Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and the author of This Town, the contentious and much-discussed exposé of Washington insiderness, published last July. Leibovich recently sat down with the Gate to discuss the importance of being critical, Washington’s obsession with writing about itself, and why you need to sleep before being opinionated.
The Gate: How can a book like This Town teach you to be critical of your surroundings?
Mark Leibovich: There’s a riddle: “Who discovered water? I don’t know, but it wasn’t a fish.” People often take for granted what’s around them, and you always have to be aware that the water around you might be alien to other species, whether its birds or people outside of Washington. I try to keep myself as an outsider. I’m an insider, but I try to have an outsider’s perspective, and I think that’s valuable.
Gate: Why is it important to be critical of the people and places around you?
Leibovich: Being critical is the nature of journalism. I think the best journalism is not afraid to criticize, and I think one of the criticisms I’ve gotten for the book is that I violated an unwritten rule: people on the inside are not supposed to be critical of other people on the inside. I guess that’s made some people uncomfortable, but that’s OK. Discomfort is OK; I think there needs to be more of it in Washington.
Gate: Is there something about Washington that breeds this very particular type of social self-consciousness?
Leibovich: That’s a really good question. I think that it certainly attracts a type. The archetype is the class president-type, the person who’s going to send you thank you notes upon meeting you for two seconds. I think it does self-select a kind of political person. But I also think it self-selects a lot of genuine idealists, people who want to work on a big stage, and people who want to play for high stakes. I think that creates a level of behavior that might not always be in the common good; it might be more careerist than you’d find at other places. I don’t think it’s anything in the water.
Gate: Is part of the book’s objective to subdue Washington’s never-ended habit of writing about itself?
Leibovich: Maybe. As part of the fish-ocean construction, you do realize the absurdity of the water. I didn’t go into this hoping to shame people, but I do think that a lot of what passes for the day-to-day conversation in Washington is a form of self-parody that I enjoyed naming.
Gate: What do you think the culture of celebrity in Washington does to other fields like consulting and journalism?
Leibovich: Celebrity extends very much to operatives. There’s this whole class of famous operatives: David Axelrod can walk through an airport and be recognized, and get autograph requests and pictures taken. That happens now...everyone has a face now. Robert Gibbs can leave the White House after less than two years and make two million dollars since he left giving paid speeches. Everyone’s doing that. It’s part of the world. Does it affect the importance people place on building their own brand at the expense of the guy they’re working for? Maybe.
Gate: Do you think journalism has drifted too far away from what some would see as its obligation to write about lesser known people and topics?
Leibovich: Yeah. I don’t know if journalists have an obligation to write about the common man; I think they have an obligation to write about relevant and important things that are meaningful to people, and obviously celebrity journalism has its place. But you need a mix.
Gate: You used to cover the technology industry for the Washington Post, and it’s certainly making a push now to get more involved in public life. Do you think the industry’s primary role right now is just to transfer its own philosophies and jargon into the realm of government? Are they adapting well enough to the purposes of the public sector?
Leibovich: Probably both. One of the reasons the tech industry is increasingly involved is because corporate America--and the tech industry is part of that--realized that influencing Washington, or becoming part of that conversation, is a seriously big value proposition that can serve their own interests.
Gate: Why do you think this culture of relentless innovation within the technology sector has coincided with a collapse in government institutions and/or the middle class?
Leibovich: That’s a good question. I don’t know if institutions in Washington have collapsed so much. Silicon Valley has been an engine for innovation for decades now. I also think that the internet has put this on steroids to a degree it wasn’t before. But I do think that Silicon Valley is treated as a wonderland. It has the same kinds of narcissism and vanity and opportunists that we have in Washington and Hollywood. I also think Silicon Valley was born of a counterculture at first in some ways, and it still is a counterculture in some ways. It’s filled with college dropouts...There’s definitely a more free-wheeling ethic there that’s grown elsewhere.
Gate: People love to ask about digital media’s role in politics, but is there something specific about the way email and Twitter on smartphones have transformed what people think of as serious means of personal contact in Washington?
Leibovich: I think it’s just easier to have a voice and platform. It’s become anarchy in the peanut gallery, sometimes at the expense of more considered, reflective thinking.
Gate: What would that kind of critical thinking be?
Leibovich: Well look: there’s a value on time, and there’s value in getting a good night’s sleep before you chime in on something. There’s value in re-writing something, and it being edited. There’s value in just marinating on something in your brain. Technology now allows for instantaneous forms of communication, and I think that that’s convenient to some degree, and seductive in many ways--it’s exhilarating. But it comes at the expense of a more refined view of the world.