|Bill Moyers: Can you frame the historical moment in which you're writing?
Mark Leibovich: I would frame it really over the last ten, 15, maybe 20 years you've had this explosion of money in politics.
Moyers: Gold rush, you call it.
Leibovich: It's a gold rush. People now come to Washington to get rich. That was never the defining ethic of the town, certainly 30 years ago. There is now so much money. It is now the wealthiest community in the United States. It is home to seven of the wealthiest ten counties in the United States. And frankly—it is—I mean, the power is obviously going to be very alluring.
There are going to be some idealists who's going to be the make-a-difference types. But ultimately this has more in common with Silicon Valley, with Hollywood, than with Wall Street. Which is a rush to cash in. It is a rush to somehow take from this big entity, this big marketplace, some kind of reward, as opposed to doing something that will reward the country.
Moyers: What's stunning is how disconnected Washington is, the political Washington that you write about, from the lives of everyday people. Is it because of this gold rush?
Leibovich: When you look at the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country, which people talk about. I mean, there's a shorthand, "Well, Washington is out of touch," right? People don't fully know what that is made of. I mean, I think you see intuitively on TV or when you visit Washington, that people don't talk and deal with people the way most Americans talk and deal with each other.
I mean, there's a language of obsequiousness, a language of selling, a language of spin. But most—but look—it is a wealth culture. These are people who are doing very, very well. It's true in the demographics, it's true in the sensibility.
Moyers: The people you write about in here seem very comfortable with this town.
Leibovich: They do. I mean, it's been very, very good for them. I mean, it's-- look, this town has worked for a lot of people, a lot of very good people, a lot of very bad people, and a lot of very mediocre people. But these are—a lot of this book is filled with profiles of people who have made this town work for them.
Moyers: What do the readers out across the country tell you about the picture you have reported?
Leibovich: Well the disconnect, it's interesting, Bill, has been very much displayed in the reaction of the book. I mean, I think in Washington you have had a very carnival like reaction to the book. It's, like, "Oh, who wins? Who loses? What are the nuggets? Will Leibovich be cast out? Will he not be invited to lunch with party X or Y again?"
So you have a very silly and shallow read inside the bell way, which is titillating I guess in its own way. Outside of Washington you have a truer sense of the outrage. You have a sense of an education. You have a sense of, "Oh my goodness. I've known Washington has been something I've been disappointed in. But I didn't know it looked like this. I didn't know it had come to all of this just this—incredible contempt for what they are supposed to be there for." Contempt for what their constituents are, i.e., us.
Moyers: You say political Washington is “an inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in the club.” And you talked about the club. "The club swells for the night into the ultimate bubble world. They become part of a system that rewards, more than anything a system of self-perpetuation."
Leibovich: Self-perpetuation is a key point in all of this. It is what you're going to—how you're going to continue. I mean, the original notion of the founders is that a president or a public servant would serve a term, couple years, return to their communities, return to their farm. 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, you know, by pleasing your leadership so that you get money, by raising enough money so that you can get reelected by getting a gig after you're done with Congress, after you're done in the White House, by getting the next gig.
Moyers: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it ain't.
Leibovich: No, it isn't. And look, I tried to find a Mr. Smith character. I wanted to, and I had some back and forth with the first publisher of this book, which is not the ultimate publisher of this book, about finding someone to root for. They wanted someone to feel good about to sort of run through the narrative.
And there are people I think I could root for, the people I like in Washington, I think people who are there for the right reasons. But I couldn't find him or her. And ultimately, I gave up trying. And I tried to sort of create a cumulative picture over a five year period.
Moyers: What does that say to you?
Leibovich: I think ultimately it says that this is not—well, first of all, it's a very cautious culture. And I think cowardice is rewarded at every step of the way. [...]