September 26, 2004
Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail
Nine blocks north of Madison Square Garden, next door to the Emerging Artists Theater, where posters advertised "The Gay Naked Play" ("Now With More Nudity"), the bloggers were up and running. It was Republican National Convention week in New York City, and they had taken over a performance space called the Tank. A homeless guy sat at the entrance with a bag of cans at his feet, a crocheted cap on his head and his chin in his hand. To reach the Tank, you had to cross a crummy little courtyard with white plastic patio furniture and half a motorcycle strung with lights and strewn with flowers, beneath a plywood sign that said, "Ronald Reagan Memorial Fountain."
The Tank was just one small room, with theater lights on the ceiling and picture windows that looked out on the parking garage across 42nd Street. Free raw carrots and radishes sat in a cardboard box on a table by the door, alongside a pile of glazed doughnuts and all the coffee you could drink. The place was crowded. Everyone was sitting, staring at their laptops, at bridge tables or completely sacked out on couches. Markos Moulitsas, who runs the blog Daily Kos, at dailykos.com, was slouched in the corner of one squashed-down couch in shorts and a T-shirt, his computer on his lap, one of the keys snapped off his keyboard. He's a small guy with short brown hair who could pass for 15. Duncan Black of the blog Eschaton, who goes by the name Atrios, sat at the other end of the couch, staring out the window. On the table set up behind them, Jerome Armstrong of MyDD worked sweatily. Jesse and Ezra, whose blog is called Pandagon, were lying with two cute women in tank tops Ezra's girlfriend Kate and Zoe of Gadflyer on futon beds that had been placed on the tiny stage of the performance space. Their computers and wireless mice and some carrots and radishes and paper plates with Chinese dumplings were scattered between them. A month ago, at the Democratic convention, Zoe had accidentally spilled a big cup of 7-Up on Jesse's computer, killing it. She and Jesse now looked as if they might be dating.
Moulitsas pulled a 149-word story off nytimes.com linking Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, to "Unfit for Command," the book that attacked John Kerry's service in Vietnam; the article revealed that Novak's son is the marketing director for the book's publisher, Regnery. Moulitsas copied and pasted the story, wrote "Novak blows another one" at the top and clicked Submit. A couple of seconds later, the item appeared on Daily Kos, and his hundreds of thousands of readers began to take note, many of them posting their own fevered thoughts in response. Moulitsas read some e-mail messages and surfed around, trying to think of the next rotten thing to say about the right. Beside him, around the same time, Atrios was assembling a few words about Ed Schrock, a conservative Republican congressman vocal in his disavowal of the rights of gays, who had now been accused of soliciting gay love. A Web site dedicated to exposing closeted antigay politicians had posted an audio clip of what they said was Schrock's voice, and he had pulled out of the race. A pizza-stained paper plate sat between Moulitsas and Atrios. Together, they have more readers than The Philadelphia Inquirer.
A year ago, no one other than campaign staffs and chronic insomniacs read political blogs. In the late 90's, about the only places online to write about politics were message boards like Salon's Table Talk or Free Republic, a conservative chat room. Crude looking Web logs, or blogs, cropped up online, and Silicon Valley techies put them to use, discussing arcane software problems with colleagues, tossing in the occasional diaristic riff on the birth of a daughter or a trip to Maui. Then in 1999, Mickey Kaus, a veteran magazine journalist and author of a weighty book on welfare reform, began a political blog on Slate. On kausfiles, as he called it, he wrote differently. There were a thousand small ways his voice changed; in print, he had been a full-paragraph guy who carefully backed up his claims, but on his blog he evolved into an exasperated Larry David basket case of self-doubt and indignation, harassed by a fake "editor" of his own creation who broke in, midsentence, with parenthetical questions and accusations.
All that outrage, hand wringing, writing posts all day long the care and maintenance of an online writing persona after five years, it takes its toll. I had talked to Kaus earlier in the summer at a restaurant in Venice, Calif., and he had said he didn't know how much longer he could stand it. After the election, he said, he might just give up. Once, he told me, "I was halfway across the room about to blog a dream I just had, without ever regaining consciousness, before I realized what I was about to do. If the computer hadn't been in the other room, I probably would have."
In a recent national survey, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that more than two million Americans have their own blog. Most of them, nobody reads. The blogs that succeed, like Kaus's, are written in a strong, distinctive, original voice. In January, a serious-minded former editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education named Ana Marie Cox reinvented herself online as the Wonkette, a foulmouthed, hard-drinking, sex-obsessed politics junkie. Joshua Micah Marshall, in his columns for The Hill and articles for The Washington Monthly, writes like every other overeducated journalist. But on his blog, Talking Points Memo, he has become an irate spitter of well-crafted vitriol aimed at the president, whom he compared, one day, to Tony Soprano torching his friend's sporting-goods store for the sake of a little extra cash. When Marshall's in a bad mood, he portrays mainstream journalists as a bunch of "corrupt," "idiotic" hacks, mired in "cosmopolitan and baby-boomer self-loathing," whose bad habits have become "ingrained and chronic, like a battered dog who cowers and shakes when the abuser gives a passing look." Moulitsas's site, Daily Kos, teems with information sophisticated analysis of poll numbers, crystal-ball babble, links to Senate, House and governor "outlook charts." But what pulls you in is not the data; it's his voice. He's cruel and superior, and he knows his side is going to win.
Early in 2002, Joe Trippi read on Armstrong's blog, MyDD, that Howard Dean might be running for president, and after Trippi joined the campaign as its manager, he helped bring the Dean movement to life online, in part through the campaign's massive community blog, which connected Deaniacs all over the country, helped them organize and became the access point for the $40 million that fueled Dean's explosive run. The Dean phenomenon drew so many new people to the grass roots (or "netroots," as the Dean bloggers used to call them) of presidential politics that a kind of fragmentation occurred in what had been, until then, a blog culture dominated by credentialed gentlemen like Kaus, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds, a conservative law professor whose blog, Instapundit, is read faithfully at the White House.
But just as Fox News has been creaming CNN, the traffic on Kaus's and Sullivan's sites has flat-lined recently, while Atrios's and Moulitsas's are booming. Left-wing politics are thriving on blogs the way Rush Limbaugh has dominated talk radio, and in the last six months, the angrier, nastier partisan blogs have been growing the fastest. Daily Kos has tripled in traffic since June. Josh Marshall's site has quadrupled in the last year. It's almost as though, in a time of great national discord, you don't want to know both sides of an issue. The once-soothing voice of the nonideological press has become, to many readers, a secondary concern, a luxury, even something suspect. It's hard to listen to a calm and rational debate when the building is burning and your pants are smoking.
But at the same time that blogs have moved away from the political center, they have become increasingly influential in the campaigns James P. Rubin, John Kerry's foreign-policy adviser, told me, "They're the first thing I read when I get up in the morning and the last thing I read at night." Among the Washington press corps, too, their impact is obvious. Back in 2002, Marshall helped stoke the fires licking at Trent Lott's feet, digging up old interviews that suggested his support for Strom Thurmond's racial policies went way back; Marshall's scoops found their way onto The Associated Press wire and the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Earlier this month, a platoon of right-wing bloggers launched a coordinated assault against CBS News and its memos claiming that President Bush got special treatment in the National Guard; within 24 hours, the bloggers' obsessive study of typefaces in the 1970's migrated onto Drudge, then onto Fox News and then onto the networks and the front pages of the country's leading newspapers.
During the 1972 presidential campaign, Timothy Crouse covered the campaign-trail press corps in Rolling Stone magazine, reporting that he later expanded into his revealing and funny book "The Boys on the Bus." Crouse described the way a few top journalists like R.W. Apple Jr., David S. Broder, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, through their diligence, ambition and supreme self-confidence, set the agenda for the whole political race. This summer, sitting in the Tank and reading campaign blogs, you could sometimes get a half-giddy, half-sickening feeling that something was shifting, that the news agenda was beginning to be set by this largely unpaid, T-shirt-clad army of bloggers.
A few blocks down Eighth Avenue, thousands of journalists with salaries and health benefits waited for the next speech and the next press release from the Republican campaign. Here in the Tank, Jesse and Ezra sat resting on the futon with some dumplings. Moulitsas was crashing on a friend's floor for the week. Atrios had just quit his job as an economics professor, and Armstrong could fondly look back on stints in his 20's as a traveling Deadhead, a Peace Corps volunteer and a Buddhist monastery dweller.
Like almost everyone in the Tank, Moulitsas started blogging to blow off steam. He seemed as surprised as anyone to find himself on the verge of respectability.
That week, while Moulitsas blogged with gusto posting a doctored photo of Senator Zell Miller with fangs and bloody eyes and the comment, "Try not to puke," staying late at the Tank to boo during the televised speeches Wonkette walked through the hall and saw what she described on her site as the "Whitest. Convention. Ever." She wondered on her blog if anyone had seen any photos anywhere of, say, a minority in the house; later, to her relief, someone sent her, and she posted, a few shots of black and Hispanic people, cleaning the floors.
The Wonkette is more fun to read than Daily Kos. She's also more fun to hang out with. Before we went off to the fabulous party that Americans for Tax Reform were throwing at the New York Yacht Club on Monday night, we had time for an expensive dinner at a really nice restaurant in SoHo. Wonkette hadn't been anywhere near the Tank, and when I told her about the scene there, she laughed. "They've got the raw carrots and radishes," she said, "and we've got the raw tuna appetizer." The candlelight reflected off the Champagne bubbles in her glass. "Other bloggers don't consider me a real blogger," she said. "Kos is the platonic ideal of a blogger: he posts all the time; he interacts with his readers." She swallowed an oyster and smiled. "I hate all that."
Ana Marie Cox has peachy cream skin and eyes of a very bright blue, strawberry blond hair and a filthy mind; she likes to analyze our nation's leaders in their most private, ah, parts. She has been talking this way all her life. Until January, no one listened. She's the daughter of a six-foot-tall blond Scandinavian goddess and one of the bright young men who worked under Robert McNamara in the Pentagon. Her parents split when she was 12, and she was shuttled between them, and like most kids who grow up that way, she made an anthropological study of what's cool. She was a loud, pudgy kid with milk-bottle-thick glasses, and when she finally settled into high school in Nebraska, she immediately ran for class president. She was thrown out of "gifted and talented" camp for weaving, drunk, through the girl's bathroom one night, and when she told me about it, she described it as "the story of my life": the smart girl getting booted out of a place where she belonged. She dropped out of a Ph.D. program in history at the University of California at Berkeley and found happiness for a few years at Suck.com, a snarky social-commentary Web site from the first Internet heyday. She tried freelancing after that, and then spent five frustrating years being fired from or leaving one job after another, such well-meaning, highbrow institutions as Mother Jones, The American Prospect and The Chronicle of Higher Education plus another place she won't name, where, she says, they chastised her for raising her eyebrows wrong and for sighing too loud in meetings. Finally, last fall, she gave up on journalism. She was filling out applications for a master's in social work when Nick Denton called.
Denton is the world's first blogging entrepreneur. He owns a bunch of these smart-alecky blogs Wonkette; a New York City gossip site called Gawker; a Hollywood site, Defamer; and Fleshbot, a porn site. Anytime somebody builds a media empire, especially one that includes pornography, you assume the money is good, but in the Wonkette's case, it isn't. Her starting salary was $18,000 a year. (She's getting bonuses now for increased traffic, but not much.) But she likes the fact that Denton hasn't put a lot of restrictions on her. "The only thing he said was that he wanted it to be funnier than Josh Marshall," she told me. "The bar isn't raised too high."
Imagine a fairly drunk housewife stuck in front of CNN, growing hornier as the day wears on. The Wonkette reads like a diary of that day. Cox quickly found her voice funny, sex-obsessed, self-indulgent. "The Wonkette is like me after a few margaritas," she said. She started with two basic themes: questioning Bush's sexual preference and praising Kerry's anatomical, well, gifts. In March, she discovered a terrific new feature on the Bush-Cheney Web site that let voters generate their own official Bush-Cheney '04 posters with personalized slogans. She dubbed it "The Sloganator," and until the campaign got wind of her project and shut down the Sloganator, Wonkette solicited slogans from readers and printed up very professional-looking Bush-Cheney posters with phrases like "Christians for purification of the Mid East," "Because Satan is coming to eat your kids" and "Crackers Unite" emblazoned across the top. Readers loved it. It took Wonkette just three months to reach the traffic numbers Marshall had been working to build up for three years.
While the Wonkette likes to make fun of Washington's capacity to take itself seriously, sometimes she seems to take it more seriously than anyone. She spent about a month out of her mind with excitement on one totally pointless story, the White House Correspondents' Dinner, wondering online if any of her readers might get her in. A friend finally came through and took her as his date, and the following morning she posted several very keyed-up reports: "Arrive with J. in cab to Hinckley Hilton: Omg. There really is a red carpet. Paparazzi. Sort of junior-varsity feeling, but still. Fumble with wrap, bag, umbrella . . . remember . . . don't show teeth in smile, suck in gut, stick out chest. The paparazzi go nuts! Smile, prepare to wave. . . . Realize that we have entered just behind Jessica Lynch." And then later: "More wine. . . . Keep thinking I see Harvey Weinstein, but it's just random heavy-set mogulish types. . . . Lights flash. Time for mediocre surf-and-turf! . . . waiter passes with tray of Jell-O shots, and for a brief, beautiful moment, it appears that Wolfowitz might take one." She was finally getting paid for being drunk at gifted-and-talented camp.
Not long after Wonkette came to life, Cox's hometown newspaper, The Lincoln Journal Star, profiled her. Then an online crew from The Washington Post came to videotape her blogging, and then bookers started calling from talk shows. By midsummer, she had been on "Scarborough Country," on MSNBC, which she likes to call "Scar-Co," four times. TV stardom seemed to her to be the ideal next step.
Sure enough, in July, MTV called and asked her to report from the Democratic National Convention. She was thrilled, and she fixed on the idea that this convention gig might turn into a real job at the network. Whatever it is that makes a person want to be famous, need to be famous and not everything about a ravenous hunger for fame is bad Cox has that. The carrot of fame now hanging over her was distracting, and I got the sense that certain situations were playing out in her head. "I watched 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' a lot as a kid," she said.
A couple of weeks before the convention, she flew to Los Angeles for a screen test, and when she got back, she told me that she had aced it. "I am very good at this," she said proudly. She was getting a little obsessed. "It's weird," she said. "It's like discovering you can yodel. You know what I mean? I'm good. I really never would've known."
In Boston, at the convention, she hardly blogged at all. MTV had scheduled a single short piece for her to do from the convention floor. "I'm not really doing anything for MTV," she said at the start of the convention. "I'm doing interviews about being hired by MTV." A couple of days later, I ran into her at the FleetCenter. She was in a hurry. "I have to go be interviewed by 'Nightline,"' she said. "'Oh, and what do you do?"' she went on, pretending to be Ted Koppel. "'I get interviewed about what it's like to be the MTV special correspondent. I forward media requests. I try to find free food and liquor."' That evening, from my seat up in the rafters next to Moulitsas, I saw Cox in action down on the floor, holding a microphone, kneeling, interviewing a delegate. It took me a moment to realize that there was no cameraman; it was just Cox, with a microphone and a producer hovering over her shoulder offering little bits of advice.
I couldn't figure it out. Why was she so excited about working for MTV? MTV is for 9-year-olds. It's so 1992. It was as if her sense of what was cool and what was stupid, so unerring on her blog, had abandoned her. How could she think that 18 seconds with those cocky jerks on "Scar-Co" was better than a perfect joke about a president, his dog and a blown kiss? Four months of setting the blog world on fire making dirty political jokes suddenly wasn't enough any more.
But then she wasn't asked to cover the Republican convention for MTV. It would be fair to say that this upset her. Wonkette had seemed like the perfect stepping stone to something big. Now she had to consider, What if Wonkette was as good as it gets?
By the time we sat down to dinner in New York, she was employing that old trick of pretending to be happy with just this. She was focusing on the blog again and its many perks. "I haven't bought my own dinner or drinks in months," she said. She tipped her head to the side and shrugged. "That's the best benefit of being Wonkette. That's the sad truth. They all want something. But that's fine. All I want is dinner and drinks."
In Boston, the day before the convention started and after a long, glittering night following the Wonkette to fancy parties, I came back late and found Josh Marshall in my hotel room, lying sideways on a cot, blogging. He was drinking a Diet Coke, his face illuminated by the glow of his laptop, legs crossed, socked feet hanging off the edge. Earlier in the day, when he mentioned that his hotel reservation didn't start until Monday, I had offered to share my room with him for the night.
The first time I had met him, back in April in Washington, he was drinking a large Coke from Chipotle and a foot-tall iced coffee. He explained that he spent most afternoons at Starbucks, and then he would head back to his apartment to blog all night, drinking coffee, sometimes even editing and revising while lying in bed. "You edit something when you're literally falling asleep," he said. "It can be kind of scary."
In my room in Boston, he had a little hotel ice bucket by his side with two more Diet Cokes in it, and he finished them off before bedtime. It was late, and I was tired and he was disoriented, trying to blog under such circumstances, but before we turned off the lights he wanted to show me his Talking Points Memo ID, which resembled a press badge. He wondered if I thought it looked real. The credentials we would all be receiving the next day didn't require any press badge, but staff reporters of actual news organizations always seem to have separate institutional ID's, thick plastic magnetized deals that can open locked doors. Working off the model of a friend's ID, Marshall had, using his girlfriend's computer and photo printer, made a sober little knockoff, including his picture (in coat and tie), an expiration date and an explanation of company policy: should the company's only employee be terminated, the badge would become the property of Talking Points Memo. He laminated it at Kinko's. He had also brought his own lanyard (each media empire has its own necklace strings) and his own little plastic badge holder. I told him it looked completely legit.
Marshall had been wondering about that for a while. Even before he had finished his Ph.D. in American history at Brown, he was thinking about the impending problem of how to look legit, where to fit in. His father is a professor of marine biology, and Marshall knew, as Cox had known, that academic life wouldn't work. He wanted to be a writer, and he wanted to write about serious stuff, and he wanted to do it with a lot of passion. Marshall's mom had died when he was still in grade school, in a car accident, and he says losing her made it impossible for him to live without believing strongly in something. And he does: he is a guy whose waking state hovers right between irate and incensed, and for him those beliefs require action. Coming out of school, he had a love for history and a handle on American policy issues, and he figured the rest would be simple, job-wise, if only somebody would let him write. Marshall spent three years after his Ph.D. program working as an editor at The American Prospect, the liberal policy journal, and I got the feeling not so much from him, because he didn't want to talk about it, but from former colleagues that by the time he quit, he had decided that it would be better to starve than to work for someone else. So for a while he starved.
Marshall started the blog in 2000, during the Florida recount, as a release valve, and it's still working that way; oversimplifying weighty issues, reducing them to their essential skeletons, somehow relaxes him. Since February, with the explosion of blog traffic and the invention of blog ads as a revenue source, a few elite bloggers have found themselves on the receiving end of a Howitzer of money, as much as $10,000 a month. Marshall is one of them, and now that the release valve has become a job, albeit a well-paying one, he has to resist the tendency to ruin it. He wrestles with the question of how many posts are enough, since he's a one-man operation and his advertisers have paid ahead of time, and then there are also those obligations to The Hill, where he writes a low-paying weekly column, and The Washington Monthly, another underpaid gig that harks back to his hungrier days.
When I fell asleep in my hotel room, Marshall was complaining that there are no good books on the Crusades. The next morning, he got back into his clothes from the night before. He looked like a wrinkle bomb had hit him.
The big news, the only piece of news, it seemed, about the Democratic convention was that bloggers had been credentialed as news media, sort of, and after so many months ripping the mainstream press coverage of the campaign, a little tingle hung in the air. How would the new breed thrive on the ancient media's home turf, a news event by and for the big news folks? I spent the day at the FleetCenter, in the terrific accommodations the Democrats had arranged for the bloggers: up in the nosebleed seats, Section 320, where 35 of them, the lucky ones who had been credentialed, could fight for any of the 15 bar stools they had been provided, along with some makeshift plywood desks built along the railing. Whoever got there late sat in the cramped, yellow, steeply banked folding seats, no elbowroom, bad lighting, their power cords snaking down the rows to a couple of surge protectors. Moulitsas was in Section 320, and so was Armstrong from MyDD, Atrios of Eschaton, Zoe from Gadflyer, Jesse and Ezra, Jeralyn of Talkleft, Dave Pell from Electablog, Chris Rabb from Afro-Netizen, Bill Scher from Liberal Oasis and Christian Crumlish of radiofreeblogistan. But no Josh Marshall.
I ran into him later on in the press stands, to the right of the stage, where he had set up shop, squatting at a spot designated for an official news organization in the coveted blue section. He was fiddling with his computer and finishing a cellphone call about what he called "the biggest story of my life," one that would quell any fears about his legitimacy as a real journalist, at least for a while. But right now he was just trying to get online. That damned wireless modem he had spent so much money on really stunk. Verizon was driving him nuts. He had by this point changed into a fresh shirt and different pants from the ones he had been wearing when he left my hotel room, but he appeared, from head to toe, to be entirely wrinkled again, as though his clothing wrinkled at a faster rate than other people's. He gave up on trying to get online, finished his call and sat back. With his arms folded across his chest, in an incensed yet somewhat professorial tone, very up-all-night, very corduroy, he talked on and on about Douglas Feith and Ahmed Chalabi and Karl Rove.
For the entire time we were in Boston, he never seemed curious about where the bloggers were supposed to sit, and whenever I told him I had just come from there at one point I even called from my cellphone, up in the nosebleeds, and waved he never went up to visit. He skipped the blogger breakfast that morning, and I had to drag him out to go party-hopping at night though when he got there, look out! (Just kidding.)
Marshall often seemed stuck between two worlds. In the blogger world, he was a star, author of one of the most popular and most respected sites. But unlike Moulitsas, who consulted on campaigns and helped develop software for political fund-raising and dreamed of marble statues in his image, Marshall seemed unsure of where blogging was leading. In the mainstream media world, he was not a major player, not yet anyway. He published occasional, well-regarded magazine pieces one in The Atlantic, one in The New Yorker but nothing earth-shattering. He didn't really seem at home there. Writing for magazines, he said, had become a big pain. Blogging was easier, freer. "In blogging," Marshall said, "there's no lead, no 'What's my point?"' The blog ad money had fallen from the sky, and it had saved him.
"Now I'm not under any financial pressure to write," he said. "What I backed into, in doing this blog, was freedom. And not having to write things I didn't believe and not having to write ways I didn't want to write." It is this unique amount of leeway that has allowed him, over the past two years, to run at his own pace, dig deeper. On his blog, he brings attention to overlooked stories. He wrote about Valerie Plame's cover being blown eight days before The New York Times did. And a paper put out by scholars at the Kennedy School of Government analyzing the fall of Trent Lott singled out Marshall for keeping the focus on a story that had otherwise slipped off the mainstream-media radar.
Like the Wonkette, Marshall loved the idea of being tapped by those who had once ignored him. Over the summer, he paired up with a big network news show on an investigative story, hoping some of its credibility would rub off on him. But then the network bumped the story at the last minute. If only he could turn his back completely on the old way, concentrate on nothing but the blog; but letting go of institutional approval and the security and camaraderie that goes with it is like jumping out a window. He can't decide between loving the big media, linking to it, hoping they'll pick up on stories, and hating it, despising it, insulting it, trying to convince you, or himself, that it's the worst thing in the world and that it's ruining American democracy.
Marshall did a little more heavy sighing and wrinkled himself up some more, rubbing his sour face, and launched into what was really irking him at this moment. "Going it alone is harder than it looks," he said. He had been fairly aggressively attacking the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and had attracted plenty of fire himself. "I've gotten tons of hate mail over the last few weeks," he said. "You get a very thick skin for it. But it's hard. There's something on the karmic level. You feel the level of hate, and when you get a hundred of those, it's exhausting. Normally I'm oblivious to it, but lately it's getting to me a little." He had blocked mail from certain e-mail accounts, and yet, he said, "even though I haven't answered them some I haven't answered in a year they're still writing. This one guy has subject headings like 'Why you're an idiot today.' Certain people read the site to counteract their heart medication."
On April Fools' Day, Moulitsas really blew it. In a swaggering reaction to a Daily Kos reader who wondered in the comment section whether the four American civilian contractors strung up in Falluja deserved the same respect as American soldiers, he wrote, "I feel nothing over the death of mercenaries," and then added, "Screw them." Within hours, he became the focus of an international letter-writing campaign to drive away all of his advertisers. It worked, too. House candidates, Senate candidates, they all pulled their ads. But in a matter of weeks brand-new ads came in to fill the void. "It was a blip!" Moulitsas told me later, a little triumphantly. He had nearly destroyed himself, but not quite.
In the aftermath of what was maybe the worst week of Moulitsas's life, friends asked him if he might not consider choosing between his two roles, as a clearinghouse for activism and an outlet for information. But the site continued to grow, fund-raising chugged along for his candidates, and he wanted me to know that his survival was a big finger in the eye of anyone who said a blogger couldn't be two things at once.
But there was another role Moulitsas hadn't quite mastered yet: his place in the established machinery of the Democratic Party. Moulitsas is a rabid Democrat, devoted to the idea of the party, but he also feels a deep distrust for the party system, and so do many of his readers. Moulitsas has always been an outsider. He was born in Chicago, but moved to his mother's native El Salvador at age 4, and as the civil war there heated up in the 1980's, he remembers stepping over dead bodies. He only returned to Chicago after rebel soldiers passed along photos of Moulitsas and his brother to the family, an invitation to leave or lose their sons. Moulitsas speaks of himself, at the time of his return to Chicago when he was 9, as a tiny geek with a big mouth who couldn't speak English and who quickly learned to say things to bullies, in his heavy Spanish accent, that were just confounding enough for him to make a getaway before the bully realized he had been insulted. In high school, his American experience didn't improve. "I had to eat fast and run to the library to read, because I didn't have any friends," he said. After graduation, at 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was 5 foot 6 and weighed 110 pounds. Like everyone else, he carried a 65-pound pack on those 15- and 20-mile marches. He had been pushed around all his life, but in basic training, within spitting distance of his drill sergeants, he learned to fight back.
In Boston, I went with Moulitsas to a really swanky party given in honor of the bloggers at a Middle Eastern restaurant on the Charles River. At 2 a.m., as people were filing out to leave, a discussion that had started online spilled onto the middle of the floor. For the last few weeks, Moulitsas had been conversing on at least two different blogs with Jim Bonham, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The D.C.C.C. is the arm of the Democratic Party that provides money, expert advice and technical support to candidates in close House races, and Moulitsas had been complaining that the group was abandoning some viable candidates, especially liberal ones, and leaving them to "flail around." Moulitsas became especially worked up about a Congressional candidate in Pennsylvania named Ginny Schrader. Her race against an incumbent Republican looked unwinnable, until her opponent suddenly dropped out of the race. Moulitsas immediately started soliciting donations for Schrader on Daily Kos, and within a couple of days he had raised $40,000 for her campaign, which the day before had had $7,000 in the bank. The D.C.C.C. was slower to react, and Moulitsas felt outraged and free to take a whack or two at them.
So when Moulitsas and Bonham met by the door at the party, they started screaming at each other. People gathered around to watch, blocking the crowd attempting to leave. Jim Bonham is taller and stouter than Moulitsas, but Jerome Armstrong of MyDD stood behind Moulitsas, kind of grinning and shaking his head. Stirling Newberry, a blogger buddy of Moulitsas's from the Draft Clark movement, tried to act as peacemaker, but it didn't work. Nicco Mele, the official liaison between the D.C.C.C. and the blogosphere, just stood back, horrified.
When I reached the blogger section the next day, Moulitsas was still pumped up. "Did you see my epic battle?" he yelled over to me. Armstrong turned around, grinning his head off. "The D.C.C.C. has never been challenged," Moulitsas said when I got over to his seat. "It was a shot across the bow." Then he re-enacted the fight. "You should've heard him yelling: 'So you can raise $20,000, but I can raise $2 million! You have to understand your role in this!"'
Armstrong said, "I'd have hit him if he said that to me."
Moulitsas said: "I told him: 'Don't yell at me. The rules are changing. You gotta adapt. You gotta wake up and realize your role."' (I talked to Bonham later, and he said he didn't get why Moulitsas thought the D.C.C.C. was slighting bloggers. After all, Bonham said, the D.C.C.C. had paid for the very top-drawer blogger bash where the fight broke out.)
For Moulitsas and for a lot of other people new to politics in 2004 amateurs who liked the thrill ride Dean had taken them on the idea that the rules had changed seemed entirely obvious. What was important to these new activists, he told me, was winning winning the presidency, winning back the Senate, winning as many Congressional seats as possible. Soon after we met, Moulitsas tried to convince me how important it was for the old guard to start seeing politics through the eyes of the bloggers. That meant rapid response, he said, smart use of technology, constant two-way communication with the voters and grass-roots fund-raising. He told me the story of a flash advertisement that the D.N.C. had posted on its Web site. Moulitsas hated it. "It was horrible, the worst thing I'd ever seen," he said. "So I blogged a post saying, 'That's the biggest piece of garbage I've ever seen in my whole entire life"' (although he used stronger language than that). "What the hell were they thinking?" he asked. "I was embarrassed to be a Democrat. So then I get phone calls and e-mails, 'Well, why didn't you talk to us?' I'm like: 'What's there to talk about? The thing's a piece of garbage.' And then they say: 'It was done by a volunteer. If you attack them, then volunteers aren't going to want to do stuff like that.' I'm like: 'Good! 'Cause it's a piece of garbage.' I'm like, Here's the way it goes. O.K., from now on, keep this in mind: whenever you put up anything on this site, think, How are the blogs going to react?" He was smiling, but all the veins were pulsing in his neck. "You can pout all you want," he said, "but I'm not here to make friends with you guys and go to your little cocktail parties. And that piece of garbage is going to lose us votes."
Although the D.C.C.C. raises a lot more money for Congressional candidates than Moulitsas does, candidates have caught on to the fact that Moulitsas's help can be invaluable. While we were sitting up there in the blogger nosebleed section, his phone rang. It was Samara Barend, a young community activist running for Congress in upstate New York. When Moulitsas hung up, he told me she was calling "either to get my endorsement or to get me to write about the race."
Then we headed to the Westin to meet another Congressional candidate hoping for some of the same attention from Daily Kos: Diane Farrell, a selectwoman from Westport, Conn. We sat down in the hotel's ornate lobby, where delegates and journalists were checking e-mail and chatting. After some friendly introductions, Farrell made her pitch. "The problem is that we don't have a TV station," she said. "We have three daily papers, but direct mail will probably be our biggest expense. Radio costs too much."
Moulitsas said, "Are you doing the heavy ground game?"
"Oh, most definitely."
Moulitsas wondered if the remnants of the Dean movement could help out. "Are there any Dean organizations around you?" he asked.
Moulitsas cleared his throat. "Dean."
"Oh, yes," she said.
Later, Moulitsas decided to add Barend but not Farrell to the short list of candidates he deemed most worth backing and raised more than $10,000 for her campaign.
Moulitsas's "friendly relations" with particular candidates got him into a public fight with Zephyr Teachout, who became briefly famous last winter as the guru of the Dean Internet campaign, which in fact employed Moulitsas for several months. Over the summer, she complained in several online forums, and to Moulitsas directly, that he and other bloggers were blurring the lines between editorial and advertising, lines that had always been sacred in journalism. According to Teachout, they were posting comments in support of candidates for whom they were also working as paid consultants and not explaining that conflict of interest, or at least not fully enough for Teachout. In an online discussion with Jay Rosen, who heads the journalism department at N.Y.U., she wrote, "I think where we essentially disagree is that transparency alone is enough."
"Zephyr can go to hell," Moulitsas said at the Democratic convention. "I'm not about to censor myself on any issue," he later wrote on another Web site. "If I care about something, I'll write about it. It's the essence of blogging. As for the mainstream media, who cares what some joker journalism professor wrote? Just keep blogging, doing your thing, and the blogosphere will continue to do just fine. We should let our accomplishments speak for themselves, and they will."
For Moulitsas, the bigger problem these days is his own success. When we met up again at the Republican convention, we walked around ground zero, and he told me about his rising page views. "I was losing sleep over how I'd survive the traffic," he said. His daily readership had surpassed 350,000, and by most counts he had become the most-read political blogger in the country. He told me he had hired a full-time programmer to take over the technical work of running his site. "I never intended to be here," he said. "Nothing foreshadowed the attention Daily Kos is getting."
Moulitsas said that people had been coming in from Brooklyn and other places just to shake his hand, because they knew he would be at the Tank. "It's weird," he said. "It makes me uncomfortable. People who achieve a certain amount of celebrity plan it. They expect that public attention will be part of the package."
Away from the Tank now, he could relax for a moment and reflect. "I'm really self-conscious of how the blogger community perceives me," he said. "I feel guilty that I don't link to more bloggers, I feel guilty that I'm more successful than other bloggers. I feel guilty that I make as much money as I do now, that I get more traffic. Rather than enjoy it, sometimes I feel really guilty about it. It's silly."
As we neared Wall Street, Moulitsas said: "The other angst I have about blogging is that because I depend on the income, it has become a job. You'd think I'd be happy. I make a living off of blogging! But it's interesting how, once it becomes a job, there's a certain angst that I'm kind of afflicted with. I can't quit."
When the bloggers first arrived in Boston for the Democratic convention, some of them had high hopes for what they would be able to accomplish there that together they would cough up an astounding Rashomon collective of impressions and insights, interlinked, with empowering conclusions. With their new form of journalism, at once smaller and larger than the mainstream, they planned to bring politics back to the people. But those first few posts, so highly anticipated by their fellow bloggers, the ones who didn't score credentials, were more about the bus ride from the hotel, the heavy security in the parking lot; their seats in the rafters were terrible, they had trouble getting floor passes and, anyway, out on the floor, who would they talk to? Were they supposed to pretend to be regular reporters? Up in the nosebleeds, the delegates overran their special section, and it got so hot at night you could die, especially with a nice warm laptop baking your thighs; the WiFi kept fading, cutting them off from the world, from their Googling and pondering; from up in the cheap seats, the stage was minuscule, the speakers' faces were dots, the sound didn't travel. The only thing the bloggers really had the inside scoop on were the balloons hanging a few feet away from them in the rafters, in huge sacks of netting.
The bloggers had spent this year hammering the mainstream media for failing to tell the "real story" of Howard Dean or John Kerry or George W. Bush. And they hammered at the campaigns, too, for failing to make their message clear, for failing to adapt to surprises on the road, in the glare of all that attention. But now they were finding the campaign trail could be rough. Zephyr Teachout sat down next to me on the night of Kerry's speech and started needling the bloggers. "Look how hard it is to work when the conditions are awful, when you're star struck, when it's hard to find anecdotes that are good," she said.
And as a seasoned reporter myself after two whole conventions I can safely say that you get about as many insights into the hearts and souls of the candidates on the campaign trail as you would watching a plastic fern grow. The ever-increasing scrutiny of candidates because of cable and the Internet has only made more evident how impregnable and unfathomable our political machinery has become. Political reporters hanging around drinking and smoking at the conventions said that the bus had changed a lot since 1972. You spend all day watching nothing, fake deli-counter photo ops with six camera crews, and you get yelled at if you walk into the camera shot that is, if you dare to go near the guy you're covering.
The news media helped create the modern campaign, and now they seem to be stuck in it. The bloggers, by contrast, adapted quickly. By the time the Republican convention rolled around in August, they had figured something out, staying far, far away from that zoo down at Madison Square Garden. They had begun to work the way news people do at manufactured news events, by sticking together, sharing information, repeating one another's best lines. They were learning their limitations, and at the same time they were digging around and critiquing and fact-checking and raising money. They still liked posting dirty jokes and goofy Photoshopped pictures of politicians, but they had hope, and more than a few new ideas, and they were determined to make themselves heard.