The Greenroom
Before the Cameras Roll and the Spin Begins, the Beltway Fast Lane Slows Down For a Pit Stop on Common Ground

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008

Washington, this city of grand monuments and sweeping corner offices, shrinks to human scale in the Greenroom. It's tight in there, backstage in the little lounges at the big shows, waiting to go on air with Wolf or George or Chris, noshing on the munchies, sizing up the competition, kicking back on the couch. Karl Rove's sure to arrive at any moment. Or Donna Brazile or Paul Begala! There are Dems and Republicans, stars and wannabes.

All of official Washington is squeezed together into these greenrooms -- the spaces that Republican strategist Terry Holt calls "the demilitarized zone of politics" -- then funneled out to the rest of the world via the 24-hour news cycle. Backstage, it's insiders face-to-face with insiders in a rolling, seven-day-a-week extension of the Washington cocktail party.

Here in the Washington greenrooms of networks like CNN and Fox, ABC and NBC, unfiltered proximity affords priceless opportunities to exchange business cards, hatch unlikely partnerships, collect some intel, spark romances. There's Steve McMahon, once a spokesman for Howard Dean's presidential campaign, saying that he gets along "great" with the conservative flamethrower Laura Ingraham . . . off the air, that is. There are the kids of Republican mega-lobbyist Ed Rogers, racing around with McMahon's little ones in the "Hardball With Chris Matthews" greenroom. Since becoming greenroom pals, by the way, the kids trick-or-treat together -- in bipartisan fashion, of course.

Oh, and there's always a high likelihood of delicious random encounters.

There's Rogers, a self-described "right-wing coot," holed up in a greenroom with that lefty Ralph Nader.

"He was mortified to learn that I had 23 televisions in my house," says Rogers, who was so unfazed that he has added a couple of television screens since then. "He told me that was beyond the pale. That I should pay an extra tax."

Greenroom Psych-Outs

The regulars know the greenroom drill, its rites and peculiar etiquette. Rule No. 1 -- and it trumps all others: What happens in the greenroom stays in the greenroom.

It would be bad form, for instance, to bust someone on air for contradicting a statement they made in the greenroom. It's like greenroom chatter has the cloak of attorney-client confidentiality, a kind of "sanctity," Rogers says.

"You can't say, 'Wait a second, you just said in the greenroom . . . ,' " Rogers says.

But those on-air niceties don't necessarily mean that political warfare isn't being waged. This is, after all, a town with two dominant teams, the Republicans and the Democrats. And each is playing to win.

McMahon sometimes tries a little pregame reconnaissance, seeing if his opponents will bite when he asks: "What are you going to say?"

If that doesn't work, he might playfully try to unnerve them.

"I'll say, 'You've got nuthin', man,' " he says. "It's like the taunting before a football game or a boxing match."

Tammy Haddad, former executive producer of "Larry King Live" and "Hardball With Chris Matthews," calls the greenroom psych-outs "pre-warfare warfare."

Rogers and McMahon, those greenroom veterans, can spot a rookie the moment the door swings open. They're the ones with piles of papers, notecards and briefing books "as if they are about to take a law school exam," McMahon says.

That's when Rogers likes to swoop in.

"I intimidate them," he admits, without a hint of remorse.

He'll tell the greenhorns: "You know you have to share your notes, that's the rule."

"Two-thirds of the time, they don't know if I'm kidding," says Rogers, cracking himself up now.

Of course, they usually end up laughing about it, speeding the development of what Rogers calls "the phenomenon of the greenroom friendship."

He became buddies with the champion fundraiser and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe through a series of greenroom encounters. McAuliffe attends the baptisms of Rogers's children; Rogers says he abides by a political cease-fire, promising not to openly oppose McAuliffe in his expected run for Virginia governor.

"I will never go against Terry McAuliffe," Rogers says.

These across-the-aisle, greenroom friendships can become lucrative propositions. Greenrooms connected Rogers with the Democratic strategist Morris L. Reid. They'd first met during television appearances in the late 1980s.

Dozens of greenroom encounters later, they met up again earlier this year at an MSNBC greenroom and a deal began to form. Within days, they'd popped down to the Inn at Little Washington to continue the conversation. On Nov. 4, Rogers says, his big firm, BGR Holdings, bought Reed's smaller firm, "making him a rich man," as Rogers puts it.

That's not to say it's always easy. Holt remembers trying without success to make chitchat with Stephanie Cutter before a CNN "Inside Politics" appearance during the run-up to the 2004 election, when he was serving as a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney ticket.

Cutter, an Obama transition spokeswoman who was then working for Sen. John Kerry's campaign, is known as a formidable foe, an intense advocate who can obliterate an unprepared opponent. Holt wanted to soften her up in the greenroom before going on air.

"She wouldn't speak to me. She was on the BlackBerry. Wouldn't look at me," says Holt, who appears on television 150 times or more in busy political years. "I wanted to be friends."

He failed that day, but after the election -- and more greenroom sit-downs -- the political combatants became business allies. Before Cutter joined the Obama team, Holt says, they paired up for a couple of projects, including offering "he said, she said" advice to a social networking site that wanted to improve its Washington connections.

Holt was even more persistent in wooing Cook Houser, a makeup artist he met in a Fox greenroom. He was entranced by Houser at first sight -- "She would put makeup on me and it was like electricity."

She wasn't interested, wasn't returning calls. But in a quintessentially Washington arc, Holt courted her across several greenrooms she worked in -- Fox one day, "Hardball" another.

After months of trying, he finally talked her into dinner at Carlyle Grand Cafe in Shirlington. The next day, of course, word of the date was all over the Fox greenroom when Holt arrived for an appearance.

In came Brit Hume, all 6-foot-something of deep-voiced TV anchor gruffness. He stared down at Holt.

"You be good to that girl," Holt remembers Hume telling him.

Within a year, the couple were married.

No Greenroom Chatter

The greenrooms crank up early on Sunday mornings. By 8:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday, the crew at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant, the Source, has laid out smoked salmon and capers, bagels, bacon, hash browns and quiches in the greenroom at ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

On this particular morning, John McCain is the big guest, making his first appearance on a Sunday talk show since losing the presidential election. McCain steps through a door, past the sign that says "Green Room." He's all business, and shakes hands quickly with Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal and Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist.

McCain aide Brooke Buchanan, dressed in a sleeveless fleece jacket and after-ski boots, looks agitated.

Sensing trouble, Ilana Drimmer, who books guests for the show, steps up: "What do you need?"

"A private room," the aide says.

And they're gone, slipping into a side room and closing the door. No greenroom chatter for the senator this morning.

Across the hall, the columnist George F. Will is sitting in his private version of a backstage greenroom -- you can't miss it, the sign at the door reads "GFW." He gets a special room because he's a regular on the show and because, well, he's George Will. He balances his notepad on pinched-together knees, surrounded by piles of articles scissored out of the morning papers.

He's already been through the makeup room, and the man with the pundit world's most well-behaved coif declares, "They've tamed my hair."

In the communal greenroom, a cozy 9-by-18-foot space, PBS's "Washington Week" host, Gwen Ifill, flips through a newspaper. On the couch next to her, Krugman fights a cold. Sniffle, sniffle.

Got it over in Oslo, he says matter-of-factly. You know, picking up the Nobel Prize. Ho hum. Hated wearing that tux, he says.

He reaches for another throat lozenge.

"This Week" has gone meta with its greenroom, posting on its Web site an informal chat, titled "The Green Room," which is recorded after each Sunday's show. Krugman reprises his gripe about his Nobel Prize cold during the five-minute recorded session -- "I have a nasty cough now which is the result of Nobel Prize exhaustion," he says.

When the video camera shuts off, Ifill is laughing.

"Only you, Paul," she says, "could use the word 'but' when talking about getting the Nobel Prize."

Averting Greenroom Crises

A disclaimer is in order. Hardly anyone's greenrooms are actually green, and Washington's certainly aren't. Pale white is more common.

There is an official greenroom in town that is green, but it's at the White House and has nothing to do with television. Jackie Kennedy picked the watered-silk, green fabric that covers the White House Green Room walls. The TV greenrooms tilt more toward a contemporary Sherwin-Williams look.

The first known use of the term "greenroom" was in a 1701 British play called "Love Makes Man," according to the Oxford English Dictionary: "I do know London pretty well and the Side-box, Sir, and behind the scenes; ay, and the Green-Room, and all the girls and women actresses there." The name "probably" originated because the backstage rooms were painted green, according to the OED.

The greenrooms in Hollywood and New York generally beat Washington's all to heck when it comes to celebrities and their bling, but that's only to be expected, the capital being a company town and all. Still, it's not just political operatives and senators who make the scene here. Haddad, formerly the executive producer for "Larry King Live," remembers exercise guru Richard Simmons trying on Martha Stewart's coat in the show's Washington greenroom, locking himself in the makeup room and refusing to give it back.

"She's yelling, 'Let me in!' " Haddad recalls. (Sadly, a publicist for Simmons did not respond to a request for comment.)

Producer Katie Thompson was in King's greenroom when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was complaining about a bit of a cold. Thompson had once worked in London for the BBC and she was able to come to Thatcher's rescue with some Lemsip, a popular British cold remedy that she'd stashed in a suitcase. Thompson was also there when Ross Perot arrived for his 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement debate with Al Gore -- the highest-rated cable news program ever, at the time.

"Al Gore was prepping right up to the end," Thompson recalls. He'd taken over the greenroom. "When Ross Perot got there, he said: 'I wanna take a nap. Where can I take a nap?' "

There was only one greenroom and two Very Important People in need of space. Thompson found Perot a vacant office. Greenroom crisis averted.

Sometimes, the greenroom -- locus of networking that it is -- must be cleared for the sake of world affairs. Slobodan Milosevic was in King's greenroom after an appearance one night during the Bosnian war, Thompson recalls. The Serbian leader was talking pretty intensely on the phone. On the other line was a viewer who had just caught the show and had something to say about it: Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

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