Saying Something New

Two reporters on the challenges of writing a fresh political profile

Midterms are on the horizon—though you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d hit the shore—and reporters are stalking, scrutinizing, and sometimes even sitting down with the country’s office holders and their challengers. We spoke to the authors of two very different political portraits published last week about the challenges particular to political profiling: New York Times L.A. bureau chief Jennifer Steinhauer, who sat down with Arnold Schwarzenegger for “The Loneliness of Governor Schwarzenegger”; and New York’s Joe Hagan, author of a John McCain profile titled “What Would a Maverick Do?” Both took on men who’ve filled a mag or two and managed to wring a little freshness out of them.

What’s new?

We admit that when we first saw New York’s McCain piece, we almost sighed. “You again?” Everyone already knows what Hagan later described to us as the “calcified story” on the Arizona senator. So why should we go for seconds?

“You could write that story without any facts, just from news pickup,” Hagan says of the well-known recent McCain narrative. “What I wanted to do was find the internal events, get scenes and anecdotes and show people how that has been unfolding.” And he did. Like an epilogue to Game Change, Hagan’s piece is stuffed full of juicy behind-the-scenes goss: McCain refusing to answer advisor Mark Salter’s phone calls because “He’s going to yell at me”; communications director Brooke Buchanan tempering his rage at rallies; a testy McCain cancelling dinner with Scott Brown after the Massachusetts senator dared give his elder a little campaign advice on a visit to Arizona.

But he also offers a psychological assessment of sorts: McCain as the fighter, torn between an advisor in Salter who shaped and seeks to maintain the noble maverick image, and another in Rick Davis, currently winning the day inside his boss’s head, who encourages whatever shape-shifting moves will fell Senate primary opponent J.D. Hayworth.

Time’s Michael Scherer wrote in the magazine’s Swampland blog that the trope has a familiar ring—insert former McCain advisor John Weaver (“champion of the moderate, maverick McCain”) where you see Mark Salter, and the story could have been one of many surrounding the 2008 campaign. But Hagan does something more with McCain than the criticism suggests. His McCain is not merely the product of two associates with different plans, but a man who cogently chooses between them based on his own long-hewn survival instincts, and a fear of the political cold. As Hagan told us, reflecting upon Scherer’s charge, “He [McCain] made the decisions to put these guys in power and make them his advisors, and he made a decision to go in a certain direction.” And, as he writes…

…McCain has also begun thinking about his legacy. He recognizes, says a person who has spoken with him about it, that political life is fleeting, that he could one day be forgotten. It scares him. At this point, losing to J. D. Hayworth would be too much for McCain to bear, especially after all he’s sacrificed to prevent it.

“That’s no way to go out,” says Grant Woods, a longtime friend of McCain’s. “You don’t live the life he’s lived and lose to a goof like J. D. Hayworth.”

It’s an interesting if still familiar-feeling take, made fresher by the sheer rigor of the reporting (Scherer does say it is “the definitive account of John McCain’s last 18 months”).

Jennifer Steinhauer’s angle on Schwarzenegger is similarly familiar but distinct. Like Hagan, she faced a difficult, oft-profiled subject. She circumvents déjà vu by foregoing the traditional profile route and offering a fleshed out thesis in which Schwarzenegger is less subject than evidence: the lonely fate of a true bipartisan.

In the final analysis, it is more a look back at Schwarzenegger’s governorship and governing style for the national reader (sans anything personal, even his age) and how Schwarzenegger became the thing that McCain once was: a maverick (and, as of right now, a deeply unpopular one). The reflection is a chance to make some broad observations about the nature and consequences of bipartisanship.

Some excerpts:

If the mark of a real independent is lack of friends, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the quintessential nonpartisan in American politics right now.

His approval rating has not risen above 30 percent since May 2009. California remains in deep fiscal distress. He is despised by the state’s workers (whose pay he cut), Democrats (who loathe his aversion to new taxes and his desire to cut entitlements) and Republicans (who wish those respective aversions and desires were stronger), as well as college students, public school parents and people who hate the smell of cigars.…

His left-leaning proclivities on issues like the environment and health care were never enough to mollify the state’s liberals; among the state’s conservatives, his right-leaning views on pension reform and crime did not compensate for the taxes he once raised and the deals he cut with Democrats.…

You can’t really please any of the people much of the time. “There were people all the way through, people who were disappointed,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said as he pulled on a cigar during a recent interview in his Santa Monica office. Some “who thought I should be more conservative, some who thought I should be more liberal. Some people thought I should be more dissenting.”

Over e-mail from L.A., Steinhauer, who is moving to D.C. in a few weeks, told us, “I wanted to make sure I had a chance to weigh in on his tenure, and since it is almost over, the timing seemed pretty fortuitous. I view this story less as a political profile than an attempt at a discussion of a particular political phenomenon, if you will. The so-called post-partisan politician in a hyper partisan country.”

Access Granted, Access Denied

For Steinhauer, who had built relationships with Schwarzenegger and his team in her time as L.A. bureau chief, access was not much of a problem. Hagan, on the other hand, received a textbook lesson in PR runaround from camp McCain, led by communications director Buchanan. “There was no cooperation from the candidate,” says the writer, adding that much of the three months he spent on the piece was chewed up trying to get a sit-down with the senator. “It got to the point where his communications director wasn’t returning my calls or e-mails.”

Frustrated by the brush-off, Hagan took himself to Washington, got a senate floor pass and headed to the press office. “I called her [Buchanan] from an internal phone so that she would pick up and not know it was me.” And she did, agreeing to hear his pitch. The reaction was one we’re all familiar with: “She sort of just humoured me until she could get me out of the office basically; it had been decided that they weren’t going to cooperate.” His theory is that the team was bitten by the Newsweek piece, and twice shy for now.

And yet, though Hagan never came face-to-face with McCain, the candidate is everywhere in the piece. The writer knew where McCain would be stumping and who to speak to get those Game Change-y details. The access began with a trip up north.

Salter wasn’t returning Hagan’s calls, so he drove “on a lark” to Castine, Maine, eight hours from his home in New York, where the McCain teamster was “holed up in a cottage.” He called Salter when he got there and “just told him I was in town and told him to have a drink with me. He relented and that’s where I began to get a bit of peripheral access to them. They cooperated at least to the point where they told me where he was going to be on weekends when he was campaigning, but that was it.”

Then the phone calls began.

Naming your source

With little cooperation, Hagan’s piece relies heavily on nameless insiders. His sources include “a person briefed on the conversation,” “a veteran Republican strategist who has worked closely with McCain,” “a person close to him,” “a GOP strategist who has worked closely with McCain,” “a former McCain adviser who admires Salter,” a “Washington friend” of McCain’s, “an ex-staffer in McCain’s 2008 campaign,” “a former adviser in Arizona,” a “former McCain insider,” “a McCain intimate,” “an advisor in Arizona who knows McCain well,” “an old friend of the senator’s,” “a former adviser,” and “a friend” of Salter’s. (There are many named sources too, including lawyer Grant Woods, Weaver, Salter, Orson Swindle, and former McCain aide Wes Gullett).

Hagan struggled with the sourcing question. “It’s a controversial subject,” he says. “When you’re dealing with politics and Wall Street, two subjects I’ve written a lot about, in many ways you’re forced to make a decision about that. Do you really want to be able to tell the reader what’s going on behind the scenes?” You could choose not to rely on unnamed sources, “the price, being, you’re not going to be able to reveal much.” He adds that New York has established a level of trust, as has he. “I have a few stories under my belt at this point. I have a modicum of what I hope is some faith that I am trying to do the right thing. I just spent three months building relationships with these people and got to know their biases.”

For Steinhauer, who wrote her piece in a week, sourcing was less of an issue. Her sources, all named, are a cross-section of academics who worked with Schwarzenegger and political thinkers of both stripes with something to say about his performance. People, Steinhauer says, “who really know him, worked with him, have something to say and have been honest in the past both with their agreements and differences.” The biggest challenge when it came to deciding who to include? “Space!!”

The Aftermath

“There’s so much pressure now for long profiles to be a part of the news cycle,” says Hagan, whose story did just that. As Newsweek’s McCain profile demonstrated, along with myriad others before it, these pieces often set the meme for a day or week. Hagan, who reads most of the reactions to his work, is pleased with the response. “At the end of the day you’re not writing news stories, you’re writing a story that’s trying to help people comprehend the accumulation of the news cycle and what it means for this one person. I got comfortable with the idea that his advisers did say something about him, they did represent something about him; how he operates and how he navigates politics himself.”

When I suggest to Steinhauer, whose less buzzy piece attracted fewer mentions, that her Schwarzenegger profile reads like a first draft of the governor’s legacy, she’s surprised. The aftermath of her work is not something she thinks about a lot; unlike the magazine writer, she’s got the next story to worry about. “I guess I try not to think about my work that way, in terms of outcomes, other than to worry deep into the night—was I fair? Did I (because I am a terrible speller) spell everyone’s name right? And, will I feel good about this story in three years?”

All are questions likely to give profilers a few restless nights over the next three months.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.