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Leibovich recounts seeing Washington's public service become 'self service'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2013 - Washington journalist Mark Leibovich says loyalty to his craft makes him reluctant to suggest solutions to the self-serving -- and, at times, incestuous – antics of the capital’s influence-peddlers, decision-makers and chroniclers portrayed in his best-selling book, “Our Town.”

“My goal here was not to lay out solutions, but to hold a mirror to all this, and hope that people react in a productive way,” he said in an interview.

But Leibovich will offer one observation: “I don’t think this is sustainable.”

“It’s a very decadent time here,” he explained, referring to Washington and those who run it. And while those active in what he calls “the carnival” may be comfortable with their roles, “the level of dissatisfaction among people outside the city is quite high.”

“The overriding theme of my book is public service has become ‘self service,’ ” Leibovich said.

Now a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, Leibovich has spent 16 of his 48 years – a third of his life – working in the nation’s capital, much of it reporting on Washington’s chief industry: politics.

What he’s seen during much of that time, Leibovich said, is the transformation of several key cogs in the capital’s wheel – notably, lobbyists, staff and journalists – from behind-the-scenes players and observers into marquee figures often as well known, or better known, than the officials who are supposed to be running the government.

In fact, it was the huge turnout for the 2008 funeral of NBC political journalist Tim Russert – then the host of “Meet the Press” – that prompted Leibovich to quit thinking about his book, and take action.

“That’s when I began taking notes,” he said.What he saw at the funeral – the opening scene of his book – illustrates Leibovich’s broader point of what has become of the nation’s ultimate company town.

“Washington is very much a state of mind and it’s a state of mind that is somewhat transcendent of party lines, of ideological lines, and people talk to each other in a certain way, and interact in a certain way.”

“It’s basically one big club,” Leibovich said. “Never before has the political class been so big, been so rich and been so made up of people who desperately want to have public profiles. And increasingly that includes relatively anonymous members of the press, or people who used to be relatively anonymous.”

Take for example, lobbyists who once “did not really want to be seen or heard, and who now … are just fighting among each other to try to get on cable and have the best buzzed-about blog and highest speaking fee,” he said.

Political aides and operatives, who “used to be a fairly anonymous class … are now fighting to get on TV, and to get speaking deals, TV deals.”

To prove his point, Leibovich pointed to President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, which the reporter said displayed little of the “political purity of purpose” that had been the hallmark of Obama’s 2008 history-making bid for the White House.

Many of the same campaign architects, such as David Axelrod, knew in 2012 that they would not be returning to Washington and “were all mindful of what their own next act was going to be.”

“Many of them had their eyes on how they’re going to cash in,” Leibovich said.

The book also singles out a number of former politicians-turned-lobbyists – including former House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-St. Louis, and former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana – who are portrayed in unflattering terms.

Gephardt and Bayh, said Leibovich, are particularly “egregious examples’’ of politicians who espoused one philosophy while in office, and another after they left.

Gephardt, a two-time presidential contender in 1988 and 2004, had been a strong pro-union populist during his political career. But Leibovich points in the book to the anti-union corporate clients who have hired Gephardt since he left.

Bayh, a former governor who briefly ran for president in 2008, attracted a bevy of headlines when he declared in the New York Times that he wasn’t running for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, in part, because of the “ institutional inertia gripping Congress” and the “disfunction” in Washington. He’s now a lobbyist and cable-TV analyst.

Changed media

Leibovich’s targets also include Washington’s journalists, in a rapidly changing industry where newspapers – especially in the Midwest – have slashed staffs and reduced or eliminated their Washington presence.

At the same time, new media – led by online sites like Politico and the Huffington Post – have emerged as major players in the capital, with 24/7 news cycles and often noticeably young staffs driven by ambition as much as purpose.

“The media has changed,” Leibovich said. “There are just so many more opportunities and so many more platforms for people to speak and be known and to allegedly be heard. … All you need is a Twitter feed or a blog or a Facebook page or an Instagram account or something like that.”

Leibovich acknowledged that some critics have accused him of being among the Washington insiders seeking to cash in. “I guess the charge would be, I’m trying to raise my profile too,” he said. “That’s not what’s driving me here. I think this was an important book to write.”

So far, no one has challenged his accuracy, and no one has sued him, Leibovich said. “The bulk of criticism of me has been in the vein of ‘How dare someone on the inside criticize others on the inside.’ “

Traitor to 'insider class'

“That makes me, in some ways, a traitor to the ‘insider class,’ “ he continued. “But I don’t care about that.”

What he does care about, he said, is how his book is being received by those outside the Beltway: “I think the reaction of the rest of the country, and those who don’t find themselves as insiders has been very gratifying…”

“It would have been very easy not to write this book,” Leibovich said.

“I’ve got a great job, people invite me to parties … I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m very grateful to that and I love coming to work.”

So why did he write the book? “I wanted to really profile what it all looks like and feels like, and hopefully, do it in a fun and an entertaining way,” Leibovich said. “Ultimately, paint a picture.”

He later observed, “Maybe I was looking to shake things up or maybe, I was trying on one level to ‘check myself’ before I came a part of this culture.”

He’s still in Washington, and still, to some extent, a part of the culture. But Leibovich says he’s taking a break from politics.

His latest article is about sports.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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