Wolfson has clear and sincerely held political beliefs. Generally speaking, they run quite close to the Clintons’. He is a populist on the economy, a moderate on foreign policy, and a liberal on social issues. Of course, as nearly everyone noted during the Democratic primaries, those are more or less Barack Obama’s views too. Still, it is a near certainty that, in addition to his love of outmaneuvering opponents and tussling with reporters, Wolfson’s work on the 2008 race was fueled by an honest and deep belief that Hillary Clinton would make the best president, at least from the available field. But with Clinton out of the race, Wolfson did what professional political operatives do: He took the largest available stage and set about working for whom he saw as the best remaining candidate. In that, he is not unlike his Democratic colleague and fellow former Clinton loyalist James Carville, whom Wolfson has called “the most brilliant political mind of the last twenty years.” Carville’s greatest hit of this election season was comparing Bill Richardson to Judas for endorsing Obama. Now Carville’s on TV all but guaranteeing an Obama win.
Some people dream of becoming president. Howard Wolfson wanted to be the White House press secretary. “That’s the ultimate dream job,” he told me wistfully. (His view of the position is more Aaron Sorkin than Dana Perino.) “Every day you’re testing yourself against the best. Where else do you get to do that?”
“People come up to me on the street and ask, ‘How can you be on Fox News? How can you talk to Rove?’ Well, I like Karl Rove. He’s smart. He’s funny.”
A history student who had lost his taste for academe halfway through his masters at Duke, Wolfson started out as a journalist himself. His first job was as a political reporter for a small weekly newspaper in Virginia. But a few months in, he realized he’d rather work inside the halls of power than report on them. He got an internship with Indiana congressman Jim Jontz and proceeded to switch press-wrangling political jobs four times in five months until landing close to home, in the office of New York congresswoman Nita Lowey. In 1999, Lowey, who represents most of Westchester County, was prepping for a Senate run but decided to step aside and make way for Hillary Clinton—a decision that translated into a prestigious appointment to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Wolfson worked on Clinton’s winning campaign, then joined Lowey at DCCC as executive director. In essence, he would have a hand in running every Democratic congressional campaign in the country; then again, his involvement would be largely budgetary, with none of the exhilaration of hand-to-hand political combat. In 2002, Wolfson married Terri McCullough, a nonprofit communications director who shared his indie sensibilities (on their first date, they went to see In the Company of Men, the Neil LaBute flick). The private sector, with its more lucrative rewards, beckoned. “I wanted to be able to do something both political and corporate, New York and D.C., advertising and PR,” says Wolfson. In 2003, he joined the Glover Park Group, a one-stop lobbying shop staffed with Clinton and Gore veterans. Among other things he did there, Wolfson orchestrated popular outrage at the Nielsen ratings system on behalf of News Corp., which owns Fox. “It had elements of a political campaign,” he says proudly. Glover Park, despite its Clinton ties, is omnivorous. It mounts campaigns such as linking corn ethanol to global poverty and hunger, a position that stands, for the record, in direct opposition to both Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s energy platform. The firm has also represented the Colombian government on a trade deal that Clinton opposed—the very same sort of conflict of interest that cost Mark Penn, who serviced the Colombians through his firm Burson-Marsteller, his chief-strategist post with the campaign. The difference was that Wolfson, unlike Penn, had the good sense to take a leave of absence from Glover Park when he signed on to work for Hillary. A consultancy Wolfson set up, Gotham Acme, with the campaign as its first and only client, received some $800,000 in 2007 and 2008. These days, Gotham Acme is the name of his decidedly unprofitable music blog.
There’s a bit of a commotion in America’s Newsroom. Wolfson is almost late for his hit, and half a dozen Fox staffers—mostly young, mostly female—are scuttling to and fro asking each other “Where’s Howard?”
Wolfson finally arrives, just in time for one of those micro-crises that routinely push the cable news channels into “breaking news” mode. It has become known that Hillary Clinton, upon finding out that she and Sarah Palin were invited to the same United Nations event, was pulling out. Suddenly, Wolfson once again seemed like Hillary’s spokesman. He says she pulled out because the event was in danger of getting “politicized.” I marvel at the serendipity of Howard’s being in the booth just as Hillary dominates the hour’s news cycle, until a producer explains that they had front-loaded the hour with a Clinton item for Wolfson to chew on.