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Mark Leibovich Doesn’t Want to Be the #ThisTown Guy Anymore

This Town, Mark Leibovich’s 2013 portrait of the smarmy, sycophantic Washington of the early 21st century, famously pulled back the curtain on the chumminess and self-promotion and general unseemliness of what he called our gilded capital. But after what the country has been through since then, does anybody think on-the-make Capitol Hill PR hacks and attention-seeking party hosts are the republic’s biggest dangers anymore?

Not that the traumatic decade has ended the suck-up city rituals he described — or the excitement-masquerading-as-shame that many of the participants felt about having their vanities picked apart in a bestselling book. Back in April, when Washington’s media-political class gathered for the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner, I ran into none other than Leibovich himself in a corridor of the Washington Hilton. The writer’s recent move from the New York Times to the Atlantic meant that he was now free to attend the annual event, which the Times has skipped for years on account of the ethically questionable intimacy between the officials and watchdogs and corporate donors who flock to the gala. But Leibovich, who made a name for himself writing about that same dubious intimacy, looked like he’d rather be somewhere else.

“Mark!” exclaimed a man in the throng of people waiting for the metal detector. “It’s just like This Town, eh?”

Moments later: AnotherThis Town comment. And then another. Get a load of this, folks! The author of This Town is at the most #thistown event of all!

Leibovich cringed. Or at least I think that’s what he was doing behind his mask, one of the few in evidence at what predictably turned into a superspreader event. “I get that a lot,” he deadpanned. That’s surely music to the ears of the folks at Penguin Random House. Beyond selling Woodwardian amounts of books, the title became a hashtag, a meme and a convenient piece of shorthand for everything denizens of official Washington pretend to hate about themselves. It was also really, really funny.

Until it wasn’t. To pick up the book now, it could just as easily be a dispatch from a century ago, a time when politicians tackily jockeying for attention at an A-list funeral seemed like a gotcha. Yes, you can read it for clues about Washington’s obliviousness to the earthquake that lay ahead — and yes, it contains real reporting on sleaze that belies its jocular lampoon-the-stuffshirts reputation — but, in contemporary Beltway parlance, #Thistown has become code for what are essentially misdemeanor offenses. And we’re now in a time of felonies.

This also makes the impending launch of Leibovich’s follow-up volume complicated, from both a writing and marketing point of view.

“I don’t want to just be the guy who nailed Washington in the early teens,” Leibovich told me a couple months after the gala dinner, sounding somewhat rueful, when we met up at — #Thistown alert! — a Kalorama book party. “It’s not a comedy of manners.”

As it happened, the book party was celebrating Tim Miller, the former Republican oppo guy who just published a searing, angry book about how his fellow conservatives sold their souls for Donald Trump. In an interview last week with POLITICO’s Michael Kruse, Miller cited This Town as a kind of aspirational text earlier in his career, depicting an amoral insiderdom he longed for as a young operative. He also said the book was a lot less amusing on reread, and Miller was determined to do something different.

In fact, so is Leibovich. “I wrote in This Town, oh my God, the top guy at Treasury went to Goldman, what an outrage, you know?” he says. “And now we’re using terms like ‘civil war’ and ‘threat to democracy’ and it’s not overheated, and we basically have bigger fish to fry.” It’s like your favorite arena-rock band promising a darker, more introspective follow-up album.

Thank You for Your Servitude ditches the focus on broad Washingtonian folkways and narrows in on one particular local tribe — the Republicans who variously enabled and cowered before the 45th president. And in talking about them, the most consistently amusing political writer of his generation sounds not particularly amused. “With some glaring exceptions, these people are weak and rolled over or they made it work for them and continue to make it work for them,” he says. “If you want to be inspired by the example of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Lindsey Graham, great.”

The book’s path to outrage, though, was a twisty one — not unlike that of a lot of other Washingtonians who could have known better. It began as a somewhat straighter follow-up to This Town, set in a city where the Trump Hotel lobby had replaced the WHCA garden brunch as the essential venue, but where status-seeking and self-aggrandizement remained the business of the day. But a message from Leibovich’s editor last fall led to a fairly dramatic change in mood. “It was just that the tone of it was wrong,” he says. “I had to fine tune it more towards the enablers. It was not a fun email to read. I had thought I was just humming along.”

Leibovich estimates that he wrote about 65,000 of the book’s 90,000 words during a three-month stretch at the beginning of this year. When we spoke, he was also putting the finishing touches on an Atlantic excerpt where he was going to chronicle his own evolution along the way, something he doesn’t do in the book. The news environment shaped the tone. “A lot of stuff has happened in the last few months that has really cast into relief the nature of character. Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian resistance. Liz Cheney. … And as far as Republican resistance in the face of an existential threat, it’s basically like being run by the Uvalde police. So it’s cowardice cast in such sharp relief, and character over here.”

The book, which officially publishes next week, is actually less unfamiliar than fans of This Town might fear (or haters might hope). The writing remains funny. Leibovich’s style as a reporter is warm and teasing, with an eye for detail that’s usually absurd rather than appalling. The cover artist clearly didn’t get the message about it being a time of moral urgency: The drawing includes Ted Cruz in a sombrero, Ivanka Trump holding a can of beans, and Jeff Sessions as the Keebler elf. You come away aghast at many of them for their cravenness, but it’s still not a tome — unlike many others in the post-insurrection genre — that makes you want to punch anyone in the face.

There are also a few of the set-pieces that he deployed in the earlier book, notably a celeb-heavy funeral. It’s just that the effect of the scene is the opposite. In This Town, where the famous-for-Washington types are shown mourning Tim Russert, the funeral is an easily-mocked arena for one-upmanship by a bipartisan, self-perpetuating team that shows no fear of losing their special status. In Thank You for Your Servitude, it’s George H.W. Bush’s funeral, and the mourners are depicted — sans mockery this time — as a powerless bunch, yesterday’s people, grieving not so much for a man as for the secure era he represented.

It takes a while for the judgmental mood to sneak in. Much like his prior Washington book, and much like the hashtag it inspired, most of the pages of Thank You for Your Servitude depict misdemeanors, not felonies. But as they accrete, the misdemeanors point not to a generalized absurdity, but to a major crime. That makes it a comparatively gentle outlier in a season of full-throated denunciations. But maybe that’s the way outrages actually come together, acquiring menace while lots of people are busy giggling at the protagonists.

Which brings us back to This Town. Was that book itself an accelerant for the Trumpism that its author now condemns (but didn’t see coming back in 2013)? He allows that it may have supplied some of the specific images Trump used when he deployed the centuries-old American political tactic of running against the crooked capital city. “I do think that the Washington Trump ran against to great effect was that book,” he says. “Not that Trump read the book or was influenced by the book. But there was a level of revulsion that people have been running against for decades. And Trump just took the trope of Washington, and he made them parasitic hedge fund managers and sleazy lobbyists and these guys on TV with bad hair. He made it a carnival act and it worked.”

But what about the book’s other effect — on reporters and tastemakers and agenda-setters who spent time obsessing over the likes of ill-fated Capitol Hill press flunky Kurt Bardella instead of, say, the forces that in a couple years would be crashing the guardrails of democracy? Any regrets there? “No. Not at all. I think it captured a moment. If This Town came out amid an insurrection happening, amid the rampant criminality and everything we’re seeing, it would have been a ridiculous book. It would have been like reading a profile of the violinist on the Titanic. I mean, this was the moment that was the earlier part of the 21st century. Whatever it was, it feels very ‘was.’”