Archive for February, 2013

Gun Shy

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

For a guy whose professional life involves talking to people about firearms, Wayne LaPierre doesn’t seem especially enthusiastic about either people or firearms. “I knew of no gun interest that he had,” says former National Rifle Association (NRA) chief Warren Cassidy, LaPierre’s boss for a decade. If LaPierre were ever to join one of his colleagues’ hunting trips, says John Aquilino, who used to run the group’s media relations, “I would run like hell.”

Not that LaPierre appeared hungry for company. “Is he a guy who exchanges slaps on the back or glasses of beer?” asks Joseph Tartaro, head of the Second Amendment Foundation, who has worked with LaPierre for 35 years. “No, I don’t think he’s that kind of person.” “He is a shy, wonkish person,” says Richard Feldman, a longtime fellow gun lobbyist. In a memoir, Feldman described his first impression of LaPierre: “This guy doesn’t have what the human resources gurus call ‘people skills.’”

A characterological profile like that doesn’t comport at all with the LaPierre we’ve seen on TV screens since the Newtown tragedy—the from-my-cold-dead-hands gun defender who blames movies and video games, rather than weapons that can shoot dozens of rounds a minute, for all the mass murders that have taken place in the last year. Which leads one to wonder why he’d even want to lead the NRA at all, or why the NRA feels he’s the best man for the on-camera job.

A studious kid from Roanoke, Virginia, LaPierre joined the NRA almost immediately after leaving a political science Ph.D. program at Boston University. Even though he’d gone from academic to operative, he couldn’t shake his campus intellectual vibe. Aquilino remembers once seeing a trail of notebooks and folders in the lobby of the NRA’s old headquarters. “Wayne walked by, didn’t he?” he recalls asking. “He literally had a stream of papers and books and notes that led all the way out to where he got into the cab and headed off to Capitol Hill.”

What LaPierre lacked in professional polish he more than made up for in intensity of belief—something that stood out in lobbying, a calling dominated by schmoozers. But the NRA wasn’t just any lobby. Arriving a year after the so-called Revolt at Cincinnati, when young radicals took over what had been a sleepy sporting organization, LaPierre moved up quickly by taking the most hard-line positions in the room. He fought to undo the biggest federal gun law, pioneered the tactic of shifting the focus away from firearms to a dysfunctional criminal justice system, and thrived as NRA moderates lost internal power struggles.

“It takes a certain amount of chutzpah,” Cassidy told me, “to be a lobbyist and walk into an office where Teddy Kennedy’s in there and he’s had two brothers assassinated, and you’re going to talk pro-gun?” But in 1986, LaPierre had done just that, helping to craft a rollback of a 1968 federal gun control law. The Senate had already passed its version of the bill, and the House debate seemed to be going the NRA’s way when Speaker Tip O’Neill called for a two-week Easter recess. When the House reconvened, an amendment banning new automatic weapons had been added.

Furious NRA ultras wanted to kill the entire bill. But LaPierre called his boss, Warren Cassidy, from Capitol Hill, ready to cut a deal. “I believed in giving an apple to gain the orchard, and he agreed,” Cassidy recalls.

Once the bill passed, however, Cassidy found himself vilified by the NRA rank-and-file, and LaPierre let his shyness kick in at the most useful moment. “I was a little unhappy that Wayne didn’t stand up, accept the fact that he had recommended it to me, … and say that he supported it,” says Cassidy. “There was almost dead silence from him.”

The lesson for LaPierre was that the other side didn’t want apples. They wanted to burn down the orchard. Less than a decade after the deal came the Brady Bill, and now, after Sandy Hook, the NRA again feels besieged. LaPierre’s former colleagues describe a man driven to distraction by what he sees as liberals’ bait-and-switchery in their quest to ban all guns.

At a hunting and conservation gala in Nevada last month, LaPierre talked not about sportsmanship but about Barack Obama’s use of the word “absolutism” in his inaugural address. “Obama wants to turn the idea of ‘absolutism’ into a dirty word, just another word for extremism,” LaPierre said, registering the same note of barely controlled rage he’d hit at his post-Newtown press conference. Over the years, LaPierre has laid out his strident views in half a dozen books, including one treatise about the United Nations’ plot to take away Americans’ guns.

In the meantime, the conservative landscape around the NRA’s circled wagons has been changing. Groups like March for Life and the National Organization for Marriage have hired media-friendly leadership. But if the increasingly powerful political wing of the NRA has no taste for compromise, it has even less for media likability. So LaPierre, his old shyness sublimated into rage, snarls at the cameras on behalf of his organization. “Let me say it this way,” says Feldman. “If it had been me holding the news conference [after Newtown], I’m certain I would’ve used a woman and I would’ve found an educator.” Aquilino puts it differently: “I wanted to bitch slap his advisers,” he says.

But Aquilino and Feldman are moderate dinosaurs compared with LaPierre, and it’s no coincidence that they were forced out with the other moderates decades ago. They may not like his media strategy, but it’s hard to argue with his record. Since 1991, membership has increased by nearly 70 percent. “Usually, his addresses are rather enthusiastically received,” Tartaro says. “Both in substance and defiant style.” In the NRA, he explains, this has helped create “a cult of personality” around LaPierre.

The problem for the organization, though, is that the base can only do so much. Given that half of gun owners don’t think the NRA fully represents their views, that more people dislike the organization’s leadership, and that gun control has become increasingly popular, the NRA might soon need new friends. At which point it might be useful to have a people person at the helm.

Gun Shy [TNR]

Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

he first time I interviewed Ezra Klein, the 28-year-old prince of D.C. media, he brought me a sandwich: prosciutto on a poppy-seed baguette. (Also, chips and a beverage.) We were in the back of a chauffeured black town car, sent by the Washington Speakers Bureau, to take Klein from his office at The Washington Post, across the river, to a speaking event at the Northern Virginia Community College. There, he would give a talk on U.S. politics. “I have a little spiel I do at these,” he told me. “The one I like to do is called ‘Why Washington is Horrible (in Charts),’ but they don’t have PowerPoint capability, so I’m doing a modified version.”

The point was, we were not going to eat for a while, and Klein took care to bring us dinner. (He also took care to stipulate that, should my barometer of professional ethics require it, I could pay him back for said sandwich, which I did.) “Did you read that New York Times Magazine article on decision fatigue?” he asked me, unwrapping his sandwich. “They ran this experiment where the judges would get hungry, and if you came up to the judge right before lunch, you never got parole; if you came up right after, you always got parole. The numbers were unbelievable! So now I’ve become more respectful of the way my stomach runs my brain.” He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed in silence, rushing and elongating his neck as if he would run out of air before he swallowed.

“Why Washington Is Horrible (in Charts)” is more than a spiel; it is Klein’s grand theory of politics, the media, and history. “One of my big beliefs about Washington is that we highly overstate the power of individuals and highly underrate seeing Washington as a system, in general, but, in particular, we highly underrate the power of Congress,” Klein began as we wheeled through the city. He placed particular blame on the media for latching onto trivial matters and overlooking the sticky, more complicated issues of how the government actually works. “I think the focus on gaffes is a deep embarrassment, like, a deep embarrassment, and a systemic failure on the media’s part,” he says. “And the danger of that is that, when you don’t tell people how a machine works, when it’s broke, they don’t know how to fix it. And I think that’s begun to happen.”

The audience for having someone explain Washington’s often esoteric policy debates has proved to be far larger than anyone could have anticipated a decade ago, when Klein first started blogging, and he has franchised himself to keep pace. His Wonkblog, which started out as a solo venture and has since swollen to include a staff of five, has arguably become the Post’s most successful project, bringing in over four million page views every month. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” one of Klein’s Post colleagues told me. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” On top of this, Klein writes a regular column for the print edition of the Post, as well as long features for The New Yorker. He is a columnist for Bloomberg View. He has a book deal. He frequently subs in for Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, where he is also on contract as a contributor, and, recently, there were rumors that Klein was on track to get his own show on the channel. (Klein dismisses this notion, saying Wonkblog is his priority.)

By all accounts, he is doing the underlying job—understanding complex policy and translating it for the interested layman—well. Scholars, policy professionals, and journalists respect him, as do a handful of fellow wonks in the West Wing. “His voice matters a lot,” says a White House official. “The president talks to Ezra.” “I’ll put it this way,” says Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, “when I’m trying to get a quick handle on some currently hot policy, on the facts and the numbers, I very often find that I’m going to Ezra’s blog.”

That Klein has achieved this kind of success by age 28 is a fact that thrills his fans and rankles his detractors. (Wonkette once referred to him as a “child typist.”) It also puts him in the pantheon of hungry young men who have moved to Washington and shape-shifted, whether consciously or not, into something that’s more palatable to the city’s establishment. The blogger who, in 2008, tweeted, “fuck tim russert. fuck him with a spiky acid-tipped dick,” now styles himself as the evenhanded, empirically driven adult in a room of squabbling, stubborn children. Even his critique of Washington, grounded in data and charts and graphs, is establishment to the core: This place, he says, is not like it used to be.

“There are critiques that bother me, but that isn’t one of them,” he told me when I asked him about people’s obsession with his age. We sat nibbling on cookies in a bare, garishly lit greenroom, waiting for Klein to go on stage at the community college. “The idea that I shouldn’t do my work because I’m twenty-eight, as opposed to forty-six, does not strike me as a compelling critique.” But he is aware of his age, and, despite the high-profile job, the mortgage, and the wife, Klein says he intentionally tries to project a youthful image. “I wear jeans, not suits, for instance,” he says. Given that most of his peers have a different perception—“Ezra has kind of a dorky dad vibe,” said one friend—Klein’s playing up his youth explains why he is especially beloved by adults. When he finally came on stage, the audience was filled with people who could at least have been Klein’s parents, and they loved him: He was the good grandson delivering an intelligent and schticky bar mitzvah speech.

The presidential election was less than two weeks away, and Klein asked the crowd to consider a Mitt Romney victory, which they promptly booed. “You haven’t even seen him be president yet!” he exclaimed, in mock shock. “OK, let’s say his first act in office is the Give Ezra Klein Twenty-Five Million Dollars in Perpetuity Act of 2013.” The crowd ate it up. “See?” Klein said, waiting for the laughter to die down. “He’s not as bad as you think!” More laughter. Klein went on for an hour, replacing his charts with what he called “air graphing.” He talked about how Congress would likely block the Ezra Klein Act and, given the way the U.S. government is set up, leave the president with no recourse; he talked about the filibuster, about elections and the history of the devolution of the U.S. Congress, and he scolded the media for lying to this very audience, day in, day out.

“I couldn’t believe he was twenty-eight!” an older woman named Deb said when the Q&A was over and the audience began to trickle out. “I said to Judy, I said, ‘He must be brilliant! He must read all the time!’”

“I think he’s great! I read him in the Post,” added her friend Fran. “I’ve never read his blog, but I will!”

Then they swapped pictures of their grandchildren and lamented the fact that Klein was already married: A friend wanted her daughter to marry him.

Out in the lobby, Klein posed for photos and signed autographs, which, he later clarified, was unusual. A young man named Albert asked Klein for career tips. “My only advice is to try to get the job that’s most like the job you want, rather than the one that’s more prestigious,” Klein said. “Always try to be the talent.”

Klein’s office is a spare cubicle on the fifth floor of The Washington Post building; a sign saying “WONKPOD” dangles from the tiled ceiling. When he works, Klein rarely looks up from his computer and his knee rarely stops bouncing. He is usually on the phone, listening and banging away at his keyboard with two index fingers, in the hunt-and-peck fashion. Occasionally, he walks over to the TV mini-studio in the newsroom to “do a hit” for MSNBC. He is a polished, fluent speaker, but while he waits to come on, he sits perfectly still, his hands clasped on the table in front of him, staring straight ahead at the camera and breathing almost yogically. I watched him do this for a good five minutes as his appearance kept getting pushed back. He didn’t flinch. “I tease him that he is like Mork,” says Kelly Johnson, who edits his Post column. “He arrived on the planet as perfectly formed Ezra!”

He didn’t. Growing up in Irvine, California, where his father was a math professor, Klein was—in his own words—“a chunky nerd.” He was also a lousy student, graduating high school with a 2.2 GPA. But he read a lot, mostly bad science fiction. He devoured, for example, the entire Dragonriders of Pern series, but none of The Lord of the Rings. (Dragonriders of Pern consists of two dozen books about how the residents of the planet Pern commune telepathically with intelligent dragons to fight showers of a corrosive spore called “Thread.”)

At the University of California, Santa Cruz—the only school that would accept him—Klein didn’t quite fit in. The kid who had been reading Noam Chomsky’s 9/11 in high school was a moderate here, and he supported the Iraq War on a very anti-war campus. Klein applied to the student newspaper, and was rejected. Sophomore year, he applied to an internship at The American Prospect, and was rejected. He applied to be a reporter-researcher at The New Republic, and didn’t get that either. He tried to help out Gary Hart, who pondered a presidential bid in 2004, and the day after he drove him around traffic-clogged San Francisco, Hart decided not to run.

Klein has spun these youthful misfires into a compelling mythology of humility and good fortune, a reason not to begrudge him his success. “I always think that I’m very, very lucky in the opportunities I’ve screwed up for myself,” he told me. What he’s glossing over, of course, is that he’s always been smart and curious; he could smell opportunity; and when he wanted to, he’d work. At Santa Cruz, Klein channeled his intellectual dissatisfaction into starting a blog. He did a good enough job on it that he was brought on by Jesse Taylor to join him at Pandagon, and, when Hart pulled the plug on his run, one of Klein’s readers, Joe Trippi, invited him to work for the Howard Dean campaign. Unsatisfied at Santa Cruz, Klein transferred to UCLA and picked political science as his major while continuing to blog. “Since my work is all in politics, what I learn and do feeds nicely into my classes, vastly diminishing the amount of work I need to do for them,” he explained in an interview at the time. “I’m done by five, like everybody else.”

By the time John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, Klein was drawing 25,000 viewers a month, figures that, for the time and for a college blogger, were fairly impressive. Back then, he was campaigning for Kerry and was openly partisan. If Kerry won, he said, there would be “days and days of revelry,” and if the spoils went to Bush, then “depression. Loss of respect for countrymen.” The blog archives do not survive, but if an interview he gave to LAist in November 2004 is any guide, his voice is recognizable: confident, overwrought, and highly self-aware. He was also a little more fratty. Asked what kind of car he drives, Klein replied, archly, “A bright blue Ford Focus hatchback. Yeah, I’m bangin.’ ”

He became part of a crew of bloggers, all of them young men, most of them still in college, who were essentially the liberal guerrilla underground during the Bush years: They were disgusted by Bush’s policies and disconnected from the enfeebled Democratic establishment. The mainstream media, which they felt had abetted both Al Gore’s defeat and Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, were particularly villainous in their eyes—little more than stenographers and scandal hounds.

“What the blogosphere did with newspaper column analysis is make fun of how horrible it was,” says David Weigel, Klein’s friend and fellow member of what came to be known as the Juicebox Mafia. “There were columnists who, even with all their access, which you assumed they had, were just completely lazy and misinformed. And that was the opposite of the blogosphere. The only way to succeed in the blogosphere was actually to shoot at the groin of whoever was bigger than you.” Almost everyone came in for derision: George Will, David Brooks, David Broder. The latter became synonymous with high-minded appeals for bipartisanship, or “High Broderism.” Klein and co. were far less interested in finding compromise than in their side winning.

The rebellion was also largely about data, about relying on studies and numbers instead of “gut” (that favorite Bush word) to solve policy problems. “I don’t really like writing defenses of ‘comparative effectiveness review,’ ” Klein once wrote. “It makes me despair for our country.” Often, the dorkiness went down with a spoonful of irreverence, like in posts titled “The ‘Purple Nurple’ Theory of International Relations.”

When these young men moved to Washington—Klein crammed enough classes into a summer to get his degree and run off to join The American Prospect in 2005—they rented houses together where they sat in boyish semi-filth and blogged. The Times noticed, and swooned. But Klein would soon break away decisively from the rest. Brian Beutler, another blogger from the crew who was then Klein’s roommate, recalls how ambitious Klein was. “We all worked pretty hard, but he, far and away, had the most regular, strongest, most consistent work ethic,” Beutler says. “He was more proactive about networking. It’s not really that he had a plan of action, but he was constantly positioning himself well to have a consistent upward trajectory.”

And he was doing good work, particularly on health care, making sense of a controversial and highly politicized topic well before the issue became national news. In 2009, the Post took notice and, looking to bring in some new media talent, hired Klein. Once there, it didn’t take him long to figure out how to adapt to the customs of elite Washington: One must be nice and above it all. Klein now says that he will not write a negative book review. “Because if you’ve gone through the trouble to write a book? And I just don’t think it’s that good?” Klein told me, breaking into his occasional habit of lilting at the end of each clause. “I’m not going to shit on your work. I just won’t review it. This is a rule James Fallows has that I’ve adopted. Whom I really respect, by the way.” (For the record, the one negative book review Klein still stands by is of Mark Penn’s book, Microtrends, which, Klein maintains, “is a really horrible book.” “The statistics in it were all wrong for a pollster?” Klein says. “It was, like, one big tangle of correlation-causation errors.” Then he added: “I mean, you asked, so please don’t make it seem like I’m sitting in this car being like, ‘And another fucking thing about Mark Penn.’ ”)

Klein explains the nice policy this way: Unkind writing is unthoughtful writing. “I used to be meaner,” he says, because “you don’t think of people as people when you don’t think they’re reading you.” These days, he says the scale of his audience and his platform have given him the luxury not to write “like that” anymore.

His disavowal of party is particularly conspicuous. Klein, who came up through the progressive media and is, according to public records, a registered Democrat, insists on portraying himself as someone driven purely by powerful, un-ideological currents of data. “I’m not afraid to tell people where I come down,” he told me that October night in the town car. “But it’s entirely possible for me to imagine a Republican president who is not irresponsible on policy. It could even be Mitt Romney, who governed more in the realm of a George H. W. Bush. And all of a sudden, a lot of people who think they agree with me on everything would find that they don’t.”

The columnist who he feels achieves this platonic evenhandedness best is The New York Times’s David Brooks. “In the course of a pretty short column, he is able to convey the other side’s positions back to them in a way they would recognize,” Klein says. The fact that Klein feels he has largely achieved this state is a major point of pride, and he says it makes his criticism of policy more weighty. What he didn’t mention was that, four years earlier, he wrote a blog post titled “The Pitfalls of Making David Brooks Your Guy.”

Curiously, the nice, adult Ezra is closer to his nature than his occasionally spiky self of yore. “He’s never been a firebrand,” says Beutler. He was simply emulating the accepted groin-targeting ethos of his cohort. Now that he doesn’t have to act like that, he can navigate the D.C. social scene in a way that comes more naturally to him.

“Ezra is an incredible operator,” says one prominent Washington editor. “He is always looking upward at things. You only have to watch him work a party. He moves right to the most important people there.” One friend saw Klein and his wife, New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey, at an event for last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and noted that they spent most of the night talking to Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic adviser.

All of this has allowed Klein to slip easily into the Washington establishment, leaving the rest of his old blogging crew merely doing well, though they are still close. “I had no conception of, or ambition of, trying to run a multimedia empire,” says Matthew Yglesias, a good friend of Klein’s who was also the closest thing he had to a rival. “He obviously wanted much, much more.”

When I asked Yglesias, who now works at Slate, if he had any funny stories about Klein, he stopped to think. After a while, he said, “You know, Ezra’s not really a funny guy. He’s super-controlled.” Weigel was similarly stumped, recalling adult-like dinner parties at Ezra and Annie’s for about as long as he’s known him. “I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen him drunk,” Weigel said. “No. No, I haven’t.”

When Klein talks about Wonkblog, he sounds like an earnest business school student selling his start-up. It is a service, a product, a brand. He thinks about market share. (“A couple years ago, policy was an underserved market.”) He thinks about his client base. (He speaks often of “my readers,” about what they want, what they need, and how he can best serve them.) He thinks about productivity. (He reads far less media and blogs these days, he says, because “I just don’t find the margin in that so great?”) He is wary of growing too big, too fast, because “I actually think overly quick expansion can kill the product.” When I asked Klein if he considers himself an entrepreneur, he demurred. “If I can say that without sounding self-congratulatory, because ‘entrepreneurial’ is sort of a word we’ve imbued with a kind of a pathos,” he hesitated. “But yes, I mean, fair enough.”

That he thinks assiduously about Brand Ezra is hardly surprising. What’s made him so successful so fast aren’t just his analytical chops—plenty of others have those, too—it is also the idea of Klein himself, the nice, rational, incongruously handsome nerd, the kid you want explaining your budget policy and marrying your daughter. His predecessors, the Brookses and Russerts he mocked on the way up, were talented but mostly anonymous youngsters at the beginning of their careers. They didn’t have Twitter to disseminate their work to a broader audience. They weren’t treated like celebrities with pictures of their faces plastered atop their blogs, as was once the case with Klein. Washington has always fetishized wunderkinds—Andrew Sullivan became editor of this magazine at age 28—but, mostly because the technology didn’t exist, it was impossible to package them as effectively as Klein has been packaged. He is a product, the kind an old organization like the Post can use to revive its flagging legacy.

But now that he is part of the establishment, Klein seems all too aware that the gaffe-driven media has set its sights on him. The guests at his wedding, for example, recall the instruction, oft repeated, not to tweet from the event. “He’s grown so quickly, he probably feels vulnerable,” says Johnson, his editor.

Before agreeing to an interview, Klein wanted to meet and discuss what this story would look like. I was not to speak to his family or to his wife. Before I arrived at the Wonkpod, he sent me an e-mail warning me that the Post bigwigs prohibited me from talking to anyone in the newsroom. At one point, he turned around and said, “Can you see my screen?” “My e-mails,” he added sternly, “are off the record.” So were his phone conversations and the names of the people he spoke to throughout the day. He was also worried about revealing the name of an economist at a conservative think tank he considers to be “an intense thinker,” his habit of watching “Battlestar Galactica” in the evenings, as well as his love of Christmas. Every time I stepped away from the Wonkpod, Klein would needle me about how I’d missed the best, most “humanizing” moment for my story.

I noted that the process of being profiled seemed to make him nervous. “Of course, it makes me nervous!” Klein exclaimed. “You know what we do, right?” (By “we,” he meant journalists.) “We take people and we take their stories away from them and refashion them into the format that will make the best article.” The New Republic, he noted, was especially guilty of making their profile subjects look bad, which he was worried would happen to him. “You seem great, but there’s no reason not to be careful,” he said, his frustration herniating through the professorial polish, his voice going tense. “I think journalists are completely irresponsible about how they use people and how they use quotes. All the time.”

“You’re a journalist, right?” I asked him.

“I am,” he agreed. “And I try to be responsible about it.” But by taking the things people told us and spinning them out of context, Klein said, we journalists undermined our own arguments for why people should go on the record with us.

“Do your colleagues here do this?” I asked him, gesturing to the newsroom around him.

“I think everybody that does campaign reporting does this,” he said curtly. “All the time.”

I pointed out that, in spite of his loathing of being subjected to the journalistic gaze, he had agreed to be profiled not only by me, but also by New York magazine—simultaneously. The “people above me” he said, “seem to think it’s a good idea.” It would bring in readership, and Klein felt it would be “hypocritical” not to cooperate with the press when he, the press, was constantly asking people to cooperate with him. It was almost too meta to bear. “You’re sitting there taking notes and recording while I’m sitting here taking notes and recording,” he said. “It’s a peculiar situation!”

Klein’s “underbloggers” quietly clacked away on their keyboards, pretending that this exchange wasn’t happening. The eye of one economics reporter nearby periodically peeked out from behind his cubicle wall. It was obvious that his colleagues were listening.

Klein later told me that he found our exchange “slightly threatening.”

“Don’t take it personally,” one of Klein’s friends explained. “He didn’t get this far being casual about his image management.”

Klein and I met one last time, for dinner. After our tense conversation in the Wonkpod, he invited me to his favorite Washington restaurant, Great Wall Szechuan House, on 14th Street. He seemed to have taken what I said seriously—that if he acted nervous and controlling, he would look nervous and controlling on the page—and I was met with a full charm offensive. The person across the table from me was nice, easy-going Ezra. It was not the good Jewish grandson, or the wonk, or the uptight brand manager; it was my peer, shooting the shit and dropping F-bombs, like any other journalist would, over Chinese and beer. He was still critical of the mainstream media and of the process of being profiled, but he was also suddenly willing to discuss his cooking and his relationship—in the Klein-Lowrey household, he said, he followed recipes religiously, while Annie’s method was “free jazz in the kitchen.”

“We’ve talked a lot, you and I,” Klein told me, reaching for more ma la bean sprouts. He pointed out that, even in a long article, only twelve or so quotes from him will have made it in. Moreover, “there will be some kind of theory in the article, and it won’t be my theory of my life,” he said. “It makes you vulnerable.”

So what was his theory of his life? How did he see his success, and what did he plan to do with it? “When I was working at the Prospect, I never thought—I mean, literally, until they called me, it didn’t occur to me that I would work at The Washington Post,” he said.“I thought that, if my career went really well, maybe, maybe I could top out with a newspaper column. Things came faster. So I spend all my time—I worry that this will sound like humble-bragging, and I don’t want it to—I spend a lot of my time obsessively trying to figure out how I can work hard enough or figure out the right work to do to basically be worthy of all of it. Because if I’m not worthy of all of it, then it’s kind of a sin.”

He laughed shyly.

For now, though, he was thinking about improving Wonkblog. “I’m not doing enough Q&A’s lately,” he said. “This is a problem.”

Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy [TNR]

Russia’s Past Is Ever Present

Friday, February 8th, 2013

The ban on “homosexual propaganda among minors” has yet to become law in Russia—only its first draft has passed the lower chamber of the Russian parliament—but it has already become the most discussed subject in the Russian press and has claimed its first victims. A loyalist Russian television host was fired from the channel he co-founded after coming out on the air in protest, and beatings of gay men have spiked, including a chilling and well-planned attack on a gay club in Moscow. The European Union’s foreign policy chief has spoken out against the ban, and at least two European cities have taken action, with Venice and Milan canceling their sister-city status with St. Petersburg. Russia has retaliated by saying that same-sex European couples will be banned from adopting Russian orphans. Even Madonna was a victim: This fall she was sued for propagating the gay gospel during her August concert in St. Petersburg.

It is not totally clear what the term “homosexual propaganda” even means, but when the law passes the upper chamber and is signed by Vladimir Putin—and it is only a question of when—it will allow authorities to fine any such propagators. Much has been written, correctly, about the law’s violation of human rights—”I am a human being, just like Putin,” said the fired TV host, Anton Krasovsky—as well as its shocking backwardness.

But the proposed ban is troubling for other reasons. The law would be yet another signpost on Russia’s descent into a harsher, more authoritarian version of Putinism; one more turn of the screws in response last year’s pro-democracy—and anti-Putin—protests. The president is showing that he is not only not going anywhere, but that he will impose his vision of Russia on all Russians, whether they like it or not. That vision is not, as many think, the neo-Soviet one—though there are elements of it in Putin’s foreign policy—but the imperial one. Putin’s favorite character from Russian history is not Stalin, but Pyotr Stolypin, a brute reformer who served under Nicholas II. Putin is also said to see his greatest achievement as the reuniting of the Russian Orthodox Church, which split shortly after the Russian Revolution into a domestic and Western one. He has overseen a renaissance of orthodoxy and has ushered the church into the halls of power, to the point where it is now widely seen as a Kremlin affiliate. These days, hardly a policy move happens without the church stating its position on it.

A certain yearning for the rosy, simpler, but likely fictional past has crept into Russian life in the last few years. Yesterday’s kitsch—samovars, Cossaks—is today’s holy relic. This pattern was aptly spied and satired by Vladimir Sorokin in his 2006 novel, The Day of the Oprichnik. (The oprichnik was a member of Ivan the Terrible’s secret police.) It imagined a dystopia in which Russia had built a great wall separating itself from the heathen West and turned inward, ruled with an iron fist by a nameless tsar. His rule ushered in an era of Disneyland Russia, with people dressing and eating and speaking like they would have in the 16th century, while driving futuristic cars and doing futuristic drugs. Alas, Sorokin was not far off the mark, and the warped Russian traditionalism he imagined is, in many ways, becoming a reality.

All of this smacks of the Russian Empire’s “God, Tsar, and Country.” That motto was the expression, in many ways, of a wish for homogeneity in a sprawling empire encompassing hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, and coincided with a push for the Russification of non-Russian minorities, most notably the Jews. It would happen again in Soviet times with Central Asian Muslims.

The imposition of Russian traditionalism, in other words, is not a coincidence, nor is the attendant rise in violent Russian nationalism. (Some of the first to rally for the gay propaganda law were the Russian nationalists, who came out with ludicrous signs, like “the place of a rooster”—a highly derogatory prison slang for a “bottom”—”is in the hen house.”) These crypto-fascist yearnings for a simpler, more noble past seems to coincide with a preoccupation with pedophilia, to which the new law equates homosexuality. I can’t help but recall an evening I spent several years ago in Santiago de Chile with affluent Catholics from prominent local families. I was in town to do a story on the hunt for Paul Schaefer, a Nazi medic who escaped to Chile and set up a sprawling farm on which he tortured Chilean dissidents—he was a sort of subcontractor for Pinochet—and systematically abused children. The Chileans at the table couldn’t stop talking about the children, while pooh-poohing the scores of “disappeared” dissidents.

The perception of homosexuality in Russia is that it’s both a perversion of nature and a fashion import from the corrupt West: something into which a man can slip if he’s had a bit too much vodka—by all accounts a common occurrence in Russia—and as a posture one adopts to be cool. Thus, the “propaganda” ban. Homosexuality is seen as an aggressive ad campaign that, traditionalists fear, will persuade impressionable young minds that being gay not only isn’t abnormal and abhorrent, but stylish and hip. The idea that homosexuality is a natural and innate phenomenon, needless to say, has not gained traction here outside of small circles among the educated. Even there, it’s rare.

Ironically, the very propaganda that the Russian law would seek to root is all over state television, in weekend variety shows featuring local pop stars. The men who perform fall into two categories: manly brute and the sensitive, sensuous lover. Both are ideals of manhood in Russia, but the problem is that the men in the latter category are almost uniformly—and very quietly—gay. That Philipp Kirkorov, Russia’s pop king, is gay is an open secret, and, for all the church’s apparent stodginess, he rented out a church to baptize the daughter he had with a surrogate mom. The child’s godfather was Andrey Malakhov, Russia’s most popular talk show host, who is also known to be gay. As is Valentin Yudashkin, Russia’s premier clothing designer, who, well, is incongruously married. Millions of women across the country watch these men, and countless others like them, every day on their televisions and sigh, wishing their men were more like them. This is the less educated, less affluent part of Russian society most vehemently opposed to homosexuality—”the light blue ones,” as they call them, or the “homosexualists”—but the ones whose hearts race the fastest when they watch ballroom dancing and ballet (both, of course, are very popular).

It’s one thing to have these contradictory forces tugging at the nation’s subconscious, and another to make them law. Putin is not just imposing a traditionalist view of Russia onto the country. He is sending signals to the police and the army and everyone else, that crimes aren’t crimes if they’re committed against gay people. He had sent this signal earlier by loosing the security forces on the opposition, jailing and harassing anyone who participated in the violent protests on the eve of Putin’s May inauguration. One of these activists recently committed suicide in Holland when the Dutch refused him amnesty. Another was abducted from the front stoop of the U.N. office in Kiev, where he was seeking refugee status, and brought back, blindfolded and bound, to Moscow. Many more are in jail or, like Maria Baronova, are awaiting trial. It is in this context that the law must be viewed: In practice, Russia, true to its traditional desire to homogenize and its obsession with unity, is signaling which of its minorities are no longer welcome—ostensibly for the good of the majority.

When the law was introduced in the Russian Parliament, the country’s cultural leaders debated its significance. One Russian journal, echoing the “It Gets Better” project, asked them what advice they had for young gay Russians. “Guys, get out of Russia as fast as you can,” wrote Kirill Serebrennikov, a prominent theater director. “You are not destined to be happy here.” But fellow director Vladimir Mirzoev disagreed, pointing out that for a country in which traditional homogeneity is but a dream, this is not a viable strategy. “This is not a solution for our society,” he said. “Not every ‘inconvenient’ minority can leave Russia, because it is of these minorities that it is made.”

Russia’s Past Is Ever Present [TNR]