learned about monetizing influence and the self-delusion of insiders. But the gleeful zingers reveal nothing but the slightest of human foibles - vanity, insecurity and self-importance.
There is this about what happens at see- and- be- seen events like the White House Correspondents Association after parties:
There are always a lot of drunken losers at these things stumbling up to anyone in a uniform and saying "Thank you for your service." Many military guys I've spoken to find this hilarious.
Losers? Not well-meaning awkward people responding politely to someone who has dressed to be identified as serving in the military?
And there is this passage about Hillary Clinton that shows the author's far-reaching prism of assumed soullessness:
But moments of grief offered her entrée into the rituals of mass comfort at which she and her husband thrived. They have honed public mourning to a raw perfection. Even semi-private mourning: a Democratic press aide I know was with Clinton in 2002 when the news broke that Paul Wellstone, then her Senate colleague, had been killed in a plane crash in his home state of Minnesota. Upon hearing the news, in a holding room in suburban Philadelphia where she was attending a campaign event for Representative Joe Hoeffel, Clinton burst into tears. Her personal assistant Huma Abedin, asked my friend, the press aide, to leave the room. When she was allowed to return five minutes later, Hillary was again stoic and stone-faced, made no mention of anything being wrong, and gave her speech.
I hope I'm wrong but I think Mark Leibovich is saying that Hillary Clinton cried only to make one press aide think she was sad about the death of a colleague and United States Senator in order to keep up a façade of humanity? Or is the problem that she pulled herself together too quickly? This assumption of guile over sincerity, affect over heart, plasticity over humanity? It's just not true.
And anyone who writes this in the 50th year of the March on Washington should be ashamed.
To be sure, the 'real' city of Washington has an actual elected mayor: black guy, deals with our city problems. But that's just the District where people live, some of them (18.7 percent) even below the poverty line, who drag down the per capita income to a mere $71,011.
I wanted to enjoy this book and I think Mark Leibovich has talent and insight. I promise I tried. But I worry about the tone, intent and soul of a book like this. Probably because the place I find myself these days makes me see things differently.
This Town opens with a big and bravely tasteless set piece - Tim Russert's memorial service at the Kennedy Center which Leibovich describes as a "big-ticket Washington departure right that can be such a great networking opportunity."
Days after reading this, I found myself - along with our three daughters - planning a service that included some of the same people Leibovich had so glibly put down as careerist mourners.
Here is what Terry Hunt, Deputy Bureau Chief for the Associated Press in Washington, said at John's memorial service.
John was in bad shape when I saw him in the hospital a few days before he died. He had been in the intensive care unit for two weeks at that point and was getting oxygen. So he surprised me by asking about the Mideast peace negotiations that had just opened at the State Department. I wondered how he knew about them, why he would even care. I said the talks had just started, long way to go, lots of scepticism. It was not going to be easy for Obama.
His eyes were closed. John took in what I had said and thought about it. Long pause. And he quietly said, "Well, he's a good man for trying."
Such an incredibly sweet, unselfish thought at such a difficult time. That's goodness. That's something John knew about and cared about in his life. That's what everybody would say about John. He's a good man. And all of us here today, all of us who knew him and loved him, were touched by that goodness. Our lives have been richer for it. I'm so glad we were friends.
Let me conclude with my high school metaphor and assume the voice of Mark Leibovich's English teacher.
There is little to be gained by assuming the worst in people. You can do better than this. You are better than this.
I know I'm in a place right now where I am hypersensitive to all kinds of words but sometimes life is really all about your tone, intent and heart. And there is so much love to be found in this wonderful city that so many of us call home.
And just one more - an odd and offhand little bit about Trent Lott:
He mentioned to me that Senator Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware, calls him on his birthday every year. "October the ninth, phone rings, like clockwork, it's Tom Carper," Lott says, "Why would he bother? I'm gone, I'm retired. I can't do anything for him - nothing.
But he calls. It's nice."
Lott collects these expressions like snow globes.
Let's consider that Trent Lott collects these expressions because they come from friends.