The Indispensable Greaser

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, July 3, 2009

(Note: Today's contribution to our series, "What Were Newspapers?," concerns what was traditionally one of a newspaper's most important functions.)

At first, he seems too young for his new position as chief of source greasing at a major metropolitan newspaper. "My boyish good looks caused problems for a while," he concedes modestly, "but I've learned how to use them to my advantage," adding, "You have beautiful eyes. You really do."

Wikipedia defines "source greaser" as "a small, furry animal often found in northern Paraguay." No, wait. They're changing it. Now Wikipedia says a source greaser is "a mechanism for opening peanut butter jars, using hydraulic pressure." And now it's "the sum of all three-digit prime numbers." Oh, well. Long before Wikipedia, the term "source greaser" (or, for the dainty, "beat sweetener") referred to a favorable news article about a public official, published in the hope of inducing cooperation in the future. Source greasers appear most often in the first few months of a new administration. However, this is the first time an editor has been assigned to flatter administration officials full time.

"Obama has changed the rules," he says. "Everyone he appoints is so wonderful that there aren't enough positive words to describe all of them. My job is to centralize the sucking up and make sure that each subject gets a fair share of the available adjectives."

As a literary form, the source greaser is bound by strict conventions. The subject always puts in heroically long hours. He or she is uniquely influential and close to the president. Geography often serves as metaphor: A typical subject occupies an air-conditioning closet just "steps" from the Oval Office, having turned down a football-field-size suite in the Executive Office Building across the street. This shows he or she is savvy about the way things work here in Powertown: Size doesn't matter; proximity does. He or she always is more influential than anyone who has held the post "in recent memory" and is blessed with many anonymous friends who warn that he or she should not be underestimated.

The new chief of source greasing does not try to deny his importance. "It's a lot more than just trying to make sure that sources return our phone calls," he says. "As supervisor of all source greasery, I have the ultimate responsibility to determine the status hierarchy in this town. Everyone from Georgetown hostesses to the admissions office at Sidwell Friends School depends on me to tell them who ranks where.

"Most important of all, though," he continued, "is my duty to democracy itself. A good source greaser is democracy's pressure-relief valve. At the beginning of an administration I have to build people up and turn them into icons so that they can be brought down and destroyed later." In his previous job, the new source-greasing czar was deputy bureau chief in charge of hatchet jobs. Although these are regarded as the opposite poles of the journalistic profile, he says, "I am firmly of the belief that they are actually parts of the same larger process. People want to believe the best of their public officials. And then they want to believe the worst. Only through the delicate balance of source greaser and hatchet job can we give the people what they want."

On most days, the source-greasing chief rises before sunset, works out for three hours, reads 12 newspapers in five languages while riding his bike to work, and is at his desk by 4 a.m. A typical workday lasts until 9 or 10 in the evening, which means that he often doesn't get to sleep until several hours after he wakes up the next day. He wears three watches, set to different time zones. "You never know when you're going to be ordered off to Beijing," he said, adding sadly, "It hasn't happened yet. But when it does, I'm ready." Colleagues interpret the lack of travel as a sign of his importance. "The Man needs him nearby," said one, who asked not to be identified because "I'm just making this stuff up."

The greaser in chief sat and reflected the other day in his cluttered cubicle, just 23 feet ("I measured it") from the managing editor. The only decorations were framed photographs of Walter Lippmann, the patron saint of source greasing. He has "face time" with the managing editor at least seven times a day. "It's important to keep that number up," he said. If he has exchanged words with the managing editor fewer than five times by early evening, he said, he invents an excuse. "I might ask directions to the men's room. Or I might say, 'Have you seen the latest issue of Golf Digest, the one with Jennifer Aniston on the cover?' " By contrast, "Sometimes weeks go by and I never see him," jokes his wife, who likes to tell of the time he picked up somebody else's child from day care by mistake while she was in the hospital having their fourth. The couple recently announced they are separating. "He's married to his job," she explained. In a written statement responding to inquiries, the chief of source greasing said, "This marriage has been a wonderful experience, just like my previous two, but I am quitting the family I love to spend more time with my work."

Will that work always be there? Like many in the newspaper industry, he worries that the nation won't realize what it has lost until it is too late. With the demise of newspapers, the important job of currying favor with big shots will disappear as well. "These bloggers are so naive," he says. "They think they can praise some honcho one day and slam him or her the next. But it doesn't work that way. You've got to wait at least a week."

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