On Friday, a profile of White House press secretary Jay Carney and his wife, ABC senior national correspondent Claire Shipman, hit the Internet. It was quickly gobbled up by the people of the Internet, and, just as quickly, spit back out in a series of blog posts lampooning its uselessness -- and wondering why Carney and Shipman agreed to do it in the first place.
Upon closer examination, however, the real sin of the piece, which was published in Washingtonian MOM magazine, was that it did not adhere to enough of the essential quirks of the White House staffer profile. This is a grave error indeed..
In the story's defense, it is more about Shipman, than it is about Carney. But, this does not matter in D.C. All stories written about people here must be viewed through the lens of politics, and be criticized for their shortcomings thusly. D.C. last gave a White House staffer profile a Razzie award when Vogue published a piece about soon-t0-be-married couple White House chef Sam Kass and MSNBC host Alex Wagner. Little did the magazine know that they were not publishing a piece proving that everyone will read an article about beautiful, successful people -- Vogue's ticket to success for decades -- but a definitive takedown of everything wrong with Washington that would inspire many a smart take.
They obviously should have known better.
For future reference, reporters intent on profiling people who work for presidents, here's a guide to how to write a perfect profile.
1. Journalists will have no choice but to quote important politicians using awful cliches
When Robert Draper was working on a profile about Valerie Jarrett in 2009, he lucked into a phone interview with President Obama. However, he didn't have much luck getting him to say anything particularly insightful.
“Well, Valerie is one of my oldest friends,” Obama began. “Over time, I think our relationship evolved to the point where she’s like a sibling to me. . . . I trust her completely.”
Before long, his monologue slid into banality. Jarrett served “as my eyes and ears,” a “sounding board” and was ever helpful with “midcourse corrections.” When Obama was done, I pressed him for clarity. What was unique about their relationship as to make a Valerie Jarrett indispensable to the president of the United States? Surely, I said, it wasn’t simply the longevity of their friendship.
It wasn't the first time a colleague's description of a profile subject's special something rang less than profound. Bill Daley, Jack Lew's predecessor as White House chief of staff, told National Journal of Lew, “Jack is not somebody who longs for the attention of Washington, or the approval of the Washington chattering class, even though he respects them," a quote that could be inserted in descriptions of nearly every person in D.C. without anyone noticing. David Gergen provided a similar option when talking about former Obama White House communications director Anita Dunn: "She's tough, she knows how to handle herself in the national media, she's not intimidated by it and she enjoys the fray."
A friend said of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, “He’s about to be tested; he’s spinning a lot of plates over there and he breaks a lot of china." Jacob Weisberg got George Clooney to say slightly rote things about Alex Wagner. “Alex brought so much intellect and passion to her work. “Whether we had to testify in front of the U.N. Security Council or were stuck in a Land Rover for days on back roads in Chad, she was unflappable." The lesson this teaches us -- if you are going to quote someone saying less-than-revealing things about a subject, at least make sure that person is famous.
2. If you own Soviet propaganda, hang it in your bathroom when a reporter comes to profile you
This is a little known rule that many government officials have forgotten since the Berlin Wall fell, but still oh-so-very-important to building the perfect D.C. profile. If you have communist political posters, don't hang them in the living room where photo shoots just might happen. Hang them over the toilet where no magazine photographer would dare capture it. In their place, put pictures of presidents -- preferably autographed ones. The reporter will definitely mention them.
It doesn't matter if said poster reminds you of when you met your spouse, as it probably does for Shipman and Carney. The Internet will not care about context, and every single mention of the hours you spent working with reporters will be reduced to your decor (as well as the magazine's Photoshop prowess, but that's another story).
The onus isn't all on the reporters here, you subjects need to help out too if you want to create a story monotonous enough to not embarrass yourself or the president while revealing just enough to have people talk about how great it is that you eat a cheese sandwich everyday for lunch. If you have a weird hobby, make sure you mention it! Playing in a rock band, for example. Or if your spouse has said adorable things about how nerdy the two of you are.
It is nearly impossible to write a story about White House staffers without revealing what the president or their colleagues call them. Valerie Jarrett was known as "the Night Stalker." George W. Bush called Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil, "The Big O." Bush called Secretary of State Colin Powell, "the world's greatest hero" (nickname coverage reached its apex during the Bush administration).
4. Mention the "West Wing" at least once. Preferably twice.
In her profile of twentysomethings in the Obama White House, Ashley Parker notes, "they are walking and talking in the halls of the federal government, helping to shape the country in real ways, just as harried young aides did on 'The West Wing' TV show they watched growing up." In a profile of Jim Messina earlier this year, the former White House staffer mentioned that his job was the same one Josh Lyman had. In a piece in the Washington Post about Jen Psaki, who worked on Obama's campaign team, it was noted that only three other women have been White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, Dana Perino and the West Wing's C.J. Cregg.
5. There will be disclosures.
In Parker's piece, she needs to note that her housemate started dating one of her subjects over the course of her reporting. When Weisberg wrote about White House chef Kass and Wagner, he included a parenthetical note that he has been on her show before. Everyone in D.C. knows eveyone else. It's called networking.
6. You cannot write a story about White House staffer without revealing when they wake up in the morning.
Valerie Jarrett wakes up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. David Axelrod's special assistant wakes up at 5:45 a.m. Rahm Emanuel starts his day "shortly after 5 a.m." (The Fix wakes up way later than that, for the record.)
What does this list of times reveal? In case you hadn't heard, these people work in the White House, a detail that cannot be proved unless they have revealed their workaholic bonafides. Extra points if you also mention their Blackberry or quote a coworker discussing how much they work.