It’s early fall, and political operative Howard Wolfson, late of the Hillary Clinton campaign, is doing his job: debating former Bush strategist Karl Rove on Fox News. It is his job in the most literal of senses. Since July, Wolfson has been working as a paid Fox News contributor, which makes him the most prominent Democrat ever placed on the conservative channel’s payroll. The topic is the ways in which Sarah Palin and Joe Biden can screw up the vice-presidential debate. The program’s rabidly right-wing host, Sean Hannity, brings up the Rick Lazio episode (in the 2000 Senate race, Lazio strode over to Hillary Clinton’s podium and demanded she sign a no-soft-money pledge he was carrying, a move that became a case study in how a man should not treat a woman in a debate). Hannity says that the whole incident was, in retrospect, “not a big deal.” Rove lets loose a cascade of appreciative guffaws. Then it’s Wolfson’s turn: “He menaced her! What are you talking about?” There’s something Pavlovian in the intensity of his outrage, and yet he starts to crack a self-aware smile as he goes on. “It was a terrible moment in American politics! It was frightening!” Now Hannity is giggling, too. And then something precious happens, a Kodak moment of punditry. Karl Rove—the architect of Bush’s career, Turd Blossom, sworn enemy of Hillary Clinton—that Karl Rove leans over and gives Wolfson a paternal, pitying pat on the back. “Ha-ha, Howard,” titters Hannity, now completely overcome with mirth. “Still on message!”
There exists in Washington, of course, a kind of permanent political class, a collection of White House and congressional staffers, campaign operatives, journalists, and pundits who toil in their chosen professions year after year, candidate after candidate, administration after administration. These people aren’t without their political beliefs, but above all they are professionals. They may tear into each other by day, or from one campaign to the next, but in the shape of their lives they are more alike than they are different. They eat at the same restaurants, go to the same parties, and send their kids to the same schools. They have a job to do—fight for their candidate, write the story—and they do it. It’s not personal; it’s business. With some regularity, they even swap roles: Operative becomes pundit, pundit becomes politician, and around it goes. Howard Wolfson is a particularly nimble and skillful member of the permanent political class. And that, in a phrase, is the answer to the question: What is Hillary Clinton’s former chief spin master doing on Fox News spinning for Barack Obama?
Howard Wolfson is hunched over a computer in the cramped Fox green room. He’s got two “hits” today, one for Fox & Friends—the network’s answer to a morning news show—and one for a relatively harder-edged program called America’s Newsroom. A Yonkers native with a wrestler’s physique—big brow, broad chest, short legs—Wolfson looks like the guy most likely to head-butt you in a bar fight. His demeanor is brusque (a colleague calls him a “Bellovian” figure; he does, on occasion, bellow). His music tastes run to spartan indie rock, and his home-office walls are empty except for a framed still from a 1930s foreign film called Der Dibuk. It’s odd seeing him here, wearing more powder than Dee Snider.
Until recently, political operatives tended to appear on television for free—the pulpit itself was the reward. But increasingly they’re finding employment as paid contributors to news shows. Over the past few years, the cable news networks have been working to upgrade their stable of talking heads with more relevant players, the more recently plucked from the halls of power the better. Fox made a kind of history when it snatched Karl Rove just five months after his departure from the White House. Rove was then arguably the most powerful official from a current administration ever to take up punditry. Wolfson got hired as Rove’s liberal sparring partner less than a month after he left the Clinton campaign. Wolfson doesn’t remember the exact date he took his job: Switching roles, from campaign staffer to paid TV analyst, was that seamless. Wolfson’s typical election-season week involves two or three hits for Fox & Friends plus spots on Geraldo at Large, The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, Your World With Neil Cavuto, On the Record With Greta, and a syndicated radio show called “Brian & the Judge.” He’s made something like 100 appearances on Fox to date. One industry analyst estimates Wolfson gets paid in the neighborhood of $300,000 (Wolfson won’t comment).
This morning’s segment lasts all of three minutes. Host Gretchen Carlson, a chipper blonde in robin’s-egg blue, lobs a couple of softballs, then gamely tries to trap Wolfson on a minor point. Wolfson says Barack Obama has not, at that point, produced a specific economy-fix proposal because it’s more advantageous to step back and let McCain flail, and she pounces, sort of: “Are you saying Obama is running on not even having the policies that he talks about?” By professional-spin-doctor standards, this is kindergarten stuff, and Wolfson barely bothers refuting the remark. “No,” he says. “I am not saying that at all.” When it’s over (“Ahead: Is texting and driving more dangerous than drinking and driving?”), Wolfson and I go out for breakfast. “You know,” he tells me over eggs and Diet Coke, “Fox & Friends is my favorite show to do. It’s not Lehrer. It’s morning TV. It’s light.”