Lower taxes were a prime factor in Drudge’s flight to Florida from California in 2001. Surveillance was another factor. A photographer took pictures of him through his apartment window in Hollywood. “People are basically exhibitionists and voyeurs; they’re happy to be watched,” he says scornfully.
Back when she was talking about him, Goldberg said that Drudge has so many personas, no one knew who the real Drudge was. Acquaintances say that the brilliantly snide Drudge on radio is a character. (“You horny toad! You horny toad, let me have some of your Viagra now,” Drudge spat after Mike Wallace crossed the privacy line, in his view, by asking whether the Romneys had had premarital sex.) Says one Drudge watcher, “His demeanor off the air could not be more different than what it is on the radio, and explains why the Susan Estriches and Donna Braziles and Arianna Huffingtons all like him. There’s a profound sweetness to him; he’s got a delicate nature that allows him to win over the enemy when he’s in the room with them.” Donna Brazile describes her first meeting with the Webmaster: “What I remember is the graciousness of a Southern gentleman in him. He gave me his card just like a good gossip writer would and he said, ‘Keep in touch if you ever need something.’ And I said, ‘Yup, if I ever need something I’m going to get in touch.’ ”
Vulnerable, gracious Drudge has soft dark eyes and a quiet manner that seems to bring out a maternal quality in certain powerful women. “There is a very wounded-bird quality about this guy,” says Doug Harbrecht, new-media editorial director at Kiplinger, who introduced Drudge to the National Press Club at his historic speech in 1998, back when recognition from the mainstream media seemed important to him. These days Drudge leads a life way outside all the Beltways. “He’s tanned and buff,” says a Drudge watcher. “He’s in the best physical shape of his life. And traveling at will. I think he leads the perfect life.”
But is he happy? This summer, Drudge choked up on his radio show reading a long passage from The Sheltering Sky. “How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it…” Its author, the late Paul Bowles, is someone Drudge would seem to emulate in his hatred of elites and complex sexuality.
In his own life, Drudge maintains ironbound privacy, but his Website has grown by seizing on incidental, personal actions of public figures and blowing them up, at times viciously. In 2000, he helped defeat Al Gore by turning up the volume on such stories as Al Gore’s fund-raising appearance at a Buddhist temple. In 2004, he did more than anyone to upend Kerry by playing up a small ad buy by the Swift Boat Veterans. In this campaign season, he has made a virus of the John Edwards $400 haircut.
At times he has served Hillary. In April, he posted the exclusive that Hillary won the first-quarter fund-raising battle in a “blowout with $36 million.” Insiders say the Clinton campaign leaked the figure to spin perceptions, because most of Hillary’s contributions couldn’t be spent until the general election. “The Hillary campaign leaks their numbers on Drudge because there is no follow-up question,” says one former Democratic operative.
Outsider stylings aside, Drudge is now part of the establishment. In their book, Halperin and Harris speculate that the New York Times has an unofficial policy of getting important stories to Drudge in advance of their publication on the Net. A Times official denies this. “There is an implication that we somehow cooperate with Drudge to give him tips on our stories. I want to be clear that that is not the case. Drudge may receive information on the advance news schedules that go out to subscribers of our wire service,” says Catherine J. Mathis, a Times spokesperson.
Possibly he gets his frequent Times exclusives (often attributed to “newsroom sources”) off the wire. But Drudge would seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the paper he calls the “Old Gray Lady” and whose politics he says he despises. Drudge says he doesn’t read the L.A. Times or the Washington Post, but he calls the Times “very influential.” The Times advertises on his site. That reflects the fact that the two publications are going after the same audience: American leaders.
Drudge’s own influence stems from the fact that he loves news, in a way that great newspeople do, and his news sensibility is extremely sophisticated. When he was a kid, he figured out that though thousands of people get murdered, only a few murders are news. One role model seems to be Rupert Murdoch, whom he praises for understanding that newspapers have to be fun. “[Murdoch] brings [news] alive. It’s not dull,” Drudge says, his voice thrilling. Paglia invokes an earlier idol, Andy Warhol. “He has extraordinary intuition, imagination, and improvisational energy. He is a highly creative performance artist who has invented his own genre—which no one has been able to imitate or reproduce … The Drudge Report is a kind of existentialist high-wire act.”
Drudge enjoys the changing fashions in news, the plot shifts that he has a hand in engineering. As he’s entered middle age, something noir and futuristic has entered his sensibility, more Philip K. Dick (on his show, he often invokes Blade Runner) than Walter Winchell. The site is obsessed with global warming, with the dangers of cell phones and cloning, with all manner of tabloid horrors. He’s a storyteller, and the stories are dark.