‘This Town’ Is In Our Town, Just Not Where We Live

November 7, 2013

“This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital,” is a book about Washington, D.C., by Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine.

It’s not necessarily about where you and I live, nor is it about neighborhoods, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans or even Marion Barry, nor is it about Jim Vance or Doreen Genzler or Mark Plotkin, or even Bryce Harper or RGIII, or the Ambassador from Mexico, or the Whitman Walker Clinic or Arena Stage. It’s not about Adams Morgan, or even Georgetown, although Georgetown parties, and social and political folks make appearances, along with some restaurants and hostesses, but not the pandas at the zoo, although there are times when “This Time” resembles a zoo.

It’s not about this town, but about “This Town,” the one that seems to exist a little like the town under the dome in the TV show, whose citizens have been rendered invisible to the rest of the country.

Never have you seen a book which has managed to put so much truth in advertising on its outside front and back covers. The front cover of “This Town” (published by blue rider press—their lower case, not mine), has a high-contrast, half-head, color portrait of what is clearly a denizen of This Town, a politician/lobbyist, easily identified as such by his red tie, half a big smile, dark suit, double-flag pin on one lapel, a thousand-dollar bill in his left pocket. The Capitol dome and muted night-time noir lights are behind him.

The back cover, illustrated by Ben Franklins floating from top to bottom, features a mission statement and a warning: “Today’s insider Washington has become a sprawling ‘conversation’ in which tens of thousands partake by tweet, blog, or whatever…The Washington story has become something more momentous, benefitting a ‘narrative’: a pumped-up word in a pumped-up place where everything is changing, maybe more than in any city in the country …or maybe nothing is changing at all, and the only certainty is that the city fathers of This Town will endure like perennials in a well-tended cemetery.”

Here’s the warning: “ ‘This Town’ does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book.”

Fair enough. I read the book all the way through, not surprised not to find my name in it, or that of many of my friends, associates and neighbors. Not surprisingly, since I work for this newspaper in a number of capacities, there were quite a few persons in the book whom I actually knew, or had seen in passing, or occupied the same room with (the Kennedy Center Opera House is a really big place), or had words with, or, or seen at a party or reception, on occasion, interviewed, or had seen on television. Memory in “This Town” plays tricks—one minute you’re absolutely positive you saw that Nixon-era attorney general walking his dog in Georgetown, the next time he’s in a Watergate documentary.

For the record, I have never met or talked with Mark Leibovitch, although I do read the New York Times Magazine occasionally, and the Washington Post every day (still), a paper for which he also worked. Leibovitch is not much interested in ancient John Mitchell-like history—he’s interested in now, right now, or how we got to right now. He is, it should be added, a terrific writer and reporter—his observations are sharp, funny, even touching, as he rolls out his characters, his scenes of parties and funerals (as well as political parties from Dems to GOP to Tea).

This is “This Town” that all the persons who’ve only visited here in horrible summers like this one complain about—this is Oedipus town, where incest of a non-physical kind is practiced as routinely as a Friday night poker game with beer and pizza is at a street corner or your friend’s house. One of Leibovitch’s principal revelations—that “This Town” rolls—like many towns only more so—on money is a theme, if not a shock. He documents, with style and even with some affection–the well-traveled journey—from Lott to Dodd and congressmen and senators in between—from holding office and public service to your friendly neighborhood lobby shop. Most politicians roll into town after having vowed to throw out the scoundrels (lobbyists and other hangers-on, some of them now strategists and consultants). It would appear that while assailing the Washington scoundrels and money men, they kept their business cards.

That part is hardly a revelation—it’s the merry-go-around of power types that includes members of the media, elected officials, their aides and chiefs of staff, the new media class of bloggers, twitterers, websites and Politico that is in some way as awe-inspiring as a second-tier royal wedding. Everyone—it seems—in “This Town” not only knows, works with at some time or another, socializes with, parties with and writes and blogs about each other, they’re practically sharing pads. Or as reporter noted—in a collection of comments from reporters who were mentioned in this book—if things got any more incestuous, their children would start having birth defects.

Leibovitch goes back to this theme—senators get elected, leave office and join a lobbying firm after vowing not to ever, ever do that, media types get tips from political aides wanting to get famous and so on time and time again. But in between, he offers choice vignettes and portraits—the scene at Ted Kennedy’s funeral, or the Kennedy Center memorial for “Meet the Press” wonder Tim Russert whom Leibovitch names the mayor of “This Town.” Russert’s shocking death and the service gives a graphic, at times moving, at times bewildering and head-scratching example of what happens when the citizens of this town gather to mourn—and kibitz.

The author gives a spot-on and up-to-the-second portrait of the new media as personified by Mike Allen and Politico — and especially Allen’s dot-dot daily reporting, in which he manages to capture the next second while pitching birthday, wedding, promotion and baby congrats.

The book is immensely readable. It’s gossipy, sure, but it’s also, one assumes, accurate in its snapshots of people. This is inside under the dome stuff, the parties—most of them seemingly thrown by the uber-hostess Tammy Haddad, whose brunches and parties during the week of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner is the top ticket in town.

When he’s not pursuing the career curves of politicians pursuing jobs, Leibovitch gives us some magnetic portraits of the likes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., not usually seen in a non-partisan way.

In one chapter—dubbed “Suck Up City”—we see that the insiders may be competing, fighting, sniping and so on in a kind of rubber knife combat, but they’re always striving, branding and, well, sucking up.

Leibovitch’s portraits in “This Town” are hardly flattering. He may have some concerns about backlash, socially and accessibility-wise, but we doubt it. As he admits he’s very much an insider reporting on insiders, but it’s not like he’s Truman Capote. While a lot of what he serves up surprises—some of us actually don’t know that the Clintons and the late Tim Russert despised each other. Taken as a whole, however, the existence of “This Town” hardly surprises.

Everyone who lives here long enough, even on the periphery, experiences the little neighborhoods of “This Town”, those little drug-like rushes of being in the presence of power or name-droppers. But Leibovitch, on the whole, ignores the whole town in which “This Town” exists, except for a quick and undeservingly tiny passing reference. There is, after all, a context to “This Town”.

Fittingly, the book is pretty up to the moment, and moves fast like the kind of mystery thriller that I like to read. But we—and he—know the ending already. It’s going happen in 60 seconds, in Allen’s next Playbook which is appearing: right now in “This Town.”

‘God Is in the Details’ for a Georgetown Mystery Novel

June 20, 2013

It drove me crazy when I watched the finale of the first season of “Homeland” and the street sign in “Foggy Bottom” read “Obey State Speed Limits.” I mean, c’mon! I couldn’t watch the thing after that—as Mies van der Rohe says, God is in the details, even if he ain’t in Hollywood.

Here’s one that will get it right, though. One of my Georgetown neighbors and friends, Mary Louise Kelly, has written a mystery, “Anonymous Sources,” partly set in a not-so-anonymous locale. One of the key scenes is a murder on Dumbarton Street, which the novel’s heroine, Alexandra James, describes as “full of well-kept gardens, gas lanterns, and historical plaques. Through the windows I caught glimpses of antiques and trays of polished silver.”

The heroine is clearly not looking in my window, where she’d see piles of mail and footballs, but the reason the details ring true is that the author is a longtime Georgetowner who used to live on Dumbarton.

“Anonymous Sources,” which is published by Simon and Schuster, comes out June 18, and is peppered with references that Georgetowners will recognize, ranging from a sheath dress at J. Crew on M Street to lush descriptions of the shiny cars lining the streets.

While she was writing the book, Kelly hung out at Saxbys, on her way to write at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library. She hit Patisserie Poupon to reward herself with a chocolate chip cookie each time she finished a chapter. And as a former national security reporter for National Public Radio, she knows how to get the details right.

While “Anonymous Sources” begins at Harvard Square, the story shifts to Cambridge, England, and then to London. The second half of the book is set in Washington. The reporter, Alexandra James, rushes from interviews at the White House to off-the-record trysts at CIA headquarters.

“Those were some of the most fun scenes to write,” says Kelly, “because I know first-hand how those conversations unfold, since I covered the spy beat at NPR.” Kelly says several former sources agreed to read her manuscript and offered tips and corrections. And even though, Kelly says, those old sources were notoriously tough to pin down when she was working as a reporter, a few even gave her blurbs for the book, which was far more convenient than trying to pin them down for a sound bite on the daily news. [gallery ids="102441,121369" nav="thumbs"]

Author Elliott Smith Believes in His ‘Beltway Boys’

June 18, 2013

From June to October 2012, Washington, D.C., writer Elliott Smith compiled his first book, “Beltway Boys: The Rise of the Nationals.” In a matter of months, first-time book author Elliott Smith was able to capture the rise of the Washington Nationals, outline the history of the Montreal Expos and highlight two current principal players in doing so.

The Washington Nationals are one of many professional baseball teams to exist in Washington. One of the most famous was the Washington Senators. The Senators eventually were moved to Minnesota, becoming the Minnesota Twins. The second chapter of the Washington Senators fell to having a losing record 10 out of its 11 years. When the second Senators’ team failed, it was moved in 1972 to Arlington, Texas, where it became the Texas Rangers.

In 2004, Major League Baseball announced that the Montreal Expos would leave Montreal, Quebec, to become the Washington Nationals, leaving the Toronto Blue Jays the only Canadian MLB team. The Nationals officially became the new face of D.C. baseball in 2005. After rough patches during the Nationals’ first few seasons, star players emerged the bullpen and the dugout alike to bring baseball glory back to Washington, starting in 2010.

Drafted in 2009, Stephen Strasburg made his MLB debut for the Nationals on June 8, 2010, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Having been one of the best collegiate pitchers for San Diego State University, Strasburg become starting pitcher for the Nats, after being deemed “most-hyped pick in draft history” by ESPN in 2009.

In 2010, Bryce Harper was drafted by the Nats. Although he didn’t make his MLB debut until April 28, 2012, and worked his way up the minor-league ladder, Harper was indeed drafted when he was 17. On May 6, 2012 against the Phillies, Harper became the first teenager to steal home plate in more than 45 years. Now almost 21 years old, Harper has a batting average of .274, 187 hits, and 34 home runs.

Author of “Beltway Boys,” Smith, a Northwestern University journalism alum, has always held sports close to his heart.

“I always knew I wanted to be a sportswriter,” Smith said during his June 8 book signing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Covering baseball games as a freelance writer, Smith was able to use information gained for stories as material for his book. He had access to almost unlimited resources, as he has written for the Washington Post Express, the Washington Times, MLB.com and more. He was able to ask questions during coverage and use that coverage for his book, and even talked to Strasburg’s high school coach to gain insight on the star pitcher’s journey to the MLB.

“Beltway Boys” is meant for original and latest Nats fans alike. “It’s an interesting book for people who want to learn more about the franchise,” said Smith, “It’s a great entry point for fans.”

Smith has a lot of confidence in the team he consistently covers. “This is just the first chapter,” he said.

Ghostly ‘Capitol Hill’

November 1, 2012

Washington, D.C., is home to many ghost stories. From the bloody steps in the Capitol to a commodore haunt- ing the old Navy Yard, the city is ripe with spirits. A culmination of all these stories can be found in “Capitol Hill Haunts,” a new book by Tim Krepp.

Krepp, a licensed tour guide for tours in D.C. and New York, is putting his degree in history from Georgetown University to good use by revealing the stories and places some of the departed call home. Years ago, while giving ghost tours, Krepp realized his interest in ghosts and storytelling.

“I really fell in love with the concept of ghost stories as a way of preserving [them] as urban folklore, as legends, as a nexus between history you can put in textbooks, versus oral traditions.”

Krepp’s favorite story, which can be found in the book, is of the “Phantom Wheelman.” An 1882 streetcar conductor had fatally col- lided with a cyclist and now would find phantom cyclists darting out behind his streetcar. The interesting fact was how the original cyclist was riding the penny-farthings of the era, yet the cyclists seemed to upgrade their bicycles as the times changed.

“It’s a great story, just the imagery of this dark streetcar, after midnight, coming down and seeing this guy on a penny-farthing coming at him,” Krepp said. “But also what it says about today’s conflicts and debates in the city: the use of public space. Who owns the road?”

However, the “Phantom Wheelman” doesn’t get the best reaction when told orally, it needs a visual. Like most ghost stories, there must be something there for the audience to see. Despite this, the overall crowd pleaser is the rarely seen “Demon Cat of the Capitol.”

The Demon Cat roams the lower levels of the Capitol, including the space built to be George Washington’s crypt. At first sight, it appears to be a normal tabby cat, until it fixes its eyes on its victim and then runs towards them getting larger before it lets out a yelp and jumps over the victim’s head into the darkness. Legend has it the Demon Cat shows up before presidential assas- sinations and times of national crisis.

“Capitol Hill Haunts” also shares some less- er-known ghost stories of the nation’s capital. In the section titled “The Watchful Commodore,” the haunting of Captain Thomas Tingey in the Navy Yard is explained. Tingey was in charge of building and developing the yard, and he was the one to give the order to set it on first when the British arrived in D.C. in 1814 during the War of 1812.

It is said Tingey still haunts his old home, Quarters A in the Yard. He was first spotted in 1853 by the daughter of the yard commandant. In 1960, when the new commander, Rear Admiral Thomas H. Robbins moved his family in, his dog sensed a presence. The dog would stare at a chair in the drawing room and bark and growl at it, until his owner addressed the captain, telling him they were “glad to be living in [his] house.”

Tingey has also been spotted staring out the second floor window of Quarters A and walking around the Navy Yard for inspection with his spyglass and sword. The book also mentions Tingey took offense to the 1886 name change of the Yard to the Naval Gun Foundry by letting out “a banshee cry that could be heard for blocks around” at midnight.

Georgetown, of course, is no stranger to ghost stories, one reason, Krepp says, he stayed away when he wrote his book. Now, Krepp has returned and is in the beginning stages of writing his next book on the ghosts of Georgetown.

Though still in the preliminary stages of research, Krepp finds the old Forest Hall, now the Gap on Wisconsin Ave, to be a great story. Previous to being a prison during the Civil War, it was a public hall, hosting debutante balls and minuets. “I have an early 20th century, I want to say 1910, 1920 article describing the ghostly balls that continue to this day.”

One iconic spot Krepp is eager to research more are the infamous Exorcist Steps. “As far as I know, there are no real ghost stories about the steps themselves,” Krepp said. “I think the site was, as far as I know, picked just because it looks haunted.” Though there may be no ghosts lingering on the steps, it is definitely a spooky destination to visit this Halloween, after watch- ing the classic film, “The Exorcist.” ? [gallery ids="102490,120241" nav="thumbs"]

Review: “The Double Game” by Dan Fesperman

October 28, 2012

This book, by a veteran novelist and author of seven books, is not for everyone. It’s full of shades of grey but not the kind that are on the best-seller list right now. It requires more patience than any typical reader of the novels of the promiscuously prolific James Patterson, and it absolutely helps if you love John LeCarre, worry about the CIA, and like a little history—diplomatic, political, and literary—with your fictional servings.
Mostly, if you love spy novels, you’ll love “The Double Game”, and I say this with a major proviso: this is not a great spy novel, but it’s a great novel about spy novels.

The book is the kind of celebration and homage that only a writer and reader besotten with spy novels and their authors could write. Fesperman already has good street cred as an author of spy novels and/or thrillers with “Lie in the Dark” (Winner of the Crime Writer’s Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award), “The Small Boat of Great Sorrows”, winner of the Ian Fleming Dagger Award for best thriller, and “The Prisoner of Guantanamo”, winner of the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers.

What he’s done in “The Double Game” echoes a lot of latter-day spy fiction and the rumors of the work of real spies—in particular the CIA’s greatly paranoid spymaster and counter-intelligence chief James Angleton, who went, Ahab-like, searching for a mole in the CIA.

In “The Double Game”, Fesperman has as his hero, or anti-hero, a former journalist and public relations man named Bill Cage, experiencing a later-mid-life crisis after a promising career with the Washington Post was squashed years ago. He’s divorced, has a grown son, and pondering the turn his life took after he had written a story about Edwin Lemaster, a top CIA spy and spy novelist, in which he printed a wistful remark by the writer that he once considered going over to the other side during the cold war.
Nothing good came of the revelation, but now a mysterious and cryptic message sends Cage, whose father is an experienced retired diplomat living in Vienna, after the truth about Lemaster, who may have been a double agent, or something even more complicated and sinister.

Cage, following a Hansel and Gretel trail of messages in pages torn from (original) editions of famous spy novels, goes to Vienna, Prague and Budapest, where he’s accompanied by a girlfriend from 30 years ago. He’s shadowed by sometimes dangerous spies, encounters book sellers with double lives, and leaves a train wreck of tragedy behind him, all the while led on by his mysterious handler, whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end of the book.

As some of the people Cage encounters along the way meet unfortunate ends, he begins to question the trustworthiness of his father and the crafty and competent old flame Litzi Strauss. Cage’s world is turned upside down, and danger lurks at every turn.
Things, as they say, get complicated, and sometimes so murky, that you lose the thread of who’s who and who was who, while trying to keep up with the genre references at every turn. For Cage, this is a journey into his own past—he spent his youth living with his father at dad’s postings in Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Berlin, and unknowingly played a part in the delivery of clandestine messages.

Festerman displays an obvious affection and love not only for spy novels, but also the tradecraft and lore of spies in the cold war eras, and something else: old books. Cage spends a lot of time in old and rare bookshops talking with old and rare birds and collectors, some of whom have spent a lifetime doubling as and dabbling with spies.
If it’s flavor and atmosphere you want, you can’t get much better than Cage’s forays into the capitols of the old Austro-Hungarian empire—you can practically hear the zither music from “The Third Man” begin to swell and expect to meet a grandson of Harry Lime, the great, cynical, mysterious character played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s wonderful film about Brits, Americans, Russians and black marketers clashing in the ruins of Vienna.

If you want clarity of plot and heroic figures, “The Double Game” (it’s the fictional title of one of LeMaster’s novels), is a little short of these. One of the problems is that Cage is a decidedly un-heroic figure who is lucky just to survive his adventures. On top of that, he’s a bit of a whiner. On the other hand, the steady statesman that is Cage’s father (with a surprise secret to hide) and the swashbuckling Litzi, not to mention all the old spies and book collectors that populate then novel, are immensely satisfying creations.

Festerman has also provided a handy and downright pungent appendix of all the authors and novels he’s referenced in the book, by date and by author. He includes, of course, the fictional Edgar Lemaster and his works, but also the novels of the late J. Burke Wilkinson, a long-time Georgetown resident and state department official (“Night of the Short Knives” and “The Adventures of Geoffrey Mildmay”). That’s going the extra mile, which is something you should do for “The Double Game”, too.

My favorite spy writers in no particular order.
John LeCarre— “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People” are in many fans’ estimation the finest spy-counter spy novels ever written, complex, ornate, with George Smiley at the center, trying to find the mole in the British spy establishment. “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, a shorter, earlier effort gets to the cold, unromantic heart of the cold war and its spies. He adapted well to modern times and settings like “The Constant Gardener”.

Aaron Latham—“Orchids for Mother”, a sharp, crisp thriller with an Angelton-type character at its center.

Eric Ambler—The first hugely popular writer of spy fiction, whose theater of operations included pre-war, wartime and post-war Europe in such books as “The Levanter” (his last), “Epitaph for a Spy” and “The Mask of Demetrios”.

William Buckley—For his charming Blackford Oakes series, a hero with panache, American style, with a conservative edge.

Len Deighton—For his spy series, “Berlin Game”, “Mexico Set” and “London Match”, and “The Ipcress File” cold as a silencer against your neck.

Ian Fleming—Without Fleming, there would be no Bond, and without Bond, well, we shudder to think.

Alan Furst—Still going strong, this writer created a series of books set just before the start of World War II and after, books so saturated with the atmosphere of places like Paris, Warsaw, Istanbul, that you wanted to light up a non post-coital cigarette. “The Spies of Warsaw”, “Night Soldiers” and many others.

Graham Greene—He put the literary in novels that had intrigue and the works of very human spies at their center like the haunting “The Quiet American”, “The Human Factor” and “The Confidential Agent.”

James Grady—For “Three Days of the Condor”, paranoia and conspiracy perfectly presented.

Robert Littell—For the grandiose and epic “The Company” and “The Defection of A.J. Lewinter”

Charles McCarry—“The Tears of Autumn”, a plausible plot centering around the Kennedy Assassination as well as “The Secret Lovers” and “The Last Supper”, the latter a novel on the theme of expediency.

In Washington, where the world’s largest intelligence agencies reside, there’s no shortage of fans and readers.

Edie Hand in Good Company with ‘True Grit’

November 3, 2011

You won’t find Oprah Winfrey or Kitty Kelley in the book “Women of True Grit,” co-authored by Edie Hand and Tina Savas. The absence is neither a reflection on Kelley, Winfrey, the book or its authors.

What you will find in “True Grit” is a remarkable group of 40 women, many of them pioneers in one arena of life or another.

Some are extremely well known, like Meredith Viera, the co-anchor of “The Today Show,” Phyllis Diller, one of America’s pioneering female comedians, or Joanne Carson, Johnny’s wife. Many are not household names, but should be: Justice Janie L. Shores, the first woman elected to a U.S. Appellate Court, Anne Tolstoi Wallach, the first woman to break the glass ceiling in the advertising world, Dr. Judy Kaminsky, psychologist, famed sex therapist and author of 12 books, Shirley R. Martz, the first female certified public accountant in North Dakota, retired Air Force General Wilma L. Vaught, the president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation, Martha Bolton, the first female staff writer for Bob Hope, and Anne Abernathy, the oldest woman athlete to ever compete in the Winter Olympics — as a bobsledder, no less.

You might see a theme here: the word “first” comes up a lot. These women had to endure ceilings, glass or otherwise, barriers, traditions, being as good and, more often than not, better in a man’s world.

The book includes a foreword by country singer Barbara Mandrell and a poem contributed by Dr. Maya Angelou, not to mention quotes from famous women, such as “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain,” from Dolly Parton. And it’s all the result of a partnership between Hand and Savas, the founder of the Birmingham Business Journal and a number of other publications in Alabama. Savas’ newspaper legacies included running lists: the 50 Richest Women, the top 40 under 40 and so on.

But the book’s spirit can be found in a real woman of true grit. That would be Edie Hand, who’s written books on Elvis, inspirational books, hosted television cooking shows and has written and produced numerous other books, including novellas.

The grit? Hand has probably experienced more personal tragedy than any one person should have to handle in a lifetime, losing three younger brothers. She is also a three-time cancer survivor, having just experienced the last episode while working on this book. Naturally, she feels blessed.

Her voice is rangy Southern: you’ll find Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee there and a lot of enthusiasm, energy and drive. “I thought it was an ideal partnership,” she said of working with Savas. “She had the publication experience, the whole experience of putting great lists together. We could do another forty with no trouble at all.”

Somebody ought to do one on her, however. She’s a cousin of Elvis Presley, and remembers hearing him when she was 16. She’s seen trouble and tragedy, all of which has somehow infused her with more energy.

“We wanted to give the women we chose their voices, their words, their views,” she said. “We can learn so much from each other and one of the things I’ve learned is how unique these women are, how alive, how admirable … how brave. They’ve got courage.”

The book debuted with a special book signing at the Women’s Memorial in Washington this spring. It’s a book you can take to the beach and be inspired by.