Amateur Campaign Blogger Scoops the Pros

Mayhill Fowler has made her unobtrusive presence felt.
Mayhill Fowler has made her unobtrusive presence felt. (Thor Swift - Thor Swift For The Washington Po)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008

Mayhill Fowler says she never planned to ask Bill Clinton the question that unleashed a decidedly unpresidential tirade.

But in the crush of the crowd in South Dakota last Monday, when she raised the topic of "that hatchet job" on him in Vanity Fair, the former president called the article's author "slimy," "sleazy" and a "scumbag," tightly gripping Fowler's hand the whole time. "I'm sure he had no idea who I was," the 61-year-old Tennessee native says.

He quickly found out. Fowler is a Huffington Post blogger whose audiotape of the exchange exploded across the media landscape, prompting Clinton to apologize for his language. And the episode came just two months after Fowler rocked Barack Obama's campaign by reporting his comments at a closed fundraiser that "bitter" small-town Americans "cling to guns or religion."

"I have no journalistic training," says the woman who spent the previous 15 years trying unsuccessfully to get several books and novels published. "I just discovered that I'm impelled to get out there and get the truth of the matter." But that has required overcoming her natural reluctance to hurt her political side.

Fowler is part of a new breed -- citizen journalist, liberal advocate, agent provocateur -- and her success has stirred questions about her methods. Fowler freely admits she has donated to Obama's campaign and started her blogging stint a year ago because she admired him.

She is one of 2,500 people, from writers to academics to accountants, working with Off the Bus, a $200,000 venture launched by the Huffington Post and New Assignment, the brainchild of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. The idea is to unleash ordinary folks on the presidential campaign and give them a technology-powered megaphone.

"When you're in the bubble, you cover every story the same way," says Arianna Huffington, founder of the liberal Web site. "At Off the Bus, because they're not part of the professional gaggle, they can come up with their own views of what's happening, which may be different from what the conventional wisdom is saying."

They also have to be well off, since most are given technical support but little reimbursement, although a limited number receive stipends. With help from her lawyer husband, Fowler has been paying for her own cross-country travel, often chasing the Obama bus in a rental car and blogging in her pajamas in the middle of the night.

Fowler was an unlikely recruit, if only because her mother -- "a typical Southern iron-fisted matriarch" -- banned all talk of politics at home. That was because her dad had spent 14 years as mayor of Memphis, and "she felt politics had destroyed her family," Fowler says.

Politics played no role in Fowler's life as she settled in Oakland after earning a master's degree in English literature at the University of California's Berkeley campus and spent most of her time raising her two daughters. She knew little about Obama and had not even seen his famed 2004 speech to the Democratic convention. But when Fowler, a religious Presbyterian, discovered online a speech the Illinois senator had given at an evangelical mega-church, she was astounded. "It broke me down," she says.

After learning about Off the Bus, Fowler submitted a sample posting -- "a sad, pathetic, puny little thing it was" -- and got a call from Amanda Michel, the project's director and a former aide in the Howard Dean and John Kerry presidential campaigns. Michel asked whether she wanted to write about Obama's grass-roots efforts in San Francisco.

Fowler soon expanded her turf and says she found the campaign trail addictive. She had wanted to be a writer since the eighth grade and now, at last, she saw her chance.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company