Author of the groundbreaking #1 New York Times bestseller This Town, Mark Leibovich returns with a masterly collection of portraits of Washington’s elite, and wannabe elites. Hailed by The Washington Post as a “master of the political profile,” Leibovich has spent his career writing memorable, buzz-worthy, and often jaw-dropping features about politicians and other notables. Currently chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, Leibovich punctures the inflated personas of the powerful, and in Citizens of the Green Room, he reveals the lives, stories, and peculiarities behind the public masks.
A brilliant reporter with a talent for subversive, engaging storytelling, Leibovich maintains a refreshing conviviality with many of his subjects even as he renders incisive and unflinching assessments. His features have driven the national conversation while exposing the fallibilities of the kingmakers and media stars: consider his 2007 profile of Hillary Clinton, which unearthed a treasure trove of old letters that the then senator had written as a vulnerable young college student; or his much-talked-about 2010 portrait of Glenn Beck, which laid bare the tortured soul and precarious standing of the once invincible host and his uneasy relationship with his soon-to-be ex-employer FOX News. In the political arena, Leibovich’s portraits of John Kerry, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and John McCain are already classics; they invariably remind us that great journalism and stylish writing are not only essential to the Republic but necessary to maintain the citizenry’s sanity and humor in the face of made-for-TV government.
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MARK LEIBOVICH is The New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He is the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of This Town. Leibovich lives with his family in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Insiders’ Insider
April 29, 2010
Before he goes to sleep, between eleven and midnight, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, typically checks in by e-mail with the same reporter: Mike Allen of Politico, who is also the first reporter Pfeiffer corresponds with after he wakes up at 4:20. A hyperactive former Eagle Scout, Allen will have been up for hours, if he ever went to bed. Whether or not he did is one of the many little mysteries that surround him. The abiding certainty about Allen is that sometime between five thirty and eight thirty a.m., seven days a week, he hits “send” on a mass e-mail newsletter that some of America’s most influential people will read before they say a word to their spouses.
Allen’s e-mail tip sheet, Playbook, has become the principal early-morning document for an elite set of political and news-media thrivers and strivers. Playbook is an insider’s hodgepodge of predawn news, talking-point previews, scooplets, birthday greetings to people you’ve never heard of, random sightings (“spotted”) around town, and inside jokes. It is, in essence, Allen’s morning distillation of the Nation’s Business in the form of a summer-camp newsletter.
Like many in Washington, Pfeiffer describes Allen with some variation on “the most powerful” or “important” journalist in the capital. The two men exchange e-mail messages about six or eight times a day. Allen also communes a lot with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; Robert Gibbs, the press secretary; David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior adviser; and about two dozen other White House officials. But Pfeiffer is likely Allen’s main point of contact, the one who most often helps him arrive at a “West Wing Mindmeld,” as Playbook calls it, which is essentially a pro-Obama take on that day’s news. (Allen gets a similar fill from Republicans, which he also disseminates in Playbook.)
Pfeiffer tells Allen the message that the Obama administration is trying to “drive” that morning—“drive” being the action verb of choice around the male-dominated culture of Politico, a three-year-old publication, of which the oft-stated goal is to become as central to political addicts as ESPN is to sports junkies. “Drive” is a stand-in for the stodgier verb “influence.” If, say, David S. Broder and R. W. Apple Jr. were said to “influence the political discourse” through the Washington Post and the New York Times in the last decades of the twentieth century, Politico wants to “drive the conversation” in the new-media landscape of the twenty-first. It wants to “win” every news cycle by being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run—and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours, or minutes.
In Politico parlance, “influence” is less a verb than the root of a noun. Politico’s top editors describe “influentials” (or “compulsives”) as their target audience: elected officials, political operatives, journalists, and other political-media functionaries. Since early 2007, Allen’s “data points,” as he calls the items in Playbook, have become the cheat sheet of record for a time-starved city in which the power-and-information hierarchy has been upended. It is also a daily totem for those who deride Washington as a clubby little town where Usual Suspects talk to the same Usual Suspects in a feedback loop of gamesmanship, trivia, conventional wisdom, and personality cults.
Allen refers to his readership as “the Playbook community.” He appeared wounded one morning in March when I suggested to him that his esoteric chronicle may reinforce a conceit that Washington is a closed conclave. No, no, he protested. Playbook is open, intimate. No one even edits it before it goes out, he said, which adds to his “human connection” to “the community.” Political insiderdom—or the illusion thereof—has moved from Georgetown salons or cordoned-off security zones to a mass e-mail list administrated by a never-married forty-five-year-old grind known as Mikey.
“He is part mascot and part sleepless narrator of our town,” Tracy Sefl, a Democratic media consultant and a close aide to Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, told me by e-mail. “He is an omnipresent participant-observer, abundantly kind, generous, and just unpredictable enough to make him an object of curiosity to even the most self-interested. Everything about him is literary.”
Allen darts through the political world much the way he writes Playbook: in abbreviated steps, more like chops. You can spot him from far away, his shiny head darting up and often straight down into his BlackBerry. He says he gets two thousand e-mail messages a day, tries to answer all that are addressed to him personally, some while walking. He is always bumping into things.
In 1993, Allen was covering a trial in Richmond, Virginia, for the New York Times (as a stringer) and the Richmond Times-Dispatch (which employed him). He found a pay phone, darted into the street, and got whacked by a car. Allen composed himself, filed stories for both papers, and then found his way to the hospital with a broken elbow. This is one of the many “Mikey Stories” that Washingtonians share with awe and some concern. A corollary are “Mikey Sightings,” a bipartisan e-mail chain among prominent people who track Allen’s stutter-stepping whereabouts—his showing up out of nowhere, around corners, at odd hours, sometimes a few time zones away.
He bursts in and out of parties, at once manic and serene, chronically toting gifts, cards, and flower arrangements that seem to consume much of an annual income that is believed to exceed $250,000. Allen—who is childless and owns no cars or real estate— perpetually picks up meal and beverage tabs for his friend-sources (the dominant hybrid around Mikey). He kisses women’s hands and thanks you so much for coming, even though the party is never at his home, which not even his closest friends have seen. It is as if Mikey is the host of one big party, and by showing up anywhere in Washington, you have served the Playbook community and are deserving of the impresario’s thanks (or “Hat Tip” in Playbookese).
Allen also has a tendency to suddenly vanish. But then he will pop up on a TV screen a few minutes later. Or you then learn via e-mail that he is racing through O’Hare or via Playbook that he took an excursion to the circus (with “Owen and Grace Gallo, ages three and four, who especially liked: doggies on a slide”) or Maine (“where an eagle might grab one of your fish while you’re focused on the grill”).
Or that it’s Mark Paustenbach’s birthday, whoever he is.
Allen was the first reporter hired by Politico’s founding editors, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, when they left the Washington Post to start the Web site and newspaper in 2006. He is considered a Politico “founding father,” in the words of Harris, who, like VandeHei, tends to place great weight and mission onto the organization. Another construct (originating outside Politico) is that Harris and VandeHei are God and Jesus—it’s unclear who is who—and that Allen is the Holy Ghost. When I mentioned this to Allen recently, he was adamant that it is meant to be facetious and that no one at Politico really believes that. Allen, an observant Christian, said the line could be misconstrued. But “Holy Ghost” does seem a particularly apt description of Allen’s ubiquity and inscrutability. “I get that what I do is a little elusive, ambiguous,” Allen told me. “I try to be a force for good. And I try to be everywhere.”
I met Allen on a hot April night at the basement bar of the Hay-Adams hotel, across from the White House. I headed downstairs, and there he was, startling me in a back stairwell, reading his BlackBerry an inch from his wire-rim glasses. As we entered the bar, Allen greeted two Democratic operatives at a corner table and noted that his friend-source Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant, was at that moment on CNN.
Allen’s public bearing combines the rumpledness of an old-school print reporter with the sheen of a new-school “cross-platform brand” who has become accustomed to performing on camera. Every time Allen starts to speak—in person or on air—his eyes bulge for a split second, as if he has just seen a light go on. His mannerisms resemble an almost childlike mimicry of a politician—the incessant thanking, deference, greetings, teeth-clenched smiles, and ability to project belief in the purity of his own voice and motivations. He speaks in quick and certain cadences, on message, in sound bites, karate-chopping the table for emphasis. (His work is “joyful, exciting,” he says. It is a “privilege” to work at Politico with young reporters. “I love this company. I love what I’m doing.” And all that.) Over several discussions, Allen repeated full paragraphs almost to the word.
“The people in this community, they all want to read the same ten stories,” he said, table-chopping in the Hay-Adams. “And to find all of those, you have to read a thousand stories. And we do that for you.”
As a practical matter, here is how Allen’s ten stories influence the influentials. Cable bookers, reporters and editors read Playbook obsessively, and it’s easy to pinpoint exactly how an item can spark copycat coverage that can drive a story. Items become segment pieces on Morning Joe, the MSNBC program, where there are ten Politico Playbook segments each week, more than half of them featuring Allen. This incites other cable hits, many featuring Politico reporters, who collectively appear on television about 125 times a week. There are subsequent links to Politico stories on the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post and other Web aggregators that newspaper assigning editors and network news producers check regularly. “Washington narratives and impressions are no longer shaped by the grand pronouncements of big news organizations,” said Allen, a former reporter for three of them—the Washington Post, the New York Times and Time magazine. “The smartest people in politics give us the kindling, and we light the fire.”
By “we,” Allen is referring to either Playbook or Politico. But many influentials draw a distinction. They will work to get a little twig into Mikey’s kindling and read him faithfully. Politico, however, is more fraught.
Nowhere is Washington’s ambivalence over Politico more evident than in the White House. The Obama and Politico enterprises have had parallel ascendancies to an extent: they fashioned themselves as tech-savvy upstarts bent on changing the established order—of politics (Obama) and of how it is covered (Politico). They started around the same time, early 2007, and their clashing agendas were apparent early. On the day that Politico published its first print edition, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, walked into the campaign’s offices and slammed a copy of the new publication on Dan Pfeiffer’s keyboard. “This,” Plouffe declared, “is going to be a problem.”
Politico today remains a White House shorthand for everything the administration claims to dislike about Washington—Beltway myopia, politics as daily sport. Yet most of the president’s top aides are as steeped in this culture as anyone else—and work hard to manipulate it. “What’s notable about this administration is how ostentatiously its people proclaim to be uninterested in things they are plainly interested in,” Harris, Politico’s editor in chief, told me in an e-mail message.
That Politico has been so vilified inside the White House is itself a sign of its entry into “the bloodstream” (another Politico phrase). It is, White House officials say, an indictment of the “Washington mentality” that the city is sustaining Politico and letting it “drive the conversation” to the extent it does. In early March, Axelrod was sitting in his West Wing office, complaining to me about the “palace-intrigue pathology” of Washington and why he missed Chicago. “I prefer living in a place where people don’t discuss the Politico over dinner,” he said.
But morning is another matter, a solitary, on-the-go cram session in which Playbook has become the political-media equivalent of those food pills that futurists envision will replace meals. “Playbook is an entity unto itself, far more influential than anything in the rest of the Politico,” Pfeiffer says.
If, for example, Axelrod can’t read the papers before rushing off to the White House, he will scroll through Playbook during his six-block ride to work and probably be safe in his seven thirty meeting. At this pivotal hour, Allen is the oddball king of a changing political and media order—the frenetic epitome of a moment in which Washington can feel both exhilarating and very, very small.
I should disclose a few things: I have known Mike Allen for more than a decade. We worked together at the Washington Post, where I spent nine years and where I came to know VandeHei and Harris. We all have the same friends and run into each other a lot, and I have told them how much I admire what they have achieved at Politico. I like them all.
In other words, I write this from within the tangled web of “the community.” I read Playbook every morning on my BlackBerry, usually while my copies of the New York Times and the Washington Post are in plastic bags. When Allen links to my stories, I see a happy uptick in readership. I have also been a source: after I “spotted” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at an organic Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood last year—picking up kung pao chicken with brown rice (“for Tim”)—I dutifully e-mailed Allen with the breaking news.
Playbook is a descendant of political synopses like National Journal’s Hotline, ABC News’s Note, and NBC News’s First Read, all of which still enjoy junkie followings. But nothing of the ilk has embedded itself in the culture of Washington like Playbook—to a point where if somebody in Pfeiffer’s department is celebrating a birthday, he is sure to send word to Allen so that everybody in the White House will know.
Allen sends out Playbook using Microsoft Outlook to a private mailing list of 3,000. A few minutes later, an automatic blast goes out to another 25,000 readers who signed up to receive it. An additional 3,000 or so enter Playbook from Politico.com, which adds up to a rough universe of 30,000 interested drivers, passengers, and eavesdroppers to the conversation.
Playbook started three years ago as a chatty “what’s happening” memo that Allen sent to his Politico bosses. Eventually he started sending it to presidential-campaign officials—the first outside recipient was Howard Wolfson of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Soon Allen would send it to non-Politico journalists, White House officials and, before long, anyone who asked. While most Playbook subscribers live around Washington, significant numbers work on Wall Street, in state capitals, and at news and entertainment companies on both coasts. Major retailers (Starbucks) and obscure lobbies (Catfish Farmers of America) pay $15,000 a week to advertise in Playbook, a figure that is expected to rise.
Readers describe their allegiance with a conspicuous degree of oversharing. “I definitely read it in bed,” Katie Couric told me. “Doesn’t e...
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