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Richard Wolffe's odyssey from the outside to the inside

The MSNBC regular, who always seemed to manage more face time with Obama on the campaign trail than others, now works for a public affairs firm. He needs to make clear on TV who his clients are.

August 07, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

You know him as Keith Olbermann's regular sidekick -- that slight, bright man with the British accent and the hopelessly hip eyeglasses.

Washington knows him as the journalistic insider of the moment, who has proposed a fly-on-the-wall book from the halls of the Obama White House, following his sunny tick-tock on the Obama presidential campaign.

The Richard Wolffe phenomenon has captivated the political chattering class for some weeks now, but the 40-year-old Oxford graduate is not entirely a novelty on the banks of the Potomac.

Wolffe actually exemplifies something old (the reporter who traffics in access to power) and something new (the reporter hired out to a firm with big corporate clients), while being pegged with a label that's not so true (apologist for Obama and the left.)

Conservatives have savaged the former Financial Times and Newsweek reporter as their ideological bete noir. In fact, years before he shared a chummy piece of carrot cake with President Obama (more on that later), Wolffe sometimes warmed the heart of George W. Bush and his team.

Wolffe is known among other journalists for his keen intellect, his facility for uncovering the psychological underpinnings of his subjects, though not so much for breaking news or challenging politicians.

He first gained fame as a star of Alexandra Pelosi's film, "Journeys With George," about life on the campaign trail with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Wolffe confessed to Pelosi (daughter of the current House speaker) that he worried the press corps was "writing about trivial stuff because [Bush] charmed the pants off us."

Competitors were both jealous and somewhat baffled at how the reporter, who then worked for the Financial Times, maneuvered access with Bush, Karl Rove and other key players.

When he later jumped to Newsweek, some of Wolffe's articles hardly suggested he was the in-the-tank lefty that conservatives now portray. A cover profile of Bush just after the start of his second term in 2005 argued that Bush allies made "a compelling case that the president is a more complex and engaged character than his popular image suggests."

Wolffe also contributed to less flattering coverage of Bush. A 2003 story cautioned that the White House didn't seem to be learning from setbacks in Afghanistan. With several Newsweek colleagues, he offered a profile later in 2005 suggesting Bush "may be the most isolated president in modern history."

Still, Bushies recall Wolffe fondly, as someone who managed to keep good ties with the White House. One-time Press Secretary Scott McClellan told me that Bush "liked Richard as a person" and therefore tended to give him more access.

Bush press deputy Trent Duffy said in an interview that Wolffe was "well-liked. . . . There was a sense he was fair and not out to do gotcha stuff in the way some others were."

In the 2008 campaign, Newsweek put Wolffe on the Obama campaign. Once again, the charming, cosmopolitan reporter seemed to manage more face time with the candidate than others.

Wolffe wrote in his book "Renegade, The Making of a President," that it was Obama who suggested he write a campaign profile styled on Teddy White's classic "The Making of the President, 1960."

Some scribes snickered about what they saw as the reporter's overly cozy relationship with Obama. They like to recall the stop in Reno last August, when the candidate shared a hunk of frosted carrot cake with Wolffe, while the rest of the working press was herded back to a waiting bus.

I find that feature-minded journalists tend to agree with the New York Times, which deemed "Renegade" a "smart, sympathetic book."

Political reporters and investigative types tend to dismiss it as puffery. One couldn't believe Wolffe made only glancing references to the stinky real estate deal Obama cut with crooked investor Antoin Rezko.

The book burnished Wolffe's reputation as an inside man in an inside town. But that hardly made him unique.

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution can recall "insider" reporters going back to the likes of Les Carpenter, whose column largely hinged on his wife's role as social secretary to Lady Bird Johnson. Newsweek's Ben Bradlee kept the confidence (and secrets) of fellow Harvard man John F. Kennedy.

One can debate whether each of those figures, and Wolffe, provided more in the way of information than they gave up in terms of punches pulled.

But the MSNBC regular ventured into a seemingly new wilderness in April, when he left Newsweek to take a job with a prominent public affairs firm, while he continued his commentaries for MSNBC and, occasionally, Tina Brown's Daily Beast and the Huffington Post.

Wolffe has never made it clear exactly what he does or which corporate clients he represents for Public Strategies, a firm headed by former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett. (The Bartlett connection solidifies the notion, in my mind, that Wolffe's connections have more to do with power than ideology.)

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