By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008 9:40 AM
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 "that hatchet job" on him in Vanity Fair, Clinton 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 Hufffington, 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 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 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 megachurch, 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.
An earnest, chatty woman who often engages people even at the grocery checkout, she spends countless hours talking to people at Obama events. She refuses to read her postings online, in part because she doesn't like the way editors sometimes change her lead sentence "because they want people to click on it."
In April, Fowler asked a friend who raises money for Obama if she could attend a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco. "I've given the max to the campaign," she reminded the friend.
Fowler had her tape recorder going when the candidate made his ill-fated remarks about frustrated small-town residents turning to guns, God or anti-immigrant sentiments. The woman who had viewed Obama as a unifier was taken aback.
"I thought, he really doesn't understand these people, and he's confirming the worst stereotype this audience has of these people, and that's something I've been fighting against since I moved to California in 1968."
When Fowler quickly posted some other Obama remarks, about what he wanted in a running mate, her fundraising friend called and scolded her. But Fowler was still wrestling with the "bitter" comments. She played the tape for her husband, Jim, who didn't think it was a big deal. But Fowler says she knew it would be "devastating" to Obama.
When Michel, her supervisor, called to ask what else was on the tape, Fowler said there was more newsworthy audio but that she was not going to provide it. They fell into an hour-long discussion about the nature of journalism.
"It's ultimately your decision," Michel recalls saying. "But if you decide not to share it, and you make the decision only to publish what you believe favors Barack Obama, you put me in an impossible position as an editor."
On a flight the next day, "at 32,000 feet, the piece just appeared in my head," Fowler says. But she decided not to submit it for two more days, figuring that if the story appeared in the Huffington Post on Friday it would be "buried" over the weekend -- a common tactic for politicians trying to minimize unfavorable news.
Instead, she found herself "in the center of a hurricane." By the next morning, "I had an e-mail box full of hate mail, and hate messages on my home phone . . . There were some crazy people. They were just afraid that I had cooked the Obama goose."
That was just the beginning. Local television crews camped out on her block. Cable news bookers, she says, were "like a pack of rabid dogs that really just wanted a piece of me to fill a little time slot." Fowler's college-student daughter, who shares the same name, was also flooded with nasty e-mail. It was a difficult moment for Fowler, and she briefly wrestled with dark thoughts. Soon, though, she snapped out of it.
"I was pretty amazed at the invective," says Jim Fowler. "I'd say she handled all that stress very well. We're both very surprised by the high profile she's achieved. That's been an unhappy byproduct of what she set out to do."
Fowler soldiered on, attempting days later to make sense of the storm she had unleashed. "It's curious," she wrote, "that he often has such a hard time making a connection with many working class Americans. . . For all his soaring rhetoric, there is a dispassion about him . . . His Puritanical streak, moreover, while amusing to the press can be off-putting to everybody else."
Last week, when Clinton was making one of his final stops in Milbank, S.D., Fowler decided she would ask him to pass on an interview request to his wife.
The hot story at the moment was a Vanity Fair article, by Todd Purdum, which examined Clinton's fast-paced lifestyle and raised questions about whether he had more than a friendship with a series of women. The Clinton camp had denounced the piece, and Purdum had responded that the personal questions had been raised not by Republicans but by unnamed current and former Clinton advisers.
When Clinton reached across the rope line to shake Fowler's hand, she dropped the business card intended for his wife. Instead, still clutching her digital tape recorder, Fowler blurted out the question about the Vanity Fair piece. She did not identify herself as a blogger. "If it hadn't been such a chaotic scene, of course I would have," she says. "But there wasn't a chance to."
Once again, Fowler hesitated. "I wasn't really intending to put out the entire audio of the speech," she says. That changed after a conversation with Michel. Asked about the final decision, she says: "My name's on the piece and I'm going to have to live with it."
Mary Katherine Ham, a conservative blogger, says that while she would insist on identifying herself, "politicians need to learn that anyone can break news, and citizens who run into you -- even if you're not writing for the Huffington Post -- can post it anywhere."
In an e-mail, Fowler says she has come to realize that her presence "flummoxes some longtime journalists -- because suddenly here I am, unpaid but as a consequence with much more freedom to find out what's going on out there, and writing for a new and encroaching media that is a Wild Wild West of lawlessness." But she has also had to reexamine her own beliefs.
"Over time, I've become more like a traditional journalist," Mayhill says. "I'm now much more skeptical and much more distanced."Furthermore . . .
In other coverage . . . the New York Times does its big Why Hillary Lost takeout:
"Hers was the campaign of destiny, a back-to-the-future effort to restore the Democratic dynasty of the 1990s that could never quite escape the last decade. While Mrs. Clinton proved a more agile candidate than many had expected, she built a campaign that was suffused in overconfidence, riven by acrimony and weighted by the profound emotional baggage of a marriage between former and would-be presidents.
"As she flew from town halls to rallies on the road, she did little to stop the infighting among advisers back home who were nursing grudges from their White House days, and grew distracted from battling Senator Barack Obama while they hurled expletives at one another, stormed out of meetings and schemed to get one another fired."
Ever notice how everyone seems to get along on winning campaigns?
A number of people were struck by the I-am-woman theme of Hillary Clinton's Saturday concession speech, including Andrew Sullivan:
"Senator Clinton did all she needed to do: thanked everyone and unequivocally endorsed and supported Barack Obama. One theme stuck out to me: she essentially said that even though she was careful to avoid ever saying that she was running because she was a woman and that people should vote for her because she is a woman, that's what she believes in private. That's the theme she spoke of most compellingly. She is Ellen Malcolm's spiritual sister. In the end, Clinton remains wedded to the identity politics of her generation and her time. It's a powerful message after so many long decades and centuries in which women have been denied full equality in law and society. It's a necessary message and a moral message. But it becomes circular and self-defeating when it becomes its own rationale."
Conservatives are trying to take Obama's measure. National Review's Rich Lowry draws an interesting historical analogy:
"The last fresh new thing in Democratic politics, Bill Clinton, never truly had the imprimatur of the Kennedys, even if he brandished a youthful photo of himself shaking Jack's hand at the White House as a kind of Excalibur moment. Clinton the centrist was always compromised as a liberal paladin by his compromises.
"Obama represents a rejection of triangulating Clintonism. He had no Sister Souljah moment during the primaries. Indeed, he initially embraced his Sister Souljah, in the form of a Rev. Jeremiah Wright introduced to the public in videotaped anti-American rants. Nor did Obama make any creative policy departures, like Clinton's advocacy of welfare reform in 1992. Obama is the fullest flowering of liberal orthodoxy since George McGovern. And yet he has to be slightly favored to win the presidency. He brings his formidable personal gifts to a confrontation with a Republican Party that, beset by intellectual exhaustion, congressional scandal and an unpopular incumbent president, teeters on the verge of a Watergate-style meltdown.
"So Democrats contemplate the delicious prospect of having their purity and victory, too. It would be as if the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- and won."
Peggy Noonan kicks Hillary around one last time:
"I like it that she spent the campaign accusing America of being sexist, of treating her differently because she is a woman, and then, when she lacked the grace to congratulate the victor, she sent her stewards out to tell the press she just needs time, it's so emotional. In other words, she needs space because she's a woman . . .
"Mrs. Clinton would have been a disaster as president. Mr. Obama may prove a disaster, and John McCain may, but she would be. Mr. Obama may lie, and Mr. McCain may lie, but she would lie. And she would have brought the whole rattling caravan of Clintonism with her--the scandal-making that is compulsive, the drama that is unending, the sheer, daily madness that is her, and him.
"We have been spared this. Those who did it deserve to be thanked. May I rise in a toast to the Democratic Party . . .
"She would never be content to be vice president. She'd be plotting against him from day one. She'd put poison in his tea.
"She brings Bill.
"She undercuts the cleanness of Obama's message. She doesn't turn the page, she is the page."
Other than that she'd be terrific.
One overlooked lesson of the Democratic battle, in the view of American Prospect, involves the big-bucks boys behind the scenes:
"The election results are a resounding affirmation of the netroots critique of the Democratic consultant class. One of the basic netroots arguments is that the Democrats have been ill-served by a grossly overpaid, out of touch, incompetent, and pathologically risk averse consultant class. The Clinton campaign provides some powerfully persuasive evidence in support of this critique. Hillary started out with every advantage: money, name recognition, the overwhelming support of the Democratic establishment, and enormous leads in all the polls. Yet her advisers somehow managed to burn through all that political capital in record time.
"At a time when polls show the public moving significantly leftward on most issues, and with record numbers of Americans disapproving of Bush and the war and saying the country is moving in the wrong direction, there has never been a better time to craft a 'change' message. Yet the Hillary people stubbornly insisted on sticking to the 'experience' meme. They smugly assumed Hillary would have the nomination wrapped up after Super Tuesday and failed to draft contingency plans. Their fundraising aggressively targeted big donors, yet they ran out of money. The campaign reportedly owes $10 million to Mark Penn, a man so stunningly ill-informed that, according to the Wall Street Journal piece and other sources, he didn't realize that California's delegates are awarded proportionally, not winner-take-all."
Michael Goldfarb had been writing the Weekly Standard's political blog. Now he's writing McCain's new political blog. Similarities, anyone?
The latest post says McCain likes Hillary, but here's a fascinating tidbit from this Newsweek Q-and-A with McCain:
" One of the things that you mentioned in your speech in New Orleans was that you felt that the media hadn't recognized or had overlooked some of the attributes that Hillary Clinton had brought to the race. And I wondered--
"I did not [say that]--that was in prepared remarks, and I did not [say it]--I'm not in the business of commenting on the press and their coverage or not coverage."
So he's rebelling against his speechwriters?