MEDIA NOVEMBER 15, 2013
The long-awaited Politico Magazine has finally arrived—at least if you live in Washington, (preferably near a Starbucks, where they are freely available). Several months ago, when I interviewed John Harris and Jim VandeHei, the two men who run Politico, Harris told me that the magazine’s aim was to move “the conversation in more lasting ways [than Politico does, as a daily publication].” As a nod in that direction, they hired Susan Glasser, then the highly respected editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Harris also told me, however, that he “thinks it’s important to note that we are not trying to enter the national magazine distribution derby.” The new product will be delivered exclusively in Washington D.C. (and several New York locations), although, admittedly, the magazine’s website is pretty catchy and may secure a broader readership.
It’s hard to judge a magazine by one issue. But in the hyperkinetic spirit of Politico, I’m not going to let that logic stop me: The inaugural edition’s major problem is a result of the same tension that Harris (unintentionally) alluded to. Is it a national magazine that will run the same stories that The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The New Republic would run, as Harris told me he hoped it would? Or is it an insider publication meant for Washingtonians, whether they are lobbyists, politicians, or fellow-journalists?
Judging by issue #1 the editors haven’t quite made up their mind.
The cover story, by Politico reporter Glenn Thrush, is a good example. The piece, which describes how cabinet secretaries have fallen in status in 21st century Washington, begins with the pathos-laden tail of Steven Chu, who came to town to become Barack Obama’s first Energy Secretary and found himself bossed around by various White House aides, and criticized for his political naïveté. (There is also an interview with Chu).
The story begins like a good, solid magazine piece, with a tight, writerly focus on Chu and his travails. But midway through it abruptly becomes your typical Politico article—full of dishy details that may or may not have anything to do with anything. Rather than focusing on why Obama’s cabinet is different than other cabinets, or trying to develop Chu as a character, Thrush turns to observations about Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates. The result is a better written version of a Bob Woodward book, with various little bits of gossip, none of them having to do with Chu’s predicament. The fact that Gates disagreed with Obama on foreign policy doesn’t really relate to the larger points about Obama’s governing that Thrush is making. Nor does Clinton’s refusal to do Sunday shows have much to do with the decline of Cabinet government, and the degree to which White House hands boss around cabinet secretaries.
Thrush eventually turns to the unhappy tenure of Kathleen Sebelius, which seem especially apt given Sebelius’ role in the ongoing Obamacare rollout debacle. But then he ends up saying that the disastrous rollout was not the result of any decline of the cabinet. Nor, contra Thrush, is it a “paradox” that “the president who forcefully pushed through the largest expansion of the federal government in generations has been significantly less zealous in overseeing its operation.” In all, the piece feels like a regular Politico story, with all that entails: catchy scooplets, some fine reporting, and analysis that doesn’t add up to much that feels significant.
The only story in the magazine that does feel like an actual magazine story is Jason Zengerle’s interesting profile of Mitch McConnell. Indeed, it is the type of profile that Zengerle would have written for GQ or New York or The New Republic, all of which he did used to pen excellent stuff for. Robert Draper’s oral history of the government shutdown has some good quotes, but it is pretty far in the weeds, even for political junkies. Meanwhile, Rosa Brooks’s piece on “Obama and the Generals” covers well-trodden ground. The packages on cities and energy, which are presumably aimed at advertisers as much as readers, may invoke some hackles from people who dislike Politico. To the magazine’s credit, however, many of the individual pieces are written by smart people (Zengerle, Daniel Yergin) and are not noticeably different from the packages that, say, The Atlantic runs.
I was all set to mock the magazine for running op-eds by Joe Lieberman and Rich Lowry, but those pieces are not in the actual issue, despite being featured on the magazine’s website. (As for the fashion review of various politicians’s styles by Ada Calhoun and Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, which also appears on the website, I wasn’t entirely certain that it was tongue-in-cheek, but if so, bravo).
The biggest disappointment is the look of the darn thing. The text is nicely spaced and pleasant to read. But the art is baffling: The image accompanying Thrush’s cabinet story seems to be making precisely the opposite point as both the piece itself and the cover. While the story describes how cabinet members find themselves shut out of the Oval Office the illustration—in good Beltway-fanboy fashion—depicts the officials hanging out….in the Oval Office! The cover is a bigger problem. The 'Letter From the Editor' has a photo caption that reads, "The Politico Magazine staff picks the first cover." Perhaps democracy is not the best form of editorial government: As Erik Wemple points out, it does not make you want to pick up a copy. That seems like an especially dangerous thing for a non-subscription publication that depends on people literally bending down to pick it up at Starbucks.
In fact, though, the look may be the key to understanding the thing: It looks like the kind of expensively-produced glossy that gets pressed onto captive audiences at an upscale trade convention. Or on an airplane. Alas, as one of my colleagues joked, it may well be the real in-flight magazine of Air Force One.