At These Dinners, Candor Is The Entree
Monday, April 27, 2009
Last Tuesday evening, Rahm Emanuel quietly slipped into an eighth-floor office at the Watergate.
As white-jacketed waiters poured red and white wine and served a three-course salmon and risotto dinner, the White House chief of staff spent two hours chatting with some of Washington's top journalists -- excusing himself to take a call from President Obama and another from Hillary Clinton.
As the journalists hurled questions and argued among themselves, Emanuel said: "This feels a lot like a Jewish family dinner."
For more than a year, David Bradley, the Atlantic's soft-spoken owner, has hosted these off-the-record dinners at a specially built table in his glass-enclosed office overlooking the Potomac. And the guests, from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to Jordan's King Abdullah II, are as A-list as they come.
"It's just a joy for me," Bradley says. "These are reflective, considered conversations, which is hard to do when you're going after headlines for the next day's publication." While the guests seem quite open, says the businessman who bought the Atlantic a decade ago, he is new enough to journalism "that I can't tell the difference between genuine candor and deeply rehearsed candor."
Emanuel says he enjoyed the chance to "put aside the adversarial. . . . I tried to be honest and frank and hope they felt that way. They want context, they want thinking. You're not selling, you're presenting."
Still, the catered gatherings also sound rather cozy, like some secret-handshake gathering of an entrenched elite. Are the top-level officials, strategists and foreign leaders there for serious questioning or risk-free spin sessions? And what exactly is the journalistic benefit if the visitors are protected by a shield of anonymity?
The guests "have either been frank with us or provided a reasonable facsimile of frankness," says Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg. "Would I like for them to be able to go on the record? Of course. But I do think you lose something because then it becomes just another press conference."
Among those in regular attendance are David Brooks and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, Gene Robinson and Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, NBC's David Gregory, ABC's George Stephanopoulos, PBS's Gwen Ifill, the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum, former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson and staffers from Bradley's Atlantic and National Journal, including Ron Brownstein, Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch.
Atlantic Editor James Bennet, along with Goldberg, pitched the idea to Bradley as a way of raising the company's profile. "David, being almost ridiculously generous, said: 'Why don't we invite some of your colleagues?' " Goldberg recalls.
Bradley, a native Washingtonian, had long been intrigued by the Sperling breakfasts, the 35-year ritual conducted by the Christian Science Monitor's Godfrey Sperling until his retirement. But those were on-the-record affairs open to any hungry journalist, while Bradley's dinners are both uber-exclusive and decidedly discreet.
Politicians have been sharing off-the-record meals and drinks with reporters roughly forever. During the transition, Obama attended a three-hour dinner with conservative columnists at George Will's Chevy Chase home.