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Mark Leibovich On The Eric Cantor Sweepstakes, And Eric Cantor Beef Steaks

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
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HH: The Cantor Sweepstakes. What in the world does that mean? An article that will appear in the New York Times Magazine this weekend by Mark Leibovich, author of This Town and a colleague of mine in a memorable three hour epic interview joins me now. He is of course the New York Times Magazine chief national correspondent. The Cantor Sweepstakes, Mark Leibovich, welcome back, good to talk to you.

ML: Thank you, Hugh, it’s good to be back.

HH: This really shook a lot of, my Twitter feed lit up when this thing hit today.

ML: Cool.

HH: Why do you think it’s striking a nerve?

ML: I think it strikes, I don’t know, I mean, I think this issue that being elected to public office in Washington is somehow a lifetime appointment, if not in office specifically, into some kind of political class in which you are paid very, very well, and you’re set for life, is exactly at the core of what drives, you know, a lot of the anger at the grassroots on both sides of the spectrum.

HH: Yeah.

ML: And I think that that’s, you know, that’s certainly been true for a while, but it seems to be, I think, cresting to some extent. And yeah, I mean, the reaction on the piece, at least for the last 24 hours, has certainly borne that out. So I’m happy about that.

HH: Now I follow some lefties, but not a lot of them. And so I’m curious, I know what the right wing is saying about this, and they are very upset with the prospect of everybody cashing in, and everybody never leaving. But I didn’t know that the left would be upset. So who…

ML: Oh, very much so. I mean, look, it’s part of, I mean, look, the left and the right have fairly, you know, the left would say that oh, well, this makes the argument that there’s too much corporate influence on the political process, whereas the right would say yeah, well, this is just proof of what happens when government gets so big. You have so many derivative sort of parasites that people will choose to cash in on. And you know, this is the consequence to that. But no, I mean, I think, look, I don’t think that it’s a particularly partisan notion that public service is, should be something that people do humbly for a short period of time, and hopefully in their communities rather than coming to this big gravy train that is set on the Potomac.

HH: Now I must confess, I’ve never been to Bobby Van’s. I don’t know where it is. I have no idea how you could possibly spend $124,000 there. Is that in a two year period of time?

ML: Apparently, yeah. I mean, look, I’ve, I’m not, I think I’ve been there maybe twice. But yeah, no, he apparently loves steak.

HH: Well, I love steak, too, but $5,000 dollars a month in steak dinners is, that is the gilded age.

ML: Well, apparently the voters of the 7th Congressional district of Virginia agree with you. I mean, look, it’s obscene. I mean, it’s a great juxtaposition, though, between how people are perceiving Eric Cantor and what, where he was spending his time as opposed to what David Brat was.

HH: Now for the benefit of the audience that doesn’t know, Eric Cantor when he lost to David Brat, his campaign finance report had revealed he had spent $124,177 dollars at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse. I don’t know where it is. Is it in Virginia, by the way?

ML: It is on, I think it’s 15th Street. It’s actually not far from my office. And I walk by there occasionally. I think it’s like, it’s pretty close to the White House, like a 5-10 minute walk from the White House.

HH: Okay, so that is, boy, that’s just a lot of dough to spend in one steakhouse. And that’s a lot of steak dinners. David Brat, the man who beat Eric Cantor, spent less on his entire campaign than Eric Cantor spent on steak at one restaurant.

ML: Yeah.

HH: And that is gilded age stuff. It’s also kind of Rome. And Mark Leibovich, we talked about this when This Town came out.

ML: Right.

HH: Americans are beginning to think that your town is Rome, and we’re all out in the provinces.

ML: You know, a lot of people here think that, too. Actually, I don’t know if a lot of people here think that, but I certainly think that, and that’s why I wrote the book. But I do think that look, I think people need to know exactly what Rome looks like. I mean, I think for years, there’s been sort of a free-floating sense that look, Washington is out of touch, Washington doesn’t work for America, people have been there too long. I mean, there’s some pretty freeform, you just sort of shorthand ways of describing the dysfunction of Washington. But I think you know, one of the things that we need to do and really work hard at, especially as journalists, is to try to paint a picture, you know, day in and day out, to help people understand exactly what this disconnect looks like.

HH: Now is it that Eric Cantor is going to make money? Or is it that he’s going to make so much money that is the problem, Mark Leibovich? We’ve got about 45 seconds to the break.

ML: I think both are pretty obscene to people. I mean, look, I mean, I think one thing that no one mentioned to me as a possibility is that he was going to go home to Richmond and you know, open up a law firm or a general store or something like that. I mean, I think that that’s basically unheard of in this day and age.

HH: It is, and when we come back from break, I’ll ask Mark Leibovich whether or not what happened to Eric Cantor is changing the way in which at least people in Washington, D.C. work to be perceived, whether or not they’re going to try and avoid running up six figure steakhouse bills during a two year election cycle, because I actually think Kevin McCarthy is in the same perilous situation that Eric Cantor found himself in. The people of Bakersfield are not buying anything like what we see going on in D.C.

— – – –

HH: LeBron and ‘Melo have nothing on Eric Cantor. I’m glad you worked a LeBron reference in here, Mark Leibovich, and I hope you know that by going to Cleveland, you have to let me take you to dinner during the 2016…it’s my home turf…

ML: Absolutely.

HH: I’ve got to take you to dinner one night. I avoided you like the Plague, because you were writing a book at the time of the RNC in Tampa Bay, but now, now it’s safe.

ML: You were so nice to me there, though. Wow. No, I’m happy to be subjected to your hometown hospitality.

HH: And you’ll love Cleveland. Have you ever set foot in Cleveland, Mark Leibovich?

ML: You know, I’ve set foot there. I haven’t spent significant time there, so no. I mean, I’ve driven through, I’ve been at the airport, I think I’ve been to a few political events. But no, I wouldn’t claim to have any great familiarity with the city. But I look forward to doing it, and I think like a lot of people, very, very happy that LeBron’s going back there, just as a, just, you know, as a good story and a good, you know, sort of great American sort of full circle story. And we’re rooting for them.

HH: There is a terrific story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer today about how real news and sports news blur in Cleveland, in Northeastern Ohio, in my hometown of Warren or in Akron or in Cleveland. It’s just, it’s all the same thing, and I would recommend it to you. But it also underscores for me, John Kasich went to work for Lehman Brothers. But he avoided the perception. He was in Lehman Brothers, but he wasn’t of it. And he was able to come back, because he’s the son of a mailman, and you know, a guy of Ohio. And how does he manage to avoid the taint, but other people get sheep-dipped in it?

ML: I don’t know. I mean, I think part of it is how will you skirt it, how well you present yourself. I mean, I think, and by the way, you mentioned Kevin McCarthy. I mean, I think that he is obviously someone who you would probably put in the class of someone who needs to be careful not to be perceived in that way just for fear of what happened to Eric Cantor happening to him. But I think that look, I think Hillary Clinton’s very much in that category. I think there is a sense in the electorate, you know, again on both sides that anyone who has been around too long, who has rubbed shoulders with the same sort of ruling establishment interest is somehow vulnerable and suspect. And I think that that’s very real, and I think that that’s a danger for everyone.

HH: You know, Kevin McCarthy comes home almost every weekend. That’s a hard thing to do to go back to Bakersfield. It’s a long trip. It’s a wonderful city, but it’s a long trip every weekend. On the other hand, down in Tampa Bay, I’ll never forget sitting in the back of the room watching him listening to Journey, talking to everyone on the upper level, which was the double triple VIP level. And here’s where I think the Tea Party is rooted, Mark. I want to test this out on you. It’s not so much about ideology. It’s about privilege. That’s why I think your book and your article taps into it. American politicians are not supposed to be privileged.

ML: Right.

HH: They’re…I don’t even think it’s the money. I think it’s the attitude.

ML: I wouldn’t even use the word entitlement. I think, you know, privilege, entitlement, but that’s true. I mean, I think that look, I mean theoretically, everyone’s entitled to make a living, and I guess they should make as money as they can. But what’s, I think, what’s I think tiring to people, and what I think is offensive to people is the idea that okay, I’m here, and now that I’ve “served” in public office, I am entitled to cash in because I’ve worked so hard for so long. And if Goldman Sachs or the Cantor Group or some K Street firm wants to hire me, great, I am entitled to this.

HH: And what are they buying? That’s the other question that the number of offers, and you have to read Mark Leibovich’s story to understand the kind of money, seven figures that Eric Cantor is looking at. What are they buying with that, because you don’t give someone multiple millions of dollars for nothing. And you know, I’m a lawyer. I know what lawyers do, and I know how they advance…

ML: Yeah.

HH: But what does Eric Cantor do for you?

ML: Well, well, I mean, I think Cantor, actually, is sort of a quadruple threat. I mean, on hand, he has all kinds of ties, obviously, to existing members of Congress and staff on the Hill, but also many people in the private sector. Many of his former staff people now lobby or consult, and are making tons of money. So he obviously would be able to work very closely with them, and he’s also a lawyer. His wife also worked for Goldman Sachs. He’s also extremely well tied into Wall Street. He obviously knows the legislative process. So I mean, they’re buying, I mean, assuming he works diligently on behalf of whoever is paying him, they are buying someone with a great deal of experience and quite a rolodex. So theoretically, it could be a boon. But also, I think what happens in a lot of cases is banks or lobbying firms or law firms or whatever will pay, or corporations, will pay a big name who was just sort of been voted out or retired, and expect that well, now that they’re here, we’ll just like make endless rain, because we have hired, you know, Senate Majority Leader X or Y. And it usually, you know, quite often, it doesn’t work out that way.

HH: No, making rain is hard, actually.

ML: Sure.

HH: You have to be able to persuade people that you will fix their problem, not just make them feel good about having it.

ML: Right.

HH: And that, Eric Cantor’s a very smart guy, and that was where I wanted to kind of finish this segment with you. Was part of the backlash to Cantor not merely privilege and entitlement, but also he was perceived as being very, very smart, and he is very, very smart…

ML: Yeah.

HH: …and therefore out of touch with the American base, or the right wing base?

ML: Well, I think what his electorate would have asked is who is he working for, right? I mean, is he working for us, or is he working for, you know, whatever interest he’s spending his time with. I mean, he didn’t seem to go home that much, and whether fair or not, there was certainly a perception that he was not someone who understood the needs and the constituents of the 7th Congressional district of Virginia. So you know, that’s fatal if you want to continue to serve in elected office. But I think he’ll be fine no matter what.

HH: There are three big headliners at the Western Conservative Summit, Mark Leibovich. One is Ted Cruz, one is Sarah Palin, and the third is Bobby Jindal. Now you can’t come up with three more different people than that. They are, I’m not even sure how you would describe them on a political spectrum. But they’re all, they’ll bring everyone to their feet in the way that I was with Marco Rubio in Florida last Friday with the Alliance Defending Freedom.

ML: Right.

HH: He got standing ovation after standing ovation. And I can’t figure out, and I spend time with him, what the conservative base wants their people to say about D.C. What do you think it is?

ML: Well, I mean, I think probably that, I mean, look, change is obviously a catch-all. You know, I think Sarah Palin, believe it or not, you know, of all people here, is actually, was one of the earlier people on the right to actually talk about crony capitalism, you know, at least in the last cycle, right, and to talk about the revolving door, and to talk about the permanent political class. And I think that that’s very resonant. Now what I would ask you, though, is where do you put Chris Christie on this continuum, because when we first met I guess about three, four years ago, he was the rock star. Or actually this is now like two years ago, right? It was like it was in Tampa in 2012. So yeah, we were at that California delegation breakfast.

HH: Yup.

ML: Kevin McCarthy was there, also.

HH: And I introduced him. We’ll come back after the break. I introduced Chris Christie. I actually introduced Meg Whitman who introduced Chris Christie, and he was a rock star. And we’ll talk about that when we come back with Mark Leibovich to conclude today’s Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – – —

HH: Mark Leibovich, I’ve got to tell you very quickly, I read a mock Iowa Caucus today for 30, they were all men, 30 young men between the ages of 16 and 20. I explained the rules of the caucus, and had them make their selection. They divided into three groups, primarily Christie people, Rand Paul people and Ted Cruz people. And at the end, the Christie people threw him overboard, and sided with Rand Paul to deny Ted Cruz the win. It was a fascinating little exercise to hear what they said between the 16 and the 20 years olds. And Rand Paul, you know what he appeals to, but the Christie people, it’s not ideological. They like his persona. And so I think he’s by no means out of it. It’s not ideological. I think it’s who’s going to be the most anti-D.C. is going to have a huge advantage in this thing.

ML: Right, that is true. I mean, look, I think that, I mean, I don’t, what I’m trying to measure just you know, as a consumer of this stuff, is whether the momentum that he seemed to have a year ago, even two years ago, is still as much of a factor. And look, I mean I do think that the Republican Party, I mean, needs to have an argument with itself. And I mean, who better to be part of it than him. And you know, I don’t know. I mean, I do sort of wonder where the energy of the caucus is or certainly of the party is in a caucus or primary campaign, and whether he still has that kind of…

HH: You know, I’m mystified. It’s a roller derby.

ML: Right.

HH: And I’ve never been, I’ve always kind of known in the last two cycles and before that, going back as far as Bob Dole and Herbert Walker Bush, kind of always known who was going to be the nominee, maybe McCain and Romney in 2008 were duking it out.

ML: Yeah.

HH: It could have gone either way, but you knew it. No one has any idea right now.

ML: Yeah, sure.

HH: And a lot of that depends upon tapping in. They should all be reading This Town and being against it. They should be denouncing you, actually, Mark Leibovich.

ML: I agree, no, they shouldn’t denounce me. They should celebrate the book and denounce what I denounce.

HH: Exactly.

ML: We have to triangulate this, Hugh.

HH: Mark Leibovich, great talking to you. I hope I will see you before Cleveland, but I do get, I have dibs on a dinner with Leibovich in Cleveland so I can show you the glories of Progressive Field or of Pickwick and Frolic. Remember that name, Mark Leibovich.

ML: Pickwick and Frolic? Is that like a steakhouse?

HH: Yeah, it is. It’s on E. 4th Street. It’s a great club across from the Hard Rock Café between the convention center and Quicken Arena.

ML: All right.

HH: And you will love Pickwick and Frolic.

ML: I want a Cantor-level tab.

HH: Oh, no, that’s impossible in Ohio, actually.

ML: Yeah, you might be right. Well, I’ll take what I can get.

HH: We’d have to buy a boat and go over to Canada. Mark Leibovich, always a pleasure.

End of interview.

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