By Howard Kurtz
Friday, August 27, 2010; C01
Marc Ambinder, the political junkie who writes for the Atlantic, says he suspected, like lots of insiders, that Ken Mehlman was gay.
In fact, years before the former Republican Party chairman acknowledged his sexuality to Ambinder in an interview published Wednesday, the reporter tried to find out. And, says Ambinder, he would have outed Mehlman if he had evidence.
"I would have reported it because he was in power at a time when the Republican Party was whipping up anti-gay sentiment to get votes," Ambinder says in an interview. "I'm very squeamish about outing anyone. That squeamishness certainly would have gone into the equation. But there would have been a clear and compelling reason. Even though outing would have encroached on his personal dignity, which would have made me uncomfortable, it would have been the right thing to do to hold someone in power accountable."
The scoop was essentially handed to Ambinder. Mehlman, displaying the political acumen of the man who ran George W. Bush's reelection campaign, assembled a team of friends and advisers to manage his coming out. One member of the team approached Ambinder several weeks ago to gauge his interest in the story. Mehlman told Ambinder that it "has taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life" and that he wants to become an advocate for same-sex marriage.
Ambinder, 32, who is also CBS's chief political consultant, is a classic behind-the-scenes guy who intuitively understands the nuts and bolts of the game. Having honed his art at ABC and the Hotline, the Harvard graduate has been raising his profile with his daily posts on Atlantic's Web site and with a constant Twitter feed.
"He is a complete newshound," says Bob Cohn, editorial director for Atlantic Digital, noting that Ambinder keeps a police scanner in his office. "He's a one-man band, out there breaking stories and then doing the analysis and commentary. . . . When I send an e-mail at midnight, a response comes back at 12:05."
Ambinder has also gone public with a sensitive subject, his long-running battle with obesity. "When I was fat, I avoided meeting people's eyes. I didn't want to subject them to my ugliness," he wrote in the Atlantic last spring. With the help of stomach-shrinking bariatric surgery, he dropped from 235 pounds to 150.
Ambinder freely admits that he identified with Mehlman's struggle. "I'm a reporter who happens to be gay, and I've been out for 14 years," he says. "Ken has known that I'm gay. He may have felt I would be, if not sympathetic, that I would give him a fair airing, which I think I did."
Ambinder also mentioned what he described as sheer coincidence, that he himself got married in the District last weekend to his longtime partner, a business consultant.
During the interview, Ambinder pressed Mehlman on the timing of his disclosure. The former party chairman conceded that had he come out earlier he could have tried to stop the Republicans from pushing an anti-gay agenda.
Asked about Mehlman's contention that he came to a conclusion about his sexuality fairly recently, Ambinder says others have been skeptical: "That is the question -- do you believe him? He simply was not ready to come to terms with his sexual identity. Or has he known he was gay for a long time and just wanted to wait until the price for him coming out wouldn't be punitive? . . . That's not an excuse for not manning up and expediting the process."
In his piece, Ambinder said Mehlman told him in off-the-record discussions over the years of his efforts to defuse GOP attempts to attack same-sex marriage. In 2004, Bush's campaign pushed a constitutional amendment to ban such marriages.
But Ambinder insists that while he "had the same suspicions as everyone else," the unmarried Mehlman never told Ambinder he was gay, even after a 2006 attempt by gay-rights activist Mike Rogers to out him. The people around Mehlman, now an executive with the private-equity firm KKR, didn't know either, says Ambinder. Mehlman now admits to having misled people about the subject.
Had Ambinder tried to report on his own that Mehlman was gay, Cohn says, "that might have been a harder decision, but that wasn't the question we were faced with. We didn't out Ken Mehlman. Ken Mehlman was ready to talk about his sexuality."