Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy

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MEDIA FEBRUARY 12, 2013

Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy A tale of striving and success in modern-day Washington

The first time I interviewed Ezra Klein, the 28-year-old prince of D.C. media, he brought me a sandwich: prosciutto on a poppy-seed baguette. (Also, chips and a beverage.) We were in the back of a chauffeured black town car, sent by the Washington Speakers Bureau, to take Klein from his office at The Washington Post, across the river, to a speaking event at the Northern Virginia Community College. There, he would give a talk on U.S. politics. “I have a little spiel I do at these,” he told me. “The one I like to do is called ‘Why Washington is Horrible (in Charts),’ but they don’t have PowerPoint capability, so I’m doing a modified version.”

The point was, we were not going to eat for a while, and Klein took care to bring us dinner. (He also took care to stipulate that, should my barometer of professional ethics require it, I could pay him back for said sandwich, which I did.) “Did you read that New York Times Magazine article on decision fatigue?” he asked me, unwrapping his sandwich. “They ran this experiment where the judges would get hungry, and if you came up to the judge right before lunch, you never got parole; if you came up right after, you always got parole. The numbers were unbelievable! So now I’ve become more respectful of the way my stomach runs my brain.” He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed in silence, rushing and elongating his neck as if he would run out of air before he swallowed.

“Why Washington Is Horrible (in Charts)” is more than a spiel; it is Klein’s grand theory of politics, the media, and history. “One of my big beliefs about Washington is that we highly overstate the power of individuals and highly underrate seeing Washington as a system, in general, but, in particular, we highly underrate the power of Congress,” Klein began as we wheeled through the city. He placed particular blame on the media for latching onto trivial matters and overlooking the sticky, more complicated issues of how the government actually works. “I think the focus on gaffes is a deep embarrassment, like, a deep embarrassment, and a systemic failure on the media’s part,” he says. “And the danger of that is that, when you don’t tell people how a machine works, when it’s broke, they don’t know how to fix it. And I think that’s begun to happen.”

The audience for having someone explain Washington’s often esoteric policy debates has proved to be far larger than anyone could have anticipated a decade ago, when Klein first started blogging, and he has franchised himself to keep pace. His Wonkblog, which started out as a solo venture and has since swollen to include a staff of five, has arguably become the Post’s most successful project, bringing in over four million page views every month. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” one of Klein’s Post colleagues told me. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” On top of this, Klein writes a regular column for the print edition of the Post, as well as long features for The New Yorker. He is a columnist for Bloomberg View. He has a book deal. He frequently subs in for Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, where he is also on contract as a contributor, and, recently, there were rumors that Klein was on track to get his own show on the channel. (Klein dismisses this notion, saying Wonkblog is his priority.)

By all accounts, he is doing the underlying job—understanding complex policy and translating it for the interested layman—well. Scholars, policy professionals, and journalists respect him, as do a handful of fellow wonks in the West Wing. “His voice matters a lot,” says a White House official. “The president talks to Ezra.” “I’ll put it this way,” says Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, “when I’m trying to get a quick handle on some currently hot policy, on the facts and the numbers, I very often find that I’m going to Ezra’s blog.”


 

That Klein has achieved this kind of success by age 28 is a fact that thrills his fans and rankles his detractors. (Wonkette once referred to him as a “child typist.”) It also puts him in the pantheon of hungry young men who have moved to Washington and shape-shifted, whether consciously or not, into something that’s more palatable to the city’s establishment. The blogger who, in 2008, tweeted, “fuck tim russert. fuck him with a spiky acid-tipped dick,” now styles himself as the evenhanded, empirically driven adult in a room of squabbling, stubborn children. Even his critique of Washington, grounded in data and charts and graphs, is establishment to the core: This place, he says, is not like it used to be.

“There are critiques that bother me, but that isn’t one of them,” he told me when I asked him about people’s obsession with his age. We sat nibbling on cookies in a bare, garishly lit greenroom, waiting for Klein to go on stage at the community college. “The idea that I shouldn’t do my work because I’m twenty-eight, as opposed to forty-six, does not strike me as a compelling critique.” But he is aware of his age, and, despite the high-profile job, the mortgage, and the wife, Klein says he intentionally tries to project a youthful image. “I wear jeans, not suits, for instance,” he says. Given that most of his peers have a different perception—“Ezra has kind of a dorky dad vibe,” said one friend—Klein’s playing up his youth explains why he is especially beloved by adults. When he finally came on stage, the audience was filled with people who could at least have been Klein’s parents, and they loved him: He was the good grandson delivering an intelligent and schticky bar mitzvah speech.

The presidential election was less than two weeks away, and Klein asked the crowd to consider a Mitt Romney victory, which they promptly booed. “You haven’t even seen him be president yet!” he exclaimed, in mock shock. “OK, let’s say his first act in office is the Give Ezra Klein Twenty-Five Million Dollars in Perpetuity Act of 2013.” The crowd ate it up. “See?” Klein said, waiting for the laughter to die down. “He’s not as bad as you think!” More laughter. Klein went on for an hour, replacing his charts with what he called “air graphing.” He talked about how Congress would likely block the Ezra Klein Act and, given the way the U.S. government is set up, leave the president with no recourse; he talked about the filibuster, about elections and the history of the devolution of the U.S. Congress, and he scolded the media for lying to this very audience, day in, day out.

“I couldn’t believe he was twenty-eight!” an older woman named Deb said when the Q&A was over and the audience began to trickle out. “I said to Judy, I said, ‘He must be brilliant! He must read all the time!’”

“I think he’s great! I read him in the Post,” added her friend Fran. “I’ve never read his blog, but I will!”

Then they swapped pictures of their grandchildren and lamented the fact that Klein was already married: A friend wanted her daughter to marry him.

Out in the lobby, Klein posed for photos and signed autographs, which, he later clarified, was unusual. A young man named Albert asked Klein for career tips. “My only advice is to try to get the job that’s most like the job you want, rather than the one that’s more prestigious,” Klein said. “Always try to be the talent.”

Klein’s office is a spare cubicle on the fifth floor of The Washington Post building; a sign saying “WONKPOD” dangles from the tiled ceiling. When he works, Klein rarely looks up from his computer and his knee rarely stops bouncing. He is usually on the phone, listening and banging away at his keyboard with two index fingers, in the hunt-and-peck fashion. Occasionally, he walks over to the TV mini-studio in the newsroom to “do a hit” for MSNBC. He is a polished, fluent speaker, but while he waits to come on, he sits perfectly still, his hands clasped on the table in front of him, staring straight ahead at the camera and breathing almost yogically. I watched him do this for a good five minutes as his appearance kept getting pushed back. He didn’t flinch. “I tease him that he is like Mork,” says Kelly Johnson, who edits his Post column. “He arrived on the planet as perfectly formed Ezra!”

He didn’t. Growing up in Irvine, California, where his father was a math professor, Klein was—in his own words—“a chunky nerd.” He was also a lousy student, graduating high school with a 2.2 GPA. But he read a lot, mostly bad science fiction. He devoured, for example, the entire Dragonriders of Pern series, but none of The Lord of the Rings. (Dragonriders of Pern consists of two dozen books about how the residents of the planet Pern commune telepathically with intelligent dragons to fight showers of a corrosive spore called “Thread.”)

At the University of California, Santa Cruz—the only school that would accept him—Klein didn’t quite fit in. The kid who had been reading Noam Chomsky’s 9/11 in high school was a moderate here, and he supported the Iraq War on a very anti-war campus. Klein applied to the student newspaper, and was rejected. Sophomore year, he applied to an internship at The American Prospect, and was rejected. He applied to be a reporter-researcher at The New Republic, and didn’t get that either. He tried to help out Gary Hart, who pondered a presidential bid in 2004, and the day after he drove him around traffic-clogged San Francisco, Hart decided not to run.

Klein has spun these youthful misfires into a compelling mythology of humility and good fortune, a reason not to begrudge him his success. “I always think that I’m very, very lucky in the opportunities I’ve screwed up for myself,” he told me. What he’s glossing over, of course, is that he’s always been smart and curious; he could smell opportunity; and when he wanted to, he’d work. At Santa Cruz, Klein channeled his intellectual dissatisfaction into starting a blog. He did a good enough job on it that he was brought on by Jesse Taylor to join him at Pandagon, and, when Hart pulled the plug on his run, one of Klein’s readers, Joe Trippi, invited him to work for the Howard Dean campaign. Unsatisfied at Santa Cruz, Klein transferred to UCLA and picked political science as his major while continuing to blog. “Since my work is all in politics, what I learn and do feeds nicely into my classes, vastly diminishing the amount of work I need to do for them,” he explained in an interview at the time. “I’m done by five, like everybody else.”

By the time John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, Klein was drawing 25,000 viewers a month, figures that, for the time and for a college blogger, were fairly impressive. Back then, he was campaigning for Kerry and was openly partisan. If Kerry won, he said, there would be “days and days of revelry,” and if the spoils went to Bush, then “depression. Loss of respect for countrymen.” The blog archives do not survive, but if an interview he gave to LAist in November 2004 is any guide, his voice is recognizable: confident, overwrought, and highly self-aware. He was also a little more fratty. Asked what kind of car he drives, Klein replied, archly, “A bright blue Ford Focus hatchback. Yeah, I’m bangin.’ ”

He became part of a crew of bloggers, all of them young men, most of them still in college, who were essentially the liberal guerrilla underground during the Bush years: They were disgusted by Bush’s policies and disconnected from the enfeebled Democratic establishment. The mainstream media, which they felt had abetted both Al Gore’s defeat and Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, were particularly villainous in their eyes—little more than stenographers and scandal hounds.

“What the blogosphere did with newspaper column analysis is make fun of how horrible it was,” says David Weigel, Klein’s friend and fellow member of what came to be known as the Juicebox Mafia. “There were columnists who, even with all their access, which you assumed they had, were just completely lazy and misinformed. And that was the opposite of the blogosphere. The only way to succeed in the blogosphere was actually to shoot at the groin of whoever was bigger than you.” Almost everyone came in for derision: George Will, David Brooks, David Broder. The latter became synonymous with high-minded appeals for bipartisanship, or “High Broderism.” Klein and co. were far less interested in finding compromise than in their side winning.

The rebellion was also largely about data, about relying on studies and numbers instead of “gut” (that favorite Bush word) to solve policy problems. “I don’t really like writing defenses of ‘comparative effectiveness review,’ ” Klein once wrote. “It makes me despair for our country.” Often, the dorkiness went down with a spoonful of irreverence, like in posts titled “The ‘Purple Nurple’ Theory of International Relations.”


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When these young men moved to Washington—Klein crammed enough classes into a summer to get his degree and run off to join The American Prospect in 2005—they rented houses together where they sat in boyish semi-filth and blogged. The Times noticed, and swooned. But Klein would soon break away decisively from the rest. Brian Beutler, another blogger from the crew who was then Klein’s roommate, recalls how ambitious Klein was. “We all worked pretty hard, but he, far and away, had the most regular, strongest, most consistent work ethic,” Beutler says. “He was more proactive about networking. It’s not really that he had a plan of action, but he was constantly positioning himself well to have a consistent upward trajectory.”

And he was doing good work, particularly on health care, making sense of a controversial and highly politicized topic well before the issue became national news. In 2009, the Post took notice and, looking to bring in some new media talent, hired Klein. Once there, it didn’t take him long to figure out how to adapt to the customs of elite Washington: One must be nice and above it all. Klein now says that he will not write a negative book review. “Because if you’ve gone through the trouble to write a book? And I just don’t think it’s that good?” Klein told me, breaking into his occasional habit of lilting at the end of each clause. “I’m not going to shit on your work. I just won’t review it. This is a rule James Fallows has that I’ve adopted. Whom I really respect, by the way.” (For the record, the one negative book review Klein still stands by is of Mark Penn’s book, Microtrends, which, Klein maintains, “is a really horrible book.” “The statistics in it were all wrong for a pollster?” Klein says. “It was, like, one big tangle of correlation-causation errors.” Then he added: “I mean, you asked, so please don’t make it seem like I’m sitting in this car being like, ‘And another fucking thing about Mark Penn.’ ”)

Klein explains the nice policy this way: Unkind writing is unthoughtful writing. “I used to be meaner,” he says, because “you don’t think of people as people when you don’t think they’re reading you.” These days, he says the scale of his audience and his platform have given him the luxury not to write “like that” anymore.

His disavowal of party is particularly conspicuous. Klein, who came up through the progressive media and is, according to public records, a registered Democrat, insists on portraying himself as someone driven purely by powerful, un-ideological currents of data. “I’m not afraid to tell people where I come down,” he told me that October night in the town car. “But it’s entirely possible for me to imagine a Republican president who is not irresponsible on policy. It could even be Mitt Romney, who governed more in the realm of a George H. W. Bush. And all of a sudden, a lot of people who think they agree with me on everything would find that they don’t.”

The columnist who he feels achieves this platonic evenhandedness best is The New York Times’s David Brooks. “In the course of a pretty short column, he is able to convey the other side’s positions back to them in a way they would recognize,” Klein says. The fact that Klein feels he has largely achieved this state is a major point of pride, and he says it makes his criticism of policy more weighty. What he didn’t mention was that, four years earlier, he wrote a blog post titled “The Pitfalls of Making David Brooks Your Guy.”

Curiously, the nice, adult Ezra is closer to his nature than his occasionally spiky self of yore. “He’s never been a firebrand,” says Beutler. He was simply emulating the accepted groin-targeting ethos of his cohort. Now that he doesn’t have to act like that, he can navigate the D.C. social scene in a way that comes more naturally to him.

“Ezra is an incredible operator,” says one prominent Washington editor. “He is always looking upward at things. You only have to watch him work a party. He moves right to the most important people there.” One friend saw Klein and his wife, New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey, at an event for last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and noted that they spent most of the night talking to Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic adviser.

All of this has allowed Klein to slip easily into the Washington establishment, leaving the rest of his old blogging crew merely doing well, though they are still close. “I had no conception of, or ambition of, trying to run a multimedia empire,” says Matthew Yglesias, a good friend of Klein’s who was also the closest thing he had to a rival. “He obviously wanted much, much more.”

When I asked Yglesias, who now works at Slate, if he had any funny stories about Klein, he stopped to think. After a while, he said, “You know, Ezra’s not really a funny guy. He’s super-controlled.” Weigel was similarly stumped, recalling adult-like dinner parties at Ezra and Annie’s for about as long as he’s known him. “I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen him drunk,” Weigel said. “No. No, I haven’t.”


 

When Klein talks about Wonkblog, he sounds like an earnest business school student selling his start-up. It is a service, a product, a brand. He thinks about market share. (“A couple years ago, policy was an underserved market.”) He thinks about his client base. (He speaks often of “my readers,” about what they want, what they need, and how he can best serve them.) He thinks about productivity. (He reads far less media and blogs these days, he says, because “I just don’t find the margin in that so great?”) He is wary of growing too big, too fast, because “I actually think overly quick expansion can kill the product.” When I asked Klein if he considers himself an entrepreneur, he demurred. “If I can say that without sounding self-congratulatory, because ‘entrepreneurial’ is sort of a word we’ve imbued with a kind of a pathos,” he hesitated. “But yes, I mean, fair enough.”

That he thinks assiduously about Brand Ezra is hardly surprising. What’s made him so successful so fast aren’t just his analytical chops—plenty of others have those, too—it is also the idea of Klein himself, the nice, rational, incongruously handsome nerd, the kid you want explaining your budget policy and marrying your daughter. His predecessors, the Brookses and Russerts he mocked on the way up, were talented but mostly anonymous youngsters at the beginning of their careers. They didn’t have Twitter to disseminate their work to a broader audience. They weren’t treated like celebrities with pictures of their faces plastered atop their blogs, as was once the case with Klein. Washington has always fetishized wunderkinds—Andrew Sullivan became editor of this magazine at age 28—but, mostly because the technology didn’t exist, it was impossible to package them as effectively as Klein has been packaged. He is a product, the kind an old organization like the Post can use to revive its flagging legacy.

But now that he is part of the establishment, Klein seems all too aware that the gaffe-driven media has set its sights on him. The guests at his wedding, for example, recall the instruction, oft repeated, not to tweet from the event. “He’s grown so quickly, he probably feels vulnerable,” says Johnson, his editor.

“I tease him that he is like Mork,” says his editor at the Post. “He arrived on the planet as perfectly formed Ezra!”

Before agreeing to an interview, Klein wanted to meet and discuss what this story would look like. I was not to speak to his family or to his wife. Before I arrived at the Wonkpod, he sent me an e-mail warning me that the Post bigwigs prohibited me from talking to anyone in the newsroom. At one point, he turned around and said, “Can you see my screen?” “My e-mails,” he added sternly, “are off the record.” So were his phone conversations and the names of the people he spoke to throughout the day. He was also worried about revealing the name of an economist at a conservative think tank he considers to be “an intense thinker,” his habit of watching “Battlestar Galactica” in the evenings, as well as his love of Christmas. Every time I stepped away from the Wonkpod, Klein would needle me about how I’d missed the best, most “humanizing” moment for my story. 

I noted that the process of being profiled seemed to make him nervous. “Of course, it makes me nervous!” Klein exclaimed. “You know what we do, right?” (By “we,” he meant journalists.) “We take people and we take their stories away from them and refashion them into the format that will make the best article.” The New Republic, he noted, was especially guilty of making their profile subjects look bad, which he was worried would happen to him. “You seem great, but there’s no reason not to be careful,” he said, his frustration herniating through the professorial polish, his voice going tense. “I think journalists are completely irresponsible about how they use people and how they use quotes. All the time.”

“You’re a journalist, right?” I asked him.

“I am,” he agreed. “And I try to be responsible about it.” But by taking the things people told us and spinning them out of context, Klein said, we journalists undermined our own arguments for why people should go on the record with us.

“Do your colleagues here do this?” I asked him, gesturing to the newsroom around him.

“I think everybody that does campaign reporting does this,” he said curtly. “All the time.”

I pointed out that, in spite of his loathing of being subjected to the journalistic gaze, he had agreed to be profiled not only by me, but also by New York magazinesimultaneously. The “people above me” he said, “seem to think it’s a good idea.” It would bring in readership, and Klein felt it would be “hypocritical” not to cooperate with the press when he, the press, was constantly asking people to cooperate with him. It was almost too meta to bear. “You’re sitting there taking notes and recording while I’m sitting here taking notes and recording,” he said. “It’s a peculiar situation!”

Klein’s “underbloggers” quietly clacked away on their keyboards, pretending that this exchange wasn’t happening. The eye of one economics reporter nearby periodically peeked out from behind his cubicle wall. It was obvious that his colleagues were listening.

Klein later told me that he found our exchange “slightly threatening.”

“Don’t take it personally,” one of Klein’s friends explained. “He didn’t get this far being casual about his image management.”

Klein and I met one last time, for dinner. After our tense conversation in the Wonkpod, he invited me to his favorite Washington restaurant, Great Wall Szechuan House, on 14th Street. He seemed to have taken what I said seriouslythat if he acted nervous and controlling, he would look nervous and controlling on the pageand I was met with a full charm offensive. The person across the table from me was nice, easy-going Ezra. It was not the good Jewish grandson, or the wonk, or the uptight brand manager; it was my peer, shooting the shit and dropping F-bombs, like any other journalist would, over Chinese and beer. He was still critical of the mainstream media and of the process of being profiled, but he was also suddenly willing to discuss his cooking and his relationshipin the Klein-Lowrey household, he said, he followed recipes religiously, while Annie’s method was “free jazz in the kitchen.”

“We’ve talked a lot, you and I,” Klein told me, reaching for more ma la bean sprouts. He pointed out that, even in a long article, only twelve or so quotes from him will have made it in. Moreover, “there will be some kind of theory in the article, and it won’t be my theory of my life,” he said. “It makes you vulnerable.”


 

So what was his theory of his life? How did he see his success, and what did he plan to do with it? “When I was working at the Prospect, I never thought—I mean, literally, until they called me, it didn’t occur to me that I would work at The Washington Post,” he said.“I thought that, if my career went really well, maybe, maybe I could top out with a newspaper column. Things came faster. So I spend all my timeI worry that this will sound like humble-bragging, and I don’t want it toI spend a lot of my time obsessively trying to figure out how I can work hard enough or figure out the right work to do to basically be worthy of all of it. Because if I’m not worthy of all of it, then it’s kind of a sin.”

He laughed shyly.

For now, though, he was thinking about improving Wonkblog. “I’m not doing enough Q&A’s lately,” he said. “This is a problem.”

This piece has been updated because the print version incorrectly states that Wonkblog brings in over four million unique viewers every month, when in fact it brings in over four million page views every month. We regret the error.

 

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