It was Barack Obama himself who first proposed that Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe make a play to be this generation’s Theodore White—the legendary journalist whose insider account of the 1960 election painted John F. Kennedy in heroic light.
In the 2008 version, Obama provided the insider access. And Wolffe lavishly delivered on the heroic-light end of the bargain.
But the early response to his new book, “Renegade: The Making of a President” has made one thing clear: Wolffe is not living in a Teddy White era of journalism.
Far from vaulting him to the top ranks of the profession — as happened to White and a parade of other reporters with intimate access to winning presidential candidates —Wolffe’s Obama journey ended with him out of mainstream political reporting, making his living as a public relations operative.
And far from being the toast of Newsweek, which once built its franchise around reporters who were close to the powerful, Wolffe now has a frosty relationship with his former employer.
At a book party at Washington’s Café Atlantico Monday night, there were quail eggs and caviar but no Newsweek editors, who declined to speak on-the-record about Wolffe or his book.
Some of his former colleagues grumble privately that the magazine gained little of news value from Wolffe’s access to Obama and his inner circle, and suggest he lost detachment as he became more enraptured by a politician with whom he shares personal and ideological sympathies.
Some Republicans say the same thing publicly.
"Richard Wolffe was doing PR for Barack Obama throughout the campaign,” said Michael Goldfarb, a former aide to John McCain and a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard. “At least now, with the new book and the new job, he's dropped even the pretense of being a journalist."
Comments like these suggest Wolffe could become a flashpoint in the larger debate over whether journalists are too enamored with Obama’s biography and personal style, and not being sufficiently skeptical of his grand policy plans.
“Obama has inspired a collective fawning” in the media, columnist Robert J. Samuelson recently wrote. At the recent White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Obama joked, “Most of you covered me; all of you voted for me.”
“Renegade” is billed on its cover as “based on exclusive interviews with Barack Obama.” The footnotes detail 21 such interviews. They were so exclusive, as it happens, that key elements of them apparently did not appear contemporaneously in Newsweek, which was footing the bill as Wolffe flew around the country with Obama for two years. Nor did they appear in the magazine’s own post-election volume.
Unlike White’s classic “Making of the President” series, Wolffe’s book makes no real effort to penetrate the other side of the presidential race. There’s not a single reference to reporting from the McCain campaign in “Renegade”; Steve Schmidt, McCain’s top campaign aide, says that’s because Wolffe didn’t do any. “You’re kidding, right?” Schmidt said when asked if Wolffe had talked with him for the book. “He didn’t talk to McCain folks during the campaign.”
No matter the balance questions, Wolffe’s access did pay some dividends. He gets Obama accusing former President Bill Clinton of telling “bald-faced lies” – and the news that the candidate met secretly in Chicago with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Those revelations have gotten the book noticed, and it’s received a favorable review from the New York Times.
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All of that will be good for sales- - but for the book, not the magazine that was paying for the reporting.
“We should have had most of what’s in the book,” said one Newsweek staffer, who complained that the magazine had gotten little in exchange for the softened reporting that often comes with access.
“I worked my ass off for Newsweek and they printed what I had,” responded Wolffe, who noted that his Obama interviews had been the source of half a dozen cover stories.
But Wolffe does not do much to disabuse suspicions that his Newsweek career ended unhappily. He said he left the magazine after its editors refused to let him take more than a week of book leave.
The book’s copious acknowledgements including a seemingly perfunctory thanks to “all my friends at Newsweek,” but Wolffe doesn’t mention any of them by name -- even though he gives dozens of shout-outs by names to people in the Obama campaign and journalistic colleagues from other news organizations.
In one passage, Wolffe takes a direct shot at the Newsweek’s chief scribe, Evan Thomas, describing him as one of the magazine’s “most senior, and white, writers” whose “racial stereotyping” wasn’t that different from Jeremiah Wright’s inability to “to accept that America was in the process of change.”
Before the book, Wolffe’s reporting for Newsweek offered perhaps more intimacy than any other reporter's, with exclusive interviews on subjects from foreign policy to Obama's spiritual life and soft profiles of everyone from Michelle Obama to aide Mark Lippert. He painted the Obamas largely as they have portrayed themselves: reluctant, modest warriors who would have preferred to run a cool, intellectual campaign but were dragged into the mud by the Clintons.
But the pieces rarely made a splash in a media cycle hungry for new information and new lines of attack and defense. His editors sometimes thought the reporting lacked critical bite, and they teamed him with Thomas and others -- standard Newsweek practice -- for analytical pieces.
Among his press plane colleagues, Wolffe’s access to the candidate was no secret. After a campaign event at a restaurant in Reno last August, Wolffe and Obama shared a heaping piece of frosted carrot cake as the Secret Service ushered the rest of the press corps to a waiting bus. Reporters also knew that Wolffe was regularly playing basketball with the candidate – games that were off limits to everyone else.
In an earlier age, that kind of rapport with a president might have infuriated other reporters, but it would have made Wolffe golden. Ben Bradlee, who later became editor of the Washington Post, shined at Newsweek because he became such friends with JFK. On the night of the crucial 1960 West Virginia primary, he wrote in a memoir, he watched a soft-core porn movie with the candidate in Washington—color that did not get shared with Newsweek readers—then flew to Charleston with him for a victory speech.
In the 1970s, a Newsweek staffer in Atlanta, Eleanor Clift, got her big break by being the reporter to log thousands of miles with the previously obscure Jimmy Carter. She’s been a Washington player ever since.
Wolffe is also a Washington player—but one following a starkly different path. He writes that his portrait of Obama is a product of a calmer and less confrontational media age. But it’s also the product of a seduction by a media savvy politician who, Wolffe writes, essentially assigned the book.
“Why can’t you write a book about [the campaign]? Like Theodore White. Those are great books,” Wolffe writes that Obama asked him on March 20, 2008, two days after a campaign-changing speech on race that Wolffe describes in Renegade as “the epitome of hope.”
Wolffe writes that he identified with Obama because of his own mixed background – his parents hail from different parts of the Jewish diaspora – and his love of basketball. His book is deeply sympathetic to Obama and his viewpoint, and broadly – though not uniformly --accepts the campaign’s view of itself.
At one point, Wolffe writes that Obama “ran against the politics of fear as perfected during the Bush years, at home and abroad.”
The book also contains an extended defense of Obama’s suggestion that Iowa farmers grow arugula, and a description of the campaign’smedia strategy – “They had little aptitude for or interest in winning the daily or hourly news cycle” – that more closely reflects the campaign’s spin than the reality of its mastery of the minute-to-minute, hand-to-hand combat of the 2008 news cycle.
On the public stage, Wolffe is best known for his appearances on MSNBC. During the campaign, he would often play the chortling Ed McMahon role to Keith Olbermann, as the host lacerated McCain.
Of course, access has its perils, and White himself was hardly immune. After his pathbreaking Kennedy volume, White fell in love with another candidate and wrote a similarly glowing behind-the-scenes account of the return of Richard Nixon – a book that has not aged as well.
Wolffe defended “Renegade” against the charge that he was bought with access. “There’s a whole chapter of the book called ‘Failure,’” he said. “This isn’t an authorized book that they controlled what I wrote or sought to control it.”
“I don’t think that the president then candidate would have been interested in a journalist was a pushover – he likes to be pushed and probed and analyzed,” he said, adding, “This wasn’t my first rodeo.”
Newsweek learned of Wolffe’s book idea – indirectly – soon after he began batting it around with others in early summer, two people involved said, and his editors told him that he couldn’t sign a contract until after the election. Wolffe accepted that condition, he said, and kept reporting for his book and for the magazine, although writers like Thomas complained internally that his files were thin and some now say his reporting was overly sympathetic.
When the election ended, the Newsweek brass offered him a new job. Not the White House beat – a natural extension of his campaign coverage – but, he said, “a blog, no less.” He describes the genre in his book as the equivalent of “fried and fast” food, as compared to his own more nutritious “slow food.”
Wolffe took a Newsweek buyout instead. He said he “never talked to [the White House] about a job.” He wrote through the winter and early spring, and on April 1, he announced that he’d taken a position under former Bush communications director Dan Bartlett at Public Strategies. Wolffe said in an interview that he wouldn’t trade on his relationships with Obama and his aides in his new post.
“I do not lobby – I offer strategic advice to clients on how to interact with the public, whether it’s their stakeholders or public opinion,” he said.
Wolffe also continues to write and report for Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, and to offer his opinions on MSNBC, which identifies him as a political analyst, though he said he won’t talk about issues related to the firm’s clients.
And he suggested he’s not that different from other reporters in an era in which the business and the profession of journalism have gotten closer and closer.
“The idea that journalists are somehow not engaged in corporate activities is not really in touch with what’s going on. Every conversation with journalists is about business models and advertisers,” he said, recalling that, on the day after the 2008 election, Newsweek sent him to Detroit to deliver a speech to advertisers.
“You tell me where the line is between business and journalism,” he said.
Jonathan Martin and Ken Vogel contributed to this report.