The New York Times’ Mark Liebovich joined me on Tuesday’s show to discuss his new book Citizens of the Green Room:
HH: So pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show Mark Leibovich. Mark, of course, is the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine. He’s the author of last year’s phenomenal bestselling This Town, and he has a brand new book out called Citizens Of The Green Room: Profiles In Courage And Self-Delusion, which is linked over at Hughhewitt.com. Mark Leibovich, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
ML: Thank you, sir. It is always good to be here. And the added bonus of hearing the House of Cards title sequence, which is I think one of the better ones out there, I love that song.
HH: You’re going to hear it at every single open except the top of next hour, so I hope you like it.
ML: Okay, well, I will make sure I use the top of next hour to take my bathroom break.
HH: Now the interesting thing about Citizens Of The Green Room, having read through Citizens Of The Green Room, I discovered that I’m not in the index, but I am in the book. I’m on Page 178 in the book, but I’m not in the index. So I think that makes me…
ML: Is that true?
HH: …an extended visa holder in the Green Room.
ML: Oh, my gosh. You know, I did not put together the index, and I think you’ve just actually, you just made the point of why one shouldn’t even have an index, which I did on my last book. But I apologize. You will be, that will be duly corrected in the next printing.
HH: Now that makes me, that, I’m like a green card holder in the Green Room, as opposed to a Citizen.
ML: You’re a citizen without portfolio in the Green Room, right.
HH: And so this is a terrific book, and I want to tell people at the beginning of it that it is a compilation, like Charles Krauthammer’s collection, that I mentioned last time Mark was on sold a million copies. Is Citizens Of The Green Room aiming to sell a million copies?
ML: Oh, yeah, actually, I think it’s aiming to sell about, maybe, well, I would be utterly thrilled to sell one tenth of that. How’s that?
HH: So would your publisher.
ML: But no, I would be thrilled. No, this is one of those things where you know, I’m sure my colleagues resent the hell out of me, oh, you just like sat there and someone published all the …oops, sorry, all of the stuff you’ve already run. Sorry about that.
HH: Don’t worry, we can get rid of that.
ML: Okay, are we on tape? So that’s how journalists speak. I’m sorry. And yeah, so now here, yeah, so I’ve done the work, and now it’s out there, and hopefully the people will like it.
HH: let me bait the trap. In the Citizens Of The Green Room, you’ll find profiles of Mike Allen, Chris Matthews, John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry, Hillary, of course, Glenn Beck, Teddy Kennedy, JR., Jeb Bush, Andrew Card, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Cheney and Edwards as they debate each other, Terry McAuliffe, now Governor of Virginia, Chris Christie, and that’s where I get my walk-on in the book, Schumer, Durbin, Miller and Delahunt, Scott McClellan, and few other people. I think that’s a pretty comprehensive list. Many of these I had not seen. And I believe they span two newspaper careers. Am I right, Mark?
ML: They do, yeah. It started at the Washington Post. I think the first one was the John Kerry-Teresa Heinz two-headed profile. And I think the one on Jeb Bush was later that year. It was 2002-2003, something like that. But yeah, no, it was two newspapers. About half of them are from the Washington Post during my days there, and the other half are here at the Times.
HH: It takes a long climb to reach the high profile of being allowed to do profiles. What did you do before you got your, you grab the plan at the top and hauled yourself up to profile land?
ML: Or down, depending on how you look at it. I was a business reporter for five years. That was my last job. I was, I worked in the business desk of the Washington Post. I covered technology. I covered a lot of the new billionaire tech titans. So there was some seamless overlap between just the money, power and influence of that world sort of moving over into the political world. But yeah, no, that was my background. I worked in San Jose, and before that, I was a general assignment reporter. So I bounced around a little bit, but this is where I’ve landed, and it’s been fun for 12 years now.
HH: Where did you grow up?
HH: Which part?
ML: The suburbs of Boston.
HH: Which one?
HH: Okay, so you grew up next to all the Wellesley girls. That’s why you like covering Hillary.
ML: Uh, yeah, it’s a long way away figuratively, I mean, spiritually a long way away.
HH: Where did you do your undergrad?
ML: University of Michigan.
HH: You’re a Wolverine?
HH: You’re like Jonathan Chait? Do you root for them?
ML: You know what? Less so now just because they’re so bad, but no, yeah, I went to all the football games. I’m really one of these annoying Boston people. I mean, the only college football or college sports of any Division I that we had around was Boston College, and I always rooted for them. And it took a while, and I still, I guess still have a soft spot for them. But I try to get back to a game in Ann Arbor every couple of years if I can.
HH: Gosh, I hate the Wolverines. Now what years were you on campus? We may have overlapped, though I’m older than you.
ML: What, you were a Wolverine, too? I thought you went to Ohio State.
HH: No, I’m a Harvard undergrad and a Michigan lawyer, and I was on campus from ’80-’83.
ML: But you’re a Cleveland guy.
HH: Of course. I’m from Northeastern Ohio.
ML: Okay, no, I was there ’83-’87.
HH: We did overlap. You were a punk freshman, and I was a third year law student.
ML: I was. Yeah, we might have walked past each other on the, you know, I used to study in the law library.
HH: You weren’t allowed in there. You were not supposed to be in the law library.
ML: I was, actually.
HH: But that’s, so what did you study at Michigan?
ML: Not a lot. Like every print reporter, I kind of put off adulthood for a number of years. And some would still say that I’m doing it. I was an English major. So I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Mitt Romney actually just had that exact same line in a speech he gave at BYU. He was an English major at BYU, and he said I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grow up.
HH: I am curious how you picked Michigan coming out of the Boston suburbs of Newton.
ML: You know, I wanted, I loved the football helmets. I had a really shallow reason. I didn’t really put a lot of thought into it except I just loved the football helmets. I wasn’t, I didn’t think I’d get in, and lo and behold, they accepted me. I think that it was a bad day for the admissions department. But no, they, yeah, they were by far the best school I got into, and I decided that hey, why not?
HH: Now I really am going to get to Citizens Of The Green Room, but I’m doing to Mark Leibovich as he does to his subjects, which is to try, poor Mike Allen. You pursued him like a Tasmanian Devil trying to figure out what his dad did, his sisters did.
ML: I know.
HH: You dug and you dug and you dug.
ML: I know. And actually, I didn’t look that hard. I mean, the big reveal in that piece was that his dad was a big John Birch guy back in the 60s and 70s. And yeah, I didn’t get that by asking. I mean, Mike was always pretty circumspect about what his dad did. And he died about maybe 30 years ago. So yeah, that kind of dropped in my lap, one of those serendipitous moments where you just sort of learn a lot of, you learn something that explains a potentially big part of the story as it relates to…
HH: In the beginning of the book, you quote Marquez, the novelist, as saying everyone has three kinds of lives – public, private and secret. I don’t think you trade much in the latter, do you?
ML: Me personally?
ML: What do you mean trade much?
HH: You don’t dive in, you’re not trying to…
ML: Oh, I don’t think so. No, I mean, unless it’s newsworthy. I mean, I think no, I mean, we all make those calculations, but no, if people, I mean, look, if people have secrets that are in the public interest, I think it’s certainly within our rights to reveal it. But no, I try to draw a pretty good line.
HH: Yeah, you write about the private quite a lot. We’ll talk about that, but not the secret. I’ll talk about what I mean when I come back with Mark Leibovich.
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HH: In that introduction, when I finished reading it a week ago, Mark Leibovich, I tweeted out that it’s going to scare the living daylights out of public people.
ML: I saw that. I think I retweeted it.
HH: Well, do you have any idea why I wrote that?
ML: There could have been a number of reasons. I mean, but no, I mean, no, tell me.
HH: You know. You know how they live their lives perpetually on, and as a result, I think you’ve got a pretty good radar for when they’re vulnerable.
ML: I try. I mean, look, you do sort of develop a pretty fine BS detector after a while.
HH: They navigate life as in a perpetual on state, you wrote, as naturally as a trout inhabits a stream. Public actors carry themselves with a jumpy expectation that they are being studied all the time. Often, they are. They have a special sense that others are squinting in their direction. I have been with so many public people where that’s true.
ML: It is absolutely true. What’s even more interesting about that is I was sitting in a Starbucks at National Airport. I was early for a flight, which is almost never true. But I was typing those very words, and who should walk by but Newt and Callista Gingrich. And they were just walking through the concourse, and they had that jumpy look. And Newt in particular, every time someone would pass, he would sort of nod his head as if he knew people were either looking at him or saying hello to him. And you do sort of get used to that after a while.
HH: It’s a very, very subtle, very detailed understanding of what public people live with. I am not one of them, but I watched enough of them. Let me ask you about this. I’m going to come back in our long segment next to talk about Hillary. But one of the reasons people ought to read a compilation is I had never heard of the Peavoy letters until I read Citizens Of The Green Room. You originally wrote that in a Hillary profile from July 29 of 2007. Did you have the exclusive on that, Mark Leibovich?
ML: I think I did. I mean, I think maybe Gail Sheehy might have actually, she wrote one of these biographies of Hillary back in the, I guess the late 90s, and I think she either quoted the guy or maybe had one of the letters. But I fully expected that like everyone in even the expanded Clinton orbit, someone had gotten to them, and they were kind of buttoned up. And I was shocked when this guy said yeah, no, I’ve got them, and I’m happy to let you look at them. And the next day, I was out in Claremont, California where the guy lives. And he was really nice, and he let me Xerox them. And I just remember reading those things on the way home. And I still might publish some more of those things. I mean, it’s just an amazing trove of things to read given that we thought we knew her so well.
HH: I would read every paragraph of every one. I think they are fascinating. And I cringe at the idea that someone’s got the letters that I wrote from college from ’74 to…
ML: Oh, I know.
HH: And aren’t you afraid of those showing up somewhere?
ML: I am terrified of that, Hugh. I mean, really, that is, I mean, if anyone did that to me, but hey, you know, that’s yet another reason I will not run for president.
HH: More of those reasons coming up. Mark Leibovich will be my guest most of the next hour. Don’t go anywhere.
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HH: Mark, let’s talk about Hillary. You have these letters, these Peavoy letters. Did you copy all of them?
ML: I did.
HH: That’s just…
ML: I mean, I think all of them. There was all, the one that filled the box were about 30 of them. And yeah, no, I have them in a file cabinet about 10 feet from my desk right now.
HH: Now one, you might get a break-in very quickly, but you wrote in your profile of Hillary from July 29th of 2007, that once she became aware of them, she respectfully wrote Mr. Peavoy, Professor Peavoy, and requested copies, which he dutifully sent to her.
ML: Yes, it’s true. So she knows they exist. I mean, she obviously knows after I publishes some of them. But no, I think he then told me that like he kind of dropped off the White House Christmas card list.
HH: You also update, though, your portrait of Hillary by noting in the introduction a 2014 speech that she gave that there is, “a relentless scrutiny that now stalks not only people in politics, but people in all kinds of public arenas, and it gives you the sense of being kind of dehumanized.” You’re struck by the words stalking and dehumanization.
ML: Yeah, those are pretty strong words. I mean, dehumanize, especially, is the kind of word you would associate with people who have been exploited, who have been, you know, imprisoned or abused, or something like that. So yeah, you don’t very often hear someone worth a hundred million dollars using terms like that, but I see what she means. I mean, it is not a dignified exercise to go through the scrutiny that someone at that level has to go through. But at the same time, you know, this is what they’re signing up for.
HH: It’s also another reason to read Citizens Of The Green Room. I had missed this entirely, this speech that she gave, which was apparently fairly self-reflective, saying as well, “You can’t really ever feel like you’re having a normal day. It can be done, but you never forget that you’re in that public arena.” As I thought about that, you really don’t want to be a 69 year old woman who’s going to get photographed in their bathing suit, do you, Mark?
ML: You know, I wouldn’t know, just because I’ve never been a 69 year old woman, but I’m guessing that that wouldn’t be her first choice of photograph attire. But I can’t say for sure.
HH: But it also applies to everything else that she does. She’s never, you remark that all public people are almost always on.
HH: She can’t be anything but on, on, on.
ML: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, I think in a case like the Clintons, you just, I mean, you have to wonder do they even know what normal looks like, or what does normal look like. I mean, forget the things that people fixate on, like she hasn’t had a driver’s license in X number of years and all that. I mean, that’s, part of being an ex-president and an ex-first lady, and being secretary of State, I mean, it’s just the bubble of public life. I mean, that’s one thing you can sort of intuit that it not something any of us will ever identify with. But no, just knowing, and being accustomed for, what, I mean, she was first, they first went to, he was first elected governor in ’78, right?
HH: Yeah, but being first lady of a state, it’s really ’91 that she becomes part of the public possession.
ML: Yeah, right. And you know, 23, but not only just part of the public possession, but being arguably the most famous woman in the world. Now she was always saying I’m the most famous woman in the world, and nobody really knows. And I think that’s fairly common for a lot of politicians to think that they’re fundamentally misunderstood and shallowly drawn. And I think that it’s true to a point, but at the same time, it’s a familiar lament. I mean, I actually have a profile of Governor Christie that’s coming out this weekend, and he says something similar about how he has been portrayed. But no, I think look, it is not an easy thing, I imagine, to be defined publicly in just sort of the shorthand of modern journalism and the internet and TV and so forth.
HH: Yeah, no know is ever known, but just very few are studied. My question is they all choose it, right? It’s their choice. She could vanish tomorrow.
HH: She could go Salinger if she wanted to.
ML: Yeah, I don’t know if she could go Salinger, but she could certainly just, you know, make a definitive statement that she is done with public life and ask everyone to leave her alone, and I’m guessing that quite a few people would. So yeah, she can opt out.
HH: Would you have been up to the profile of Jackie O.? Do you think you could have cracked the code?
ML: Oh, sure, I would have loved to have tried. I mean, you know, it doesn’t always, you don’t always, first of all, that would be a case where I doubt she would have let me in. I mean, it would probably been done despite her. But sure, I mean, there’s always someone else who can tell you something. And I think people give up too easily.
HH: Good note to young journalists. I agree with you a thousand percent.
HH: If you have editors who will let you hunt long enough, right?
ML: Yeah, I think so. I mean, look, I am extremely lucky. I mean, I do have, in many cases, a lot of time and a lot of space to explore this stuff. But I think the principles are the same for everyone, whether you have a couple of days or a couple of hours to work on something, or a couple of weeks or a couple of months or whatever.
HH: Having studied so many adults who’ve lived in the spotlight, do you think this is why so many young stars go crazy, spin out, do stupid things, because they’re just, they have no maturity on which to handle this?
ML: I think that’s a great, great question. I think yes, I think it’s absolutely true. I can’t imagine a worse scenario in which to try to grow up and to try to learn about the world. I mean, I suppose it’s possible. I mean, always, I’m always amazed by the relative normalcy that a lot of presidents’ kids seem to sort of emerge from, whether it’s the Bush daughters or the Obama daughters or Chelsea Clinton or whoever. I mean, obviously, it’s not a picture book childhood that anyone would consider typical by any stretch. So yeah, no, it’s tough, and I think that’s why you see so many problems, especially out in Hollywood.
HH: Would you use the word ruthless in connection with Hillary?
ML: Yeah, I think in some ways. I think they want to win. I think they’re willing to, you know, fight pretty hard to win. I don’t, I mean, ruthless is, maybe it’s a pretty strong word, but I think these are as competitive and combative a public, couple of public figures as you can imagine.
HH: See, I don’t, I just think it’s a descriptor, sort of like Margaret Thatcher, I think, was ruthless, and I think Golda Meir was ruthless. But I think women are afraid of that adjective more than men.
ML: Yeah, I mean, Bill Clinton was ruthless. I think George W. Bush was ruthless. I mean, I think, you know, in order to be elected president, or even to be close, you have to, you’ve got to be a killer. I mean, Mitt Romney, I mean, these are very, very competitive people, and I think that that’s part of, you know, what gets people elevated to that level.
HH: Now I’m talking with Mark Leibovich. His brand new book, Citizens Of The Green Room, must reading for anyone who cares about 2016, if only because Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and Chris Christie are all in here, and they’re all going to be part of that…
ML: And Hillary, don’t forget Hillary.
HH: And Hillary, of course, and Hillary.
HH: But I wanted to ask, there are no career military men or women in your collection. None.
ML: Is it true? I guess that’s true. Well, I mean, yeah, John Kerry, John McCain, I mean, combat veterans. But yeah, that’s true.
HH: No, career, I mean like Peter Pace or General Dempsey or David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal. Is there any reason?
ML: No, none whatsoever. I just have never written about them, and you know, maybe one day.
HH: Now do you know who Leo Strauss is?
HH: He’s a political theorist that Bill Kristol and a bunch of other people follow, and students of Leo Strauss would be tempted to look at your middle essay in your book, which happens to be Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail, which is dated September 2nd, 2012, on Page 177, and they would say it’s intended by you to be read most closely, because it’s in the middle of the book. So now my first neo-Straussian question, did you order these essays, which are not done chronologically?
ML: You know, I ordered them, I mean I think I classified them. I mean, I think I put some in pure profile categories, some in campaign category, which I think that one was, and I forget what the other category was. But yeah, I mean, I classified them. I probably put them in order for some reason. I just don’t really remember.
HH: Well, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is so interesting, because it’s the most self-reflective of your essays. It says this spring for the first time since I started writing about politics a decade ago, I found myself completely depressed by a campaign.
ML: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, I certainly felt that way at the time, and I think I do in retrospect. I mean, what I thought was particularly horrible about the last campaign was you know, most of them are pretty negative now, but this was particularly negative. But also, I couldn’t think of a single idea or really inspiring notion behind either of the campaigns. And the Republican field, I thought, in 2012 was pretty uninspiring. Obviously the Democrats didn’t have a race. And especially compared to 2008, which was so exhilarating, really on both sides, and certainly in the general election, maybe I was feeling some nostalgia for that. But no, that was pretty, yeah, I don’t know how I kind of came to that, but that seems to be a piece that a lot of people have talked to me about, even now over the years.
HH: And I’m going to continue to talk after the break with Mark Leibovich about Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Of course, that’s got its antecedent in the famous Hunter Thompson essays out of Rolling Stone. None of those would have included Citizens of the Green Room. There’s insufficient profanity, actually, and no evidence of drugs or excessive alcohol intake, Mark Leibovich, so…
ML: Well, I tried to make up for that earlier in the show.
HH: Okay, that’s true, you did, but we blinked it out.
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HH: You know, Mark, a day like today, where five rabbis are murdered in a synagogue, and the President has to issue a comment, and the secretary of State has to issue a comment, it’s really a grim day that contrasts the somewhat frivolous, frothy nature of Washington, D.C. political press, with the major events of the day. And I go back to that essay we were talking about before the break, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. You also wrote that perhaps your depression came from my recent craving for uplift was a sublimation of my own anger at being a small cog in a giant inanity machine. Now I don’t think the guys at Politico or the Free Beacon or Washington Examiner or the Post or the Times think they’re part of an inanity machine. But they’ve become that.
ML: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s interesting when you’re in private, or at least when you’re offline, I mean, you do hear a fair amount of hand-wringing over that, because look, I mean, a lot of the market demands it. But one of the more depressing things about being in Washington sometimes is the incredible juxtaposition between the drop dead seriousness you see outside of town, and today in Jerusalem, and places all over the world, and the kinds of stuff that people obsess over here. And it can be demoralizing over time. And I think that election sort of put that into some relief for me, and that was one of the reasons I wrote about it.
HH: The traveling media called Mitt Romney Mittens?
ML: You know, you criticized me for this last time. And I should not have done it. Yes, they did. They did on his plane. I was never on his plane, but I have to say that I did take the bait at a certain point.
HH: Now the reason I bring that up is because there’s this very famous essay, which I may have brought up with you the last time you were on, C.S. Lewis’ The Inner Ring. Did I tell you about that?
ML: No, but Tom Coburn quotes that all the time.
HH: Yeah, and here are three, I think it’s about the D.C. press. And three things he wrote – there are no formal admissions or expulsions, people think they are in it after they have been in fact pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in. This provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. Of all the passions, the passion for the inner ring is the most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. And the quest of the inner ring will break your hearts unless you break it. And inside D.C., I think the inner ring is all full of media people, not electeds.
ML: Oh, it’s both. I mean, Coburn, I have to say, I mean, I hate to quote him, but he did actually quote pretty extensively from that in one of his books, which was excellent. It was called Breach of Trust. And he talks about how the inner ring, whether in a political context, whether you want to be in leadership or know what the negotiations are, and certainly in journalism, are something that’s extremely endemic to life in Washington, D.C. And he was a physician, and he’s treated a lot of addicts over the years, and he made this comparison between just addiction to power, addiction to being inside that inner ring, and just the addiction to morphine or whatever that he would see in his patients.
HH: What happens to the old citizens of the green room?
ML: They become lobbyists.
HH: I mean, do you feel pity for them?
ML: There is a, I mean, yeah, look, do I feel what for them?
ML: Pity? No, not really. I mean, I think that look, it is a pretty cruel and pretty ruthless game to use that word again. I mean, I think that one of the things about Washington is that there is this permanent class of people. And no one really leaves. And you can go a long, long, long way by having former senator, congressman, chief of staff in your title, as there is an entire population and an entire economy on which, you know, and that’s been made possible over the years, which I think is somewhat depressing, because you know, in the earlier days, I mean, we had this notion that you would serve in Washington, D.C., and then return to your general store, your medical practice or whatever in your community. But that doesn’t seem to happen anymore.
HH: Well, three of the most interesting profiles here – Mike Allen, Chris Matthews and Glenn Beck, are media people.
HH: And Scott McClellan to a, I don’t know what Scott McClellan is, washed up.
ML: Right, yes. Persona non grata.
HH: They’re media people, and they run on, and within those are other media people.
HH: And there’s this giant solar system of media people that keep the other solar system in balance. I mean, the media people are kind of the Sun, and all the political people are just along for a rocket ride.
ML: It is amazing how, and this has been increasingly true, I mean, how much bigger the media has become part of the story. And I don’t think that’s just because the media loves to pay attention to the media, therefore it has an outsized sort of funhouse mirror effect. I mean, I do think that you have, you do see more and more of just media affecting coverage. I mean, look at the kinds of money that media advisors are getting. I mean, if you talk to most politicians, most of them are closest to their communications directors more so than their policy directors or even their chiefs of staff or their constituent service people. So yeah, no, I mean, this obsession with public image, which very much drives the Citizens of the Green Room.
HH: The best of the best journalists, and I will leave you out of this conversation for fear of saying you’re either in or out, are John Fisher Burns, Dexter Filkins, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, all of them are war correspondents. And I add Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal, who was on today. He goes out in harm’s way as well. These are very different from the D.C. Beltway people, aren’t they?
ML: Completely agree. I mean, I revere, I mean, you know, first of all, Rajiv and I used to sit next to each other in the Washington Post business…
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
ML: …section. Yeah, no, he’s a good friend. We had some really good times together. I mean, no, I mean, I can’t even begin to compare or even would want to compare the stakes that we’re operating under compared to what, you know, the people you just mentioned are. I mean, it’s just night and day, and especially in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, or just around the Middle East. I mean, it’s an amazing thing that they do every day. And I think we all are pretty humbled by being at least under the same masthead as them.
HH: But now you have people like Dean Baquet at the New York Times and Marty Baron at the L.A. Times, and I crossed swords with Marty a long time ago.
ML: And Marty at the Washington Post.
HH: Right, the Washington Post.
HH: But they’re very fine editors. Would they be better served by finding more people who have actually been serious reporters in places of danger, and making them political reporters?
ML: Yeah, I don’t, well, I don’t see where you can go wrong. I mean, I think that that’s a kind of experience that you, I mean, it’s gold. If you survive it, it is gold. I mean, it’s the kind of thing that I don’t see how it can’t inform how you see the world. And I think that’s true certainly with the politicians who have seen combat, and who have served in a meaningful way. So yeah, I would certainly support that.
HH: Nicholas Lehmann at the Columbia School of Journalism once told me he was adding a second year so that all of the journalists had to be able to do regression analysis. Now I’m the first person to tell you I can’t spell regression analysis. I can’t do it. But his objective was to make journalists fluent in study speak so that they couldn’t be BS’ed. Your line of work, you really can’t be BS’ed, because either Nancy Pelosi knows what a curly fry is or she doesn’t. But a lot of journalists can be BS’ed, right?
ML: I think that that’s true. I mean, I certainly didn’t go to Columbia, so I don’t know what regression analysis is, and so we can start there. But no, I mean, I think a lot of it has to do with being, just coming with time, but also just not, just developing sort of a finer nose for the kinds of nonsense that people try to perpetrate. And I think look, you know, a big factor here is intimidation in many cases. I mean, not the kind of intimidation that you would see on the streets, but intimidation as far as this is someone, you know, you’re the Speaker, you’re interviewing the Speaker of the House, and you’re 25 years old and you’re just out of college, and you’re probably going to be intimidated. But the other thing is just there is a lot, there’s a whole industrial complex around the kind of nonsense that people are fed in this world. And there’s so much money and so much of an economy put into messaging and spin, and just the obsequiousness game that so much of this is based on.
HH: More of the obsequiousness game when we come back. My guest is Mark Leibovich. His brand new book, Citizens Of The Green Room, must reading. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com
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HH: I sent a note to one of the new members elect, I won’t tell you if a House or a Senator, but he’s a Republican, saying you’ve got to read Bret Stephens’ new book, you’ve got to read Mark Leibovich’s new book. And the reply came back that that individual’s spouse loved This Town.
HH: And so my guess is that Citizens of the Green Room’s going to fly off like…but I refuse to believe that Dick Cheney didn’t know who John Travolta was. I’m not buying that.
ML: You know, I will tell you that we were in, it was at the new Air and Space Museum out by Dulles Airport, and it was the day it opened. So it would have been like 2002, 2003 or something, and he was getting a private tour, and we were walking around backstage, and it was me, him, and a couple of other people on his Secret Service entourage, and there was John Travolta. And John Travolta saw Dick Cheney, he knew who Dick Cheney was, he introduced himself to Dick Cheney, and Dick Cheney seemed genuinely, you know, he just seemed completely ignorant about who John Travolta was. So either he was acting ignorant just for the sake of his not appearing to be star struck, or for my benefit or whatever, but no, I was amazed by that.
HH: Now we all have blind spots in our own cars. For example, the other day, I got caught out not knowing who Dr. Who is. Do you know who Dr. Who is?
ML: It was a TV show in the 60s?
HH: Yeah, you got it.
ML: It was black and white. I never watched it, though.
HH: I never heard of it. I mean, I was completely flummoxed. And so they had quite a lot of amusement. So everyone’s got a blind spot. But it’s amusing to us when the people who are running our lives have blind spots.
ML: Yeah, well, it was, so you mentioned Nancy Pelosi. And I remember I was interviewing her with a couple of my colleagues in 2006. I had just come to the Times, and she was talking about how she was working 19 hour days, and whatever she was doing, and she said I don’t have any time to eat anymore. And I was in a hotel room in Chicago the other night, and I had these French fries, and she made this twirly motion with her pointer, and so I naturally said oh, curly fries? And she said oh, is that what they’re called? I’ve never heard of those. And I thought that was a moment where she revealed a certain out of touchness with the America that maybe she was serving.
HH: Someday, I will tell you my Richard Nixon K-Mart story, but that requires far too much time. Let me ask you about the field.
HH: First of all, if Jerry Brown runs, it’ll be Yoda for President. I’m very excited by that.
ML: Is he making noises about that?
HH: No, but Yoda doesn’t have to make noises. Do not think. Do.
ML: That’s true. He operates in funny ways.
HH: Yeah, so of that whole gang, Hillary, Mallory, Webb, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jerry Brown, who would you most want to profile right now? You’ve already done Hillary twice.
ML: Yeah, Elizabeth Warren, definitely. I mean, I’ve never, I met her once, but I think, I mean, there really is a clamoring for her, certainly on the left. I mean, I think the other people, you know, seem to be, I mean, it’s early, but I don’t see any kind of clamoring for Martin O’Malley or Brian Schweitzer or…
HH: You’ve clearly never had to spend any time speaking to a law professor at length.
HH: That is true, although I almost had to when my career wasn’t going anywhere, so or at least listening to one. No, you know, Elizabeth Warren would be the one.
HH: Fundamentally uninteresting. All right, here is the long list of Republicans. And I’m going to ask you at the end of this the order in which you hope your editor assigns you to do a profile.
HH: Mitt Romney might return to the list, highly unlikely, but I’ll put him on there. Jeb Bush, Rob Portman, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham. Chris Christie, John Kasich, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Mike Pence, Bobby Jindal, Governor Martinez of New Mexico, Governor Haley of South Carolina, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, both winners of Iowa past, Paul Ryan, Ben Carson, Peter King and John Bolton. Who do you most want to profile of those, Mark Leibovich?
ML: Of those 20, or however many there were?
HH: There were like 20.
ML: You know, I would say I’d start towards the top of the list. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and not just because it’s winter in Washington, D.C. and they’re in Florida. I think Jeb Bush, I think I just haven’t, I mean, it’s been so long since I’ve written about him, and I would just love to get a sense of what his current iteration is, and where his head is at. And I find the family endlessly fascinating. But I also don’t have any sense at all of where he might be except for the rumblings. And look, I think Rubio is someone who, I mean, I don’t, I think he’d be a longshot, but I think all these people would probably be a longshot. I think he would be, I think he has some great scalability, and I think his ideas could be very compelling to people, and I don’t think he has a lot of the baggage that other people like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul would have on the right. So I’d go with those two.
HH: Now I want your impression. This isn’t an endorsement. I always have to say that.
HH: I’m not endorsing anyone. The most interesting backstory of all these people, probably, is Jeb because your dad’s president, but other than that is John Kasich, with both parents being killed in an automobile crash and that whole nine yards. Have you spent any time with him?
ML: Not really, no. I mean, I remember back when he was in Congress. I interviewed him a bunch of times, but nothing since he left Washington.
HH: One more segment coming up.
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HH: A couple of fun notes about this. It’s an amazing profile of Schumer, Durbin, Delahunt and Miller. Now I don’t like any of those people. And I mean, I just personally don’t like them until I read this. And then I realize they’re just a bunch of middle aged guys who made choices, and you know, Dick Durbin’s never going to win the spelling bee, and Chuck Schumer’s smarter than anyone else I know. But they’re all just living with pizza boxes and Tostito mix, right?
ML: Yeah, it’s true. You know what was really interesting about that, this was a couple of years after I wrote that. I mean, they have this group house on Capitol Hill that actually was the inspiration. But the story I wrote for the Times on that was the inspiration for that Alpha House show that Gary Trudeau and…
HH: And Jon Alter’s working on that.
ML: Yeah, exactly. It’s on Amazon, I guess. But no, I mean, look, what was interesting, though, is a couple of years after that story came out, I mean, Durbin and Schumer had a major falling out, yet they continued to live together, because they’re both in the Democratic Senate leadership, and Reid made Schumer sort of his number two after, I guess it was after 2010, maybe, and yeah, Durbin was not too happy about that. And yet the two of them had to go home together. So I was not invited in for any of that, but…
HH: Now the other great one is about the debate green rooms. Now I hope to be involved in one of those Republican debates come a year from now.
ML: I would hope so, too.
HH: And there were going to be 15 people. They’re going to have to like use tiered stadium seating of the sort you see in a Congressional hearing. And I hadn’t really thought about the mechanics of the men’s room.
HH: That’s why you have a great eye for detail. That stuff really matters.
ML: Yeah, and well, actually, and someone had a really, really bad eye for public relations, because they let me in back there.
ML: Remember? I think NBC did that, and there was endless repercussions to whoever made the decision, but I was of course grateful for it. But no, yeah, that was a story in which I wanted to look at sort of what the dynamics were behind the scenes when no one could see these folks.
HH: Now I want to ask you about young journalists. I had one who rather infamously appeared on the show, I’m not going to name this young journalist again, because it was embarrassing. This young journalist didn’t know anything, I mean, really didn’t know anything. You’re out there, but was being passed off as someone who knows a lot of things, and it was exposed. And I didn’t mean to be that harsh. It just turned out that way. When you work with young people who are covering these events, do you think they’re ready to cover these events these days?
ML: It depends on what they’re doing. I mean, I think if you’re blogging, and you have to like write a 300 word dispatch on what Mitt Romney said or what Hillary Clinton said, I mean, yeah. But it’s sort of, a lot of it’s just technology and knowing how to use various machines. But no, I mean, to think that someone can be in their mid-20s and have any kind of historical depth or even policy nuance about what some of these people are talking about is, I think, naïve. And I don’t think it’s their fault. I think the business has evolved in a way that people are not, or news organizations are not paying a lot of money for expertise. They’re paying for just the sort of wizbang technological knowhow, and the ability to wield a camera is what they’re getting across the board in a lot of places.
HH: Well, let me lift up two names, one from the left, one from the right, and I admire them both – Guy P. Benson of Townhall, Dave Weigel of Slate. They’re both very good at what they do. They’re both under 30. They both have…
ML: Are they really under 30? Dave Weigel’s under 30?
ML: Wow, man.
HH: Maybe he’s 31. Guy Benson’s definitely under 30.
ML: I feel so old.
HH: I know that. And so they let fly with tweets, and they matter. And you quote Stuart Stevens somewhere in here as saying look, I’m really going to worry about tweets? And I thought to myself, Stuart, you’re very smart at what you do, but yes. Oh, here it was. If Steinbeck was alive today, you think he would be writing about tweets? And my answer is of course he would be.
HH: That’s what makes up the water in which we’re all swimming.
ML: It does, I think, increasingly. I mean, I think there is always a lot of hype around new technologies, especially when it attaches itself to a political context. But I do think Twitter is the real deal, and I think it’s the kind of thing that’s only going to, I think, grow in importance, and to a point where it wouldn’t surprise me if by the time the next election rolls around, you actually have a publication that is almost all Twitter. They don’t even bother to have a website. It’s just all, they just have like a Twitter brand.
HH: I think you’re right.
ML: And I mean, I don’t think it’s that far away.
HH: Dan Balz in Collision 2012, I told him I was extremely flattered that he quoted a tweet of mine…
ML: Oh, really?
HH: …because I just didn’t think that anyone ever cared about tweets. But Balz, who’s the dean of what you guys do…
ML: He is the man. I love that, I love Dan Balz, and I love that book.
HH: That’s a great book.
HH: That’s when Stuart Stevens threw up after hearing Clint Eastwood give his speech, the best single detail of campaign 2012.
ML: Yeah, did he actually have that? Really? I forgot about that.
HH: Yeah, that he walked out into the men’s room as soon as Clint stopped speaking and threw up, which tells you everything you need to know about that moment.
ML: He really did.
HH: Are there going to be any Dan Balz left in ten years, Mark Leibovich?
ML: Oh, yeah, I hope so. I mean, I think so. I mean, they might be tweeting all the time, but yeah, there’s, I mean, hopefully, there’ll be someone to take Dan’s place. Hopefully, Dan will be still working in ten years, and working at the level he’s working at now.
HH: Last technical question. How long does your editor give you to do a piece?
ML: A lot of it depends. I mean, I think, you know, I’ve had two days to do really long pieces, and I’ve had like three months to do really long pieces. So it varies, and my general rule of thumb is I’ll take whatever they give me, because I can always make it better or at least agonize a little more and stop sleeping.
HH: Who are the most interesting people on television in the role of anchor right now?
ML: In the role of anchor? Television? Oh, boy, let’s see. John Oliver, I think, is doing great work. I mean, I think he’s really, he’s been a nice breath of fresh air. I like, let’s see. That’s a tough one.
HH: I’m not throwing you a lifeline here.
ML: No, I don’t want a lifeline. I mean, John Oliver, I like, who do I like?
HH: Because the next question is who would you like to profile from among them?
ML: Among the people on TV?
ML: I would like to profile, let’s say, Megyn Kelly? I think she seems to be making an impact.
HH: she’s hugely talented, absolutely correct.
ML: Hugely talented. You know, I’ve watched her some, and I think she’s actually very talented. I would like to profile maybe, let’s see…
HH: I’m going to throw you a lifeline.
ML: All right.
HH: Jake Tapper is very interesting.
ML: Yeah, no, I would recuse myself, though, because he’s a friend. Good guy. Very good guy.
HH: Oh, that doesn’t get you off the hook for not coming up with his name.
ML: No, I think more people need to be watching him, though. I don’t know why he’s still stuck at like 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
HH: Well no, don’t move him. He’s my show prep. He’s on right before you came on. Do not move him.
ML: I’d want to move him up to 5.
HH: I’m going to put you in the penalty box right there, Mark Leibovich.
ML: Ooh, I’ll do better next time.
HH: I want you take on the impossible dream, though. Would you profile Bill Belichick, because I defy you to make it interesting.
ML: Oh, I’d love to. You should read the David Halberstam book on him.
HH: Not a chance.
ML: Really? Back to the Cleveland thing, huh?
HH: He moved my Browns out of Cleveland. Mark Leibovich, congratulations on a great new book, Citizens Of The Green Room, appearing under Christmas trees around Washington, D.C. everywhere.
End of interview.