It was inevitable. Once the heavily despised but heavily envied — and thus thoroughly resented — Washington political journalist Mark Halperin was knocked off his Celebrity Beltway Media perch by revelations of piggish and perhaps thuggish behavior toward women, he would soon face a different kind of reckoning for his influence on political journalism. Eve Fairbanks, who blames Halperin for epitomizing a brand of political “reporting” that drove her from the profession for a good while, takes him down several more notches, with considerable élan.
The Note [the ultra-insidery daily morning newsletter Halperin wrote — or I should say, typed — for ABC for years] purported to reveal Washington’s secrets. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to make the city, and US politics, appear impossible to understand. It replaced normal words with jargon. It coined the phrase “Gang of 500,” the clubby network of lobbyists, aides, pols, and hangers-on who supposedly, like the Vatican’s cardinals, secretly ran DC. That wasn’t true — power is so diffuse. But Halperin claimed he knew so much more than we did, and we began to believe it …
The Note was a cult. Between bits of knowledge in each mailer, Halperin inserted birthday wishes to his gang, cementing the impression of Washington as a place where people are much more interested in buttering each other up than they are in the lives of the kind of Americans whose names Mark Halperin did not know.
When Halperin graduated from self-appointed Beltway Mandarin to hyperrich-and-successful celebrity, it was for co-writing a 2008 campaign book (which then became an HBO movie) whose title summed up his entire approach to political journalism: Game Change. It arose in the book as a reference to the “high risk, high reward” hopes John McCain had in appointing Sarah Palin his running mate in a then-floundering campaign. But it also reflected Halperin’s deep investment in the idea that elections and other political phenomena were controlled not by deep historical trends or external events but by the decisions of Key Players — the people to whom he had such enormous and exclusive access. Fairbanks believes this kind of political journalism began to change politics itself: “We have an apocalyptic politics in part because Halperin helped promote an apocalyptic approach to political coverage.” And she even blames Halperin for Trump, by epitomizing the fatuous elites against which the demagogue railed.
I suspect no one would appreciate this Halperin-o-centric theory of contemporary politics more than Halperin himself. But I think it assigns him a personal importance he does not deserve.
Halperin exposed, but did not invent, a fatuous Beltway political-media culture that had been around for a long, long time. He wrote down what so many before him had whispered about, gossiped about, and speculated about. When Fairbanks got to Washington in 2005, the insider disease Halperin helped spread was already in full bloom. But on my first exposure to Washington in the early 1980s, it had already developed, though it would take the Note and its many subsequent imitators to concentrate it in lethal doses.
My seminal moment of realization was at a meeting of not-very-important lobbyists working on a not-very-important piece of legislation one sleepy post-lunch afternoon. The lobbyist-convener, repeating to us a not-very-important bit of intel on the bill, pompously said: “There are some of us who understand the sources of power in This Town.” It was the kind of remark I grew used to hearing in various venues by various people, some elected officials, some journalists, some influence-peddlers, and some future influence-peddlers (i.e., congressional staff). It was all part of the maddening game of self-promotion and trivial pursuits that apparently was an ineradicable part of Our Nation’s Capital. My own personal joke about Washington was that it was a city that revolved around “knowing something unimportant 15 minutes before everybody else.”
That, in a phrase, is what Mark Halperin did better than anybody, and because he was the first to command the resources of a major media outlet to do so, he became rich and famous, and ultimately believed in his own omnipotence to a dangerous level. But he didn’t invent any of it.
Like Sally Quinn, Mark Halperin came to embody an aspect of Washington culture that became easier to understand and mock precisely because he represented it so well. And for that I am actually thankful.