2. He didn’t always fret about Cheney jokes.
The son of a Brazilian mathematician and an artist, Klein was introduced to Democratic politics through his half-brother. Kracov, a politically active environmental lawyer in L.A. thirteen years his senior, brought Ezra along to ride in a car with Senator Paul Wellstone, work the phone bank for Cory Booker, and march alongside Latino farm workers. To this day, their maternal grandfather, Leonard Kaufer, now 92, sends both Gideon and Ezra envelopes, two or three times a week, stuffed with annotated newspaper articles—kind of an analog proto-Wonkblog.
When Klein started blogging in 2003, his freshman year of college, it was as an outspoken activist. He worked on Gary Hart’s abortive 2004 presidential campaign, then briefly for Howard Dean in Vermont, and was among the bloggers invited to the 2004 Democratic convention. Like many bloggers, Klein’s early opinions could be acidic. Mickey Kaus was a “hack,” Thomas Friedman a “peddler of trite moderation,” and Dick Armey “like a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.”
But from the beginning, Klein’s blog posts seemed animated less by ideology than by good-government idealism and a broader media critique: that mainstream political reporting, with its focus on personalities and campaign drama and false equivalencies, wasn’t covering the important stuff, or covering it right. In April 2005, prompted by commenter response to a post about a think tank’s health-care report, Klein blogged a weeklong series of posts, each about a different country’s health-care system. “Everything was just ‘Bush sucks, Bush sucks,’ and Ezra comes along with ‘I want to do an international, cross-country health-care comparison,’ ” recalls Mark Schmitt, who would later edit Klein at the American Prospect.
At the Prospect, Klein learned to report, and he became an intellectual entrepreneur. Noticing that the magazine could use an authority on health care, he mastered the issue. Discerning the potential of online, he availed himself of the unlimited digital space to post detailed transcripts of long interviews. And when he took his show to the Post, his policy-focused approach to politics was, as much as anything, an identification of a market gap. “Ezra saw that there was unmet demand for this kind of content clearly in U.S. politics,” Reed says.
3. The stars aligned.
When Klein was starting out, the nascent liberal blogosphere was a place where the web’s flatness could work for you: No one was able to see that you still had peach fuzz as you were typing. Klein’s ascent dovetailed with the late-aughts domestic-policy boom. A president with a similar worldview had been elected, and for the first two years of the Obama administration, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, leading to the most prolific legislative era since LBJ. Obama’s three big pieces of first-term legislation—health care, stimulus, and Dodd-Frank—were the kinds of arcane and complex subjects Klein excelled at explaining. And blogs, iterative and unlimited in space, turned out to be an excellent medium for covering policy debates: You could go long and deep; you could repeat and revise and update and follow an issue’s evolution. This was especially true for covering legislation, and when Klein arrived in D.C., he had a first-mover advantage. The big outlets didn’t yet have star bloggers.
4. He worked it, too.
Klein succeeded in the blogosphere in part by reaching out to others. His chief inspiration was Matt Yglesias, another college-kid blogger and moderate liberal who’d initially been sympathetic to the case for the Iraq War, then changed his mind about it. Yglesias started linking to Klein fairly regularly, and Klein was persistent in soliciting links from other bloggers and asking to be put on their blog rolls, too.
It was Klein’s decision to transfer to a bigger school (UCLA) and, eager to get to Washington, to take on extra courses to graduate college in three years. He got on MSNBC by pestering producers until they booked him. And not long after arriving in D.C., Klein found a way to put himself at the center of a heady conversation: He started a listserv called JournoList, a place where left-of-center journalists, scholars, and policy folks could talk. “I think Ezra had a real determination to cross over and not be an outsider blogger guy,” Yglesias says. “He wanted to build bridges with people in the media.” When JournoList came under attack by conservatives, Klein’s friend Dave Weigel, a contributor, was forced out of the Post; Klein himself was quick with damage control, shutting the listserv down.
“Have you read A Sense of Where You Are?” Weigel asks. “Ezra has an insanely good sense, when he enters a room, a virtual room or a room at a party, of exactly what needs to be done before he gets out of there. He’s a really good guy. He also knows just what to do to make a good impression.”