Posts Tagged ‘US’

Susan Rice is a Better Fit for National Security Adviser than for Secretary of State

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Today, Barack Obama stopped the music on yet another round of cadre-shifting musical chairs. And this time, the reshuffle left Special Assistant to the President and former journalist Samantha Power in the U.N. ambassador’s chair, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the national security advisor’s chair, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon with no chair at all. Billed by the Times as “a major shakeup,” this round was wholly predictable.

In fact, it had been scheduled back in December, when Susan Rice, then the favorite to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, pulled out of the running amid a storm of controversy over Benghazi. Back then, Rice, who was essentially eased out of the pre-nomination process by the White House, told me that she had “had a warm conversation” with Obama, which made her feel better. White House advisors were openly talking even then about Rice getting the national security post. In the months since, that chatter, from people in the White House and close to Rice, has only intensified. One source close to Rice told me that they were simply waiting for Donilon to get up out of that chair.

The more ironic twist in this is that this job, now seen by everyone as Rice’s consolation prize, was actually the job she had wanted way back in early 2009. She had been one of the founding members of the Obama campaign’s foreign policy team, having thrown in her lot with him early despite her deep ties to Clintonland and that going with Obama then seemed like a career-ender. As I recount in my December profile of Rice, she was none too pleased.

But when the election was over, Obama nominated Clinton for secretary of state and appointed James L. Jones as national security advisor, the position Rice had coveted. Like others, Rice was bitter and disappointed, but, ever the loyal soldier, she observed that the only people to get their first choice jobs were Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama himself. (Rice disputed this account, saying, “My preference was what the president wanted me to do.”)

But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Rice has had to wait four years to get the job she wanted four years ago. Most everyone who has dealt with Rice, while acknowledging her brilliance and awesome work ethic, has noted, as one foreign policy insider told me, “Every job she’s had, she’s had four or five years too soon.” This is more than a sexist remark about a young overachieving black woman. The speed of her ascent is, in part, what has made her the polarizing personality that she is today. For example, when she first worked at the State Department from 1997-2001 as assistant secretary for African affairs, she may have been one of the chief architects of Bill Clinton’s Africa policy, but she had a hell of a time inside the Department.

Politically, though, Rice had a tough time. At meetings, “she was often the youngest person in the room,” recalls her assistant during that period, Annette Bushelle. “Those older and more seasoned officers—most of them male—thought that she was a bit young and inexperienced.” This led, perhaps, to a self-reinforcing spiral. Rice can seem spiny because she knows how she’s perceived. “Publicly, she’s just 48, she is an incredible over-achiever and she’s got a lot of detractors that think she got too far, too quickly,” says a friend and colleague. For each staunch ally who praises her warmth and smarts, she seems to have made an enemy. There are no Rice agnostics.

National security advisor is the perfect job for Rice in large part because she is so much like Obama. Like him, she works with a tight inner circle, and politicking does not come naturally to her, according to her family and colleagues. Like Obama, she prefers the data and wonkery to grand theories. This has made her flexible and pragmatic, and, for her critics, frustratingly hard to predict. (She has been labeled, derogatorily, both an interventionist and a non-interventionist.) In this, she is just like her boss, in large part because she’s helped shape Obama’s foreign policy views. Rice, who has become a friend and a fixture inside the Obamas’ inner sanctum, was advising the President even when he was a Senator. She was also one of the architects of the Phoenix project, a white paper that laid out Obama’s foreign policy views early in the campaign. Given that her views and Obama’s line up in a kind of perfect policy eclipse — heck, she made his views — working together this closely will likely be a breeze.

Susan Rice is a Better Fit for National Security Adviser than for Secretary of [TNR]

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Shortly after Barack Obama finished his press conference after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dramatic apprehension last night, a Russian newspaper reported that the president did not mention the “Russian footprint” in his address. There was almost a note of relief in the report, which came after a day spent by Russian and Chechen officials (though Chechen officials are also Russian officials) batting that footprint away from their doorstep, or denying that one even exists. “We don’t know the Tsarnaevs,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, said. “They never lived in Chechnya, they lived and studied in America.” In this, Kadyrov found himself in strange company, with people among the liberal opposition who also wondered what Russian footprint anyone was even talking about. “Chechnya?” one Russian journalist told me. “They’re Americans, they’ve been in America since childhood!”

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said that the Russian president had been appraised of the situation as it unfolded, struck a slightly different note, however, and it was one of “we told you so.” “Putin has repeatedly said there is no such thing as our terrorists and somebody else’s,” Peskov said. “One must not differentiate between them, deal with some and condemn others. They all deserve the same approach, the same rejection.” This was a reference to America’s vocal defense of the Chechen separatists in the 1990s, as well as to the rebels in Libya and Syria—where fighters from the North Caucasus often turn up. To Putin, the Taliban and the Chechen separatists, the Salafis and Wahabis, Hamas and the Free Syrian Army are all one. It is why he can be friendly both with Bibi Netanyahu and with Bashar al-Assad: He feels their pain, he fights their fight at home. In fact, his presidency was baptized by the fire of domestic terrorism and war against an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. His subjects and his capital have been attacked many times, most recently in March 2010, when two young women from Dagestan blew themselves up in the Moscow metro during the morning rush hour.

Putin has spoken gruffly and scatalogically about terrorists, and he has no patience for them. “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere,” he said back in 1999, when he was just a pale and unassuming former KGB officer beginning the Second Chechen War. “If they’re in the airport, we’ll get them in the airport. That means, you’ll have to excuse me, if we find them in the toilet, we’ll whack them in the outhouse.” One Russian political analyst said, “Russia has long warned the Americans that flirting with various separatist and terrorist organizations of the North Caucasus would not lead to anything good.”

The we-told-you-so resonated with Russians, albeit in different ways. A graphic that went viral on the Russian-language internet showed that now infamous black-and-white photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the following text, printed in big block letters: “Welcome! Sochi 2014.” Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics next year in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is perilously close to the still smoldering Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus. (The decision to have the Olympics there was, at the time, criticized for this lack of foresight.) Others, among them the nationalist guerilla new-media entity known as Sputnik & Pogrom sent out this graphic into the Internet ether. “Enjoy the freedom fighters, America,” it says. “Chechens are no rebels, Chechens are terrorists.” (Sputnik & Pogrom later released a more helpful graphic, to set Chechens—“Mostly Muslim, gave the world [terrorist Shamil] Basaev and Tsarnaev”—apart from Russians—“Mostly Christian or atheist, gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.” “Know the difference,” it declares.)

There has, however, been a lot of interest both in the suspect’s family—the Russian press was the first to track down Antsor Tsarnaev, the father—and in the Hollywood-style chase, even on the state-controlled channels. The crowds in Boston cheering their police force made for an especially odd piece of theater. Russians look with suspicion on their law enforcement agencies—deservedly so—and they usually deal with Chechens in a way that doesn’t resemble a classic action flick. The Russians usually storm the place in a take-no-prisoners way, intentionally and unintentionally kill a bunch of people, and retire back to their mysterious caverns, leaving the public to ponder what the hell just happened.

But as much as Russians have distanced themselves from the attack, or have scolded the politically correct Americans for dealing with the bad guys with kid gloves, this has been an odd moment of bonding for the two countries at a time when Russian-American relations are at yet another low point. I never thought I’d agree with Alexei Pushkov on something—he is the foaming-at-the-mouth anti-American head of the Duma’s foreign policy committee and a frequent and virulent commenter on state TV—but I do now. In a statement, he said that he sees no reason for the Russians and Americans to fight over the Tsarnaev brothers. “American citizens are members of Al Qaeda, they fight in Pakistan, they fight in Afghanistan against NATO and against other Americans,” he said. “And therefore, if some citizens of Russia—and we still have to clear up if they’re citizens of Russia, or not—participate in some kind of global terrorist activity, I don’t see any reason for this to cause a crisis of [Russian-American] political ties.”

What he means is, Russians don’t see terrorists as having national identities, really. Their only identity is terrorist, their only allegiance—terror. “The U.S. actively supported Al Qaeda in the struggle against the USSR, and then bin Laden began to kill Americans; it supported terrorists in Libya, and then they killed the American ambassador; it supported Chechen separatism, and now these terrorists are beginning to blow up Americans,” Sergei Markov, another loyalist hawk, pointed out. “I will not be surprised if these terrorists arrived in the U.S. on the basis of some program of assistance to Chechen political refugees ‘from Russian repression.’” The Russians feel that they know this like no one else in the world, and terrorism is a real and smarting wound in Putin’s worldview. This is why Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush on 9/11, and why he offered, in the wake of the Boston bombing on Monday, to aid Obama in the investigation. It’s also probably why the two got on the phone last night, and why Putin’s spokesman said the countries’ intelligence services will be in touch. Putin understands the terror of terrorism, he feels Obama’s pain. After all, his own presidency was born of it.

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings [TNR]

The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Friday morning, America woke up to Chechnya. Two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had become suspects in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, gunned down an MIT cop, and, in the ensuing chase, turned Boston into an eerily quiet war zone. Suddenly, everyone needed a primer on Chechnya, on the wars there, on its connections to Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army—despite the fact that we don’t know whether their alleged acts were motivated by ideology. “Now everyone, they play with the word Chechen,” their uncle Ruslan Tsarni fumed at the press scrum outside his Maryland home. “They put a shame on the entire ethnicity.”

But the Tsarnaev story—at least as I see it now—is not about Chechnya. Or, rather, it is only about Chechnya insofar as it is a story about the wanderings of the Chechen people writ very, very small.

The Chechens are an ethnic group from the mountains of the North Caucasus, a small neck of land between the Black and Caspian Seas. When the Imperial Russian army invaded at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia’s writers began to romanticize the place, a land of severe mountains, full of quiet, dark-eyed maidens and proud, ruthless warriors against Russian conquest. Tolstoy, who was once stationed in the region, wrote about their eternal struggle against the Russians in Hadji Murat, as did Pushkin, who went there in exile, in Prisoner of the Caucasus. They describe a society that fetishizes masculine honor and violence, skill with one’s horse and one’s sword. The fact that the region now produces international wrestling and martial arts stars is not a coincidence, nor is the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was as devout a boxer as he was Muslim and that Dzhokhar, 19, was an all-star wrestler in high school. Nor is it a coincidence that they faced off against the authorities, and that Tamerlan died in a hail of bullets.

Russian orientalism ended, however, when a guy from Chechnya’s next-door neighbor, Georgia, came to power in 1928: Joseph Djugashvili, or, as we know him, Stalin, knew how to end the aspirations for independence among the Caucasian Muslims like the Chechens and the Ingush. As elsewhere, he drew the boundaries of the local republics in a way that would make separation along ethnic lines a nightmare, and he imported a lot of ethnic Russians. When Nazi Germany invaded, local nationalists sensed an opportunity to wrest their independence from the Soviets. After the Germans retreated and Stalin crushed the insurrection, in 1944, he shipped the entire Chechen population to the barren steppe of Kazakhstan, where as many as half of them died. (The European parliament recently labeled this a genocide.)

The fact that Dzhokhar was born in Central Asia, in nearby Kyrgyzstan, is ironic and deeply significant, as is the fact that he shares a name with Dzhokhar Dudayev, who unilaterally declared Chechnya’s independence in 1991, and, when the First Chechen War broke out with Russia, in 1994, declared jihad against the Russian Federation. That war ended in a truce in 1996, and Chechnya, now de facto independent, became a wild and violent place. Ethnic Russians fled or were pushed out, and many Chechens escaped north, to neighboring Dagestan, which is where Dzhokhar is said to have attended the first grade, in 1999-2000. Around that time, in 1999, Chechnya invaded Dagestan, plunging the region back into war, and it is shortly thereafter that the Tsarnaevs moved to Boston, in either 2002 or 2004. It is why their uncle Ruslan told a local reporter this morning that “they got their start as refugees, as refugees from war.”

In the U.S., they seemed to have lived a hard life. Their father was a mechanic who struggled to make ends meet, doing repair work here and there for $10 an hour. Then he is said to have been diagnosed with brain cancer and had to go to Germany for treatment, though he is now, apparently, in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, where he is besieged with television cameras.

If Dzhokhar seems to have been a relatively well-adjusted kid, the elder, Tamerlan—who is named for a Muslim Mongol warrior—clearly had more trouble. Their uncle, incensed at his “loser” nephews, was outraged that they were ungrateful to this country “that gave everyone a chance,” and speculated that they were driven by “hatred of those who were able to settle themselves.” In the now infamous and currently blocked photo essay on Tamerlan, he speaks of his Chechen background and flaunts shoes that any person who’s ever been to Russia will tell you are kavkaz shoes: They are the trademark footwear of men from the North Caucasus who are trying to be posh. And so, Tamerlan tells the photographer, “I’m dressed European style.”

Tellingly, Tamerlan also says he has no American friends. It is a statement that the media jumped on, but the second half of that statement is the more illuminating one: “I don’t understand them.” This is not surprising. I moved to America from Russia when I was 7, spent my entire conscious life and education here, am fully assimilated and consider myself American, and I often don’t understand Americans. It’s no wonder that Tamerlan couldn’t make sense of them either. Based on what’s known of when the Tsarnaevs came to the U.S., he was either 15 or 17. Immigration is hard at any age, but it is especially difficult when you are a teenager, when your mind and body is changing and you are struggling to come to grips with who you are. For Tamerlan, national identity was thrown into the heady mix, and he seems to have stuck with the one he knew his whole life: Muslim Chechen. The fact that history has made that definition an uneasy one cannot be irrelevant.

If the YouTube channel that is said to be Tamerlan’s really is his, you can see him fervently clinging to this torn identity: It is full of Islam and Russian rap, which makes sense given the Soviet policy of Russifying Chechnya. In fact, Chechnya is still part of Russia and Russian, as well as Chechen, is its official language. Dzhokhar, who was either 9 or 11 when the family moved, may have been more assimilated than Tamerlan, but if that VKontakte page is his, it too is telling: VKontakte is the homegrown Russian rip-off of Facebook. The mere fact that he had a page on an exclusively Russian social network shows that the assimilation was not a complete one. Because emigrating at 11, or even 9, is hard, too. (The most revealing image of Dzhokhar is not the one of him hugging an African-American friend at his high school graduation, but the one of him sitting at a kitchen table with his arm around a guy his age who appears to be of Central Asian descent. In front of them is a dish plov, a Central Asian dish of rice and meat, and a bottle of Ranch dressing.)

In the end, this is not a story about Chechnya or radical Islam or the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Ramzan Kadyrov, the usually insane president of Chechnya, says that the Boston bombing was not a Chechen act of terror, that these boys were reared and forged in America. He was probably right. But that’s not to say the men—whatever their alleged motive—had nothing to do with Chechnya. They were reared by both Chechnya and America, forged in the joining of the two through the painful, disorienting process of emigration, of accepting and being accepted by a new society, or not.

The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America [TNR]

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List

Monday, April 15th, 2013

On Friday, the State Department, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, published a list of 18 people who are believed, “based on credible information,” to be in some way responsible for the gruesome death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009. (Over the weekend, Moscow responded with its own list, which includes David Addington, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bush administration lawyer John Yoo.) Why the U.S. government cares enough about the death of a Russian corporate lawyer to publicly forbid these people from entering the U.S., and from owning any real estate or holding any bank accounts here, boils down to the lobbying efforts of one man, Bill Browder.

Browder, whose grandfather Earl was the head of Communist Party USA, rescinded his American citizenship, moved to Britain and then to Moscow, where, in the gangland economy of the 1990s, he made a fortune. When Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Browder became his vocal champion, cheering when oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003. (The move killed all political aspirations in the business community.) In 2005, Browder was shut out of Russia for reasons that still remain unclear, though some observers speculate that it was because he violated the core economic principle of Putin’s Russia and refused to share his profits with Putin.

Shortly afterwards, his lawyer, Magnitsky, began to uncover where Browder’s wealth was going. With the cooperation of the Russian Interior Ministry, tax inspectors, and courts, an organized crime ring was able to reappropriate $230 million dollars. Soon, people like Interior Ministry officials Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov were living outsize lives, driving luxury vehicles and buying upscale real estate in Moscow, despite their meager official salaries of about $2,000 a month. So were the judges, like Olga Stepanova, who had approved a complex set of transfers of money to various shell companies.

Now, all those inspectors and interior ministry officials and judges find themselves on the list, as do the heads of prisons where Magnitsky spent the last year of his life—after Magnitsky uncovered the scheme, Interior Ministry inspectors had him thrown him in jail. There, screaming with pain, he died, at 37, of untreated pancreatitis. Dmitry Komnov, the head of Butyrka prison, where Magnitsky died handcuffed to a bed, battered, and in a pool of his own urine, is said to have ignored nearly 100 complaints from the prisoner. The judges who prolonged his arrest, as well as the prosecutors who pushed to prolong it, are also on the list.

Almost as soon as Magnitsky died, Browder launched an intensive PR campaign knowing that, despite their officious outrage, the Russian authorities would do nothing. Browder compiled a slick series of videos in English called “The Untouchables,” which detailed how Kuznetsov and Stepanova and Karpov stole his money and killed his lawyer.

Karpov, of course, sued Browder for libel. And here’s where it gets complicated: We don’t know for sure whether Karpov or Kuznetsov or Stepanova did any of the things outlined in “The Untouchables.” The Russian government is made up of many, many vicious men, but Browder is not the most trustworthy—or disinterested—person on the planet. None of his accusations have been proven in a court of a law, and these people, who probably own nothing in the U.S.—Russians prefer to keep their assets in Europe or Cyprus—have become international pariahs. That said, even if they did steal the money and kill Magnitsky, which is highly likely, there is no court in all of Russia which would consider the case, let alone find them guilty. The only person to be tried in all of this, tellingly, is Magnitsky.

The Magnitsky list raises all kinds of questions. Is it America’s place to dispense justice for crimes—alleged crimes—committed elsewhere? Can we publicly shame people who have not been convicted of anything and have no right to appeal the decision? Are these people scapegoats for a Congress that wanted to show itself a defender of human rights? Moreover, why are Congress and the State and Treasury departments all doing such heavy lifting—and further angering Moscow, whose cooperation we need on North Korea, Syria, and Iran—to avenge Browder, who pointedly rescinded his American citizenship and has no plans to ever get it back?

On a purely intellectual level, I think that we should not be wrapped up in this—which has been Obama’s position. But on a gut level, having spent three years in Russia and observing how brutal and cynical and just gut-wrenchingly awful the Russian police and courts are, the list feels like a form of justice. These 18 people, though unconvicted, have become scapegoats for all the evil that the Russian government does to its people. Is it imperfect? Yes. Is it dubious and is it strange that the U.S. is getting involved? Oh, yes.

But, on a purely visceral level, it feels good to say this: The Russian system feels perfectly fine making scapegoats out of dozens of people caught up in the violence of the May 6 protests, violence that the government itself orchestrated in order to sacrifice some scapegoats, terrify the others, and stamp out burgeoning opposition to Putin. (A Russian journalist told me the prosecutors involved in these cases speak openly of the cases’ fabricated, political nature.) The system also feels fine committing all kinds of more minute but equally horrible, demeaning, violent acts on its citizens, day in, day out. So why should America open its banks and its borders to the system’s enforcers?

The problem is, we’re playing by Russia’s rules. And we, thank god, have different rules. May it be ever so.

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List [TNR]

The All-Night King of the Capital

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

On March 13, before heading to Capitol Hill to talk deficit reduction with House Republicans, President Barack Obama, as is his custom before such showdowns, met with his economic team, including National Economic Council head Gene Sperling. The NEC, a Clinton-era innovation, is supposed to serve as an organizing body for the government’s other economic agencies, like Treasury and the budget office. In the hands of Sperling, who worked at the NEC at its inception and has been its director for longer than anyone else, the council has become half think tank, half coach’s corner. Sperling and his team of wonks find economic policies, incubate them, game them out, and present them to the president.

This has made Sperling a ubiquitous figure in the economic policy debates and fiscal crises of recent years. Sperling is the one prepping the president for TV appearances. He’s often dispatched to brief congressional Democrats, as well as the chief policy staffer for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, on the White House line. During the fiscal cliff talks, Vice President Joe Biden was accompanied on his forays to the Senate by Sperling, the human cheat sheet. The only times he hasn’t been in the room is when it was just Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

It’s an unexpected turn, given that Sperling barely made it into the administration in the first place. A veteran of Bill Clinton’s team from the campaign days in Little Rock, Sperling had worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, and when Obama won, Sperling was left without a job in the administration. Larry Summers, an old friend and colleague, was named head of the NEC, and he urged Timothy Geithner, the new treasury secretary, to find Sperling a position. Geithner made him a counselor. For someone with Sperling’s experience, it was, at best, a bit part.

When he started at Treasury, Sperling was temporarily given a suite that had once served as Andrew Johnson’s Oval Office during the months that it took Mary Todd Lincoln to move out of the White House. It was the peak of the financial crisis and Sperling’s deputies slept on the 150-year-old couches. One Saturday morning, an informal tour stumbled upon Sperling and his team cranking out a PowerPoint presentation amidst the flotsam of an all-nighter. “This is a historic office!” the guide exclaimed. “Well, it’s a historic crisis,” Sperling reportedly shot back.

This kind of behavior didn’t immediately endear him to his new bosses. Obama’s inner circle is obsessively orderly. Sperling, as Clintonian as they come, is rambling and intensely inefficient. He is compulsively late; meetings that were scheduled to run for half an hour go three times longer. (“The unit of productivity per unit of work is probably lower” than the ideal, a former staffer told me.) “Gene kind of fit in more on Clinton time,” says a onetime colleague. “This ‘you better be on time’ or ‘the meeting’s going to end in fifteen minutes’ kind of shop is not quite as aligned with his demeanor.” The colleague adds, “It took the Obama people a while to warm up to him.”

But Sperling made himself indispensable, mostly by never going away. “He was constantly over in the West Wing. He hustled,” says Peter Orszag, Obama’s first budget director. “If there wasn’t a spare desk at the White House, he would just sit on the floor and work,” recalls Bob Greenstein, who runs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “He either didn’t have pride or swallowed his pride and took it on, but … Gene started to become one of the central players even without having the portfolio to be one.”

At Treasury, Sperling pushed progressive policies that, in the middle of a nine-alarm financial meltdown, were not high on the list of priorities. He pushed anyway, “in his usual, relentless way,” says Geithner.

“Gene was holding ten p.m. calls every night on executive compensation at a time when most people were worried, is the financial system going to fail?” says one former staffer. It made Sperling the target of some derision, but he got his way. One of his pet causes became the Small Business Jobs Act, a combination of tax cuts and loans for small enterprises, which Obama signed into law in 2010. In 2009, he also proposed two measures to regulate how companies pay their executives. The extension of unemployment benefits in 2010 was Sperling’s doing. And the American Jobs Act of 2011 (which would have provided relief for Americans hit hardest by the crisis but which ultimately failed to clear Congress) was all Sperling, says Geithner. “He really was the main architect of the American Jobs Act,” Geithner explains. “It was big, and it was designed very creatively.” “Gene was prescient,” says the staffer. “You look back and you say, ‘Geez, this is stuff we’re still getting hammered on, and, were it not for Gene, we would be in a way worse place.’”

Most of the stars of Obama’s founding economic team have now departed, but Sperling is still there. He has managed to outlast them by, well, outlasting them. During the 2008 transition, Summers recalls haggling with Sperling over a tuition tax credit in the planned stimulus package. Sperling wanted to make the credit refundable, while Summers, the man with the real job in theadministration, disagreed: There were simply too many refundable tax credits already. “It was ten at night, and he wouldn’t let me leave!” says Summers.

After over an hour of arguing, Summers declared his decision final and went home. Sperling stayed late into the night drafting the memo that would recommend the best policy to the president. By the time Summers came in the next morning, the tax credit had become refundable. Geithner remembers a furious Summers calling to demand that he rein in his counselor. “‘It’s just unfair, he stays up later!’” Geithner recalls Summers saying. “He would just outlast everybody; he would just fight harder, longer. He just wore everybody down.” (Then–Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had to take Sperling aside to remind him that economic policy isn’t made by staying awake the longest.) “He has an awesome tenacity advocating for people who are vulnerable,” Summers told me. “It’s frustrating for lesser mortals.”

The overwhelming power of this political bulldozer is folded, rather messily, into a five-foot-five frame, with graying hair and a receding hairline. It’s hard to quote Sperling, because he rarely finishes a sentence, or even a clause. His is not one of those brains that produces speech in essayistic paragraphs or recounts events in chronological order. There’s a disarming and goofy informality about him. I arrived for our interview on time—“That was silly of you,” said the West Wing receptionist—and about an hour later, was ushered in to meet Sperling, who was pacing in and out of his office and joshing with his mostly male staffers.

In the boyish world of economic policy, his quirks have made him the target of elaborate pranks. Geithner once sent a friend, posing as a Government Accountability Office inspector, to Sperling’s Treasury office to tell his assistant that the gigantic conference table he used for his crowded, marathon brainstorming sessions was too big and didn’t meet government specifications.

Yet Sperling has also earned his colleagues’ respect, because, as odd as it sounds to say this in Washington, a big part of his drive comes from the fact that he truly believes he is making the world a more just place. Born to a progressive family in Ann Arbor—his father was a lawyer who won several constitutional cases; his mother was an education reformer—Sperling says it was instilled in him that Jews, as people who were once oppressed, had an obligation to ease the burden of others. “He’s clearly attracted to power, to being part of that big process,” says a colleague from the Clinton years. “But a lot of people get inside the room and forget what it’s like outside the room, and he’s never forgotten.” Bob Woodward, in his book on Clinton’s presidency, The Agenda, describes Sperling, then–NEC deputy director, thanking his staff for helping preserve Clinton’s progressive policies during the brutal 1993 budget negotiations. He described the millions of working poor who would be lifted above the poverty line and the millions of children who would get hunger relief. Woodward noted, “Tears came to some eyes.”

But Sperling also thrives on the gritty business of policy-making. He recounts battles over budget line items like a kid telling a spooky story, flashlight propped under his chin. One episode in which his relentlessness paid off came in 1997, during a showdown with Newt Gingrich. Basically, knowing that Gingrich would have a limited appetite for tax credits for the working poor, Sperling and his NEC team figured out a way to combine a child tax credit with the earned income tax credit, boosting the amount of money eligible families would receive. Unfortunately, Gingrich caught on and Erskine Bowles, then the White House chief of staff, was sent to repair the damage. He came back with a counteroffer from Gingrich limiting the stacking of the tax credits. Sperling, armed with a sheaf of charts detailing the impact of every possible outcome, protested: It was going to take serious money out of millions of pockets. Bowles pleaded with him not to scuttle the whole deal over a single policy initiative. But Sperling held the line, and Gingrich, infuriated, walked out. Later, however, he sent over some autographed copies of his latest book, and the two sides started talking again. In the end, Sperling and the working poor got their stackable credits. “Whether you’ve prepared enough to know the impact of every detail and potential option can make the difference between whether you’ve used your spot at the table to help or let down millions of people who are relying on you to look out for them,” Sperling told me.

Back then, Sperling was able to work with Gingrich and the House GOP, even when they bitterly disagreed. During the 1997 budget clashes, Sperling sparred constantly with then–House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich. But after Kasich became governor of Ohio in 2011, he could still call up Sperling, who, with help from Valerie Jarrett, was able to find a way to help Ohio expand Medicaid. “I do not support Obamacare, but I do support the expansion of Medicaid. I wanted to get it done but not under these conditions,” Kasich told me. “We have the same goal. Once you make up your mind that you want to reach a goal, you think of ways to get there.”

Stories like these are rare. Washington and the Republican Party have changed, and Sperling now finds himself dealing with an opponent who cannot be exhausted into submission. During the fiscal cliff talks, Sperling was amazed that House Republicans never made it to the stage of negotiations when both parties, in their best dramatic bargaining voices, announced their final offers, take it or leave it. Instead, the House Republicans just walked away. Here he reprises his familiar joke about Boehner and Eric Cantor: “I wouldn’t want to date them,” Sperling says. “Because they don’t say, ‘Can we talk?’ They don’t say, ‘Can we take a break? Can we see other people? Can we go to a therapist?’ They’re just gone one day!” The only explanation he can come up with is that Republicans don’t want any deal at all, and they never make a final offer for fear that Democrats might actually take it.

Now, Sperling senses a spitefulness within the GOP that wasn’t there even with his arch nemesis, Gingrich. Newt was mean, but he could count votes and he could deliver. He was also willing to work with Democrats on the less flashy stuff. He was vicious in the big fights, yet there were feel-good bipartisan measures, like a veterans’ tax credit, on which they could collaborate. There’s a bemused sense around Sperling’s office that, if Barack Obama is for chocolate cake, the Republicans would be against chocolate cake, too.

It’s all harder these days. Sperling has married and had kids; at 54, the all-nighters take a toll. And, while he may have successfully browbeaten his way to power, he has never truly made it into Obama’s inner circle, the hallowed, tiny space still reserved for political gurus, Chicagoans, and those from the long march of the 2008 campaign. “It definitely bothers him,” says the former colleague.

Still, Sperling has not yet tired of pushing the budgetary rock up the mountain. The fact that he has been able to win before allows him to believe that he might be able to win again. “It would be hard for me to come in every day and work really hard if I weren’t an optimist,” he says. Besides, he is too busy looking for openings and doggedly ramming fixes through to have time to fall into the subjunctive progressive whine: if only. “I feel like, yes, I’d like to be six-one and twenty-six and start for the Pistons, too, but those things aren’t going to happen, and this is the world we live in,” he says brightly. “Sometimes you get up the hill, sometimes you don’t. But you always keep pushing.”

The All-Night King of the Capital [TNR]

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]