HOW EXACTLY did Joe Trippi end up here: in a suit, on a Segway, racing Karl Rove through the ceremonial plaza of the NASCAR Hall of Fame? What turns does a man’s life have to take? Which cosmic forces must collide? Eight years ago, Trippi masterminded Howard Dean’s liberal fever dream of a campaign; two years ago, he maneuvered Jerry Brown’s old bones back into office in California. He has always been among the most passionate of Democratic strategists, the truest of true believers—he’s the guy who dropped out of college a few credits shy of graduation to work for Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign, who buried his father with Walter Mondale memorabilia tucked into the casket.
And yet, there he was in early September, yukking it up with Karl on matching Segways on Fox News. Fox News! “You gotta see the tape,” Trippi tells me, excitedly. “Right before they gave us the signal to go, Karl turns to me and says, ‘Hey now, let’s not go too fast.’ And I turned to him and went, ‘Yeah, you’re right, let’s not go too fast.’ And then I floored it. I sandbagged him. It wasn’t fair.”
So there is still hope.
Trippi’s relationship with Fox began near the end of 2010, when he ran into Roger Ailes after doing a guest-spot on the network. “At the time, there was a big unofficial boycott of Democrats going on Fox, and I never understood it,” Trippi explains, “because my reading of the numbers is that more Democrats and independents watch Fox than CNN and MSNBC. ... No, no, wait. Pew just did a study that showed that thirty percent of Fox’s audience are Democrats.” (He made this point to me about 49 times.) “And if you do the math,” which of course he has, “Fox has two million people watching, and MSNBC has six hundred thousand. So for MSNBC to have more Democrats watching, every single person watching MSNBC would have to be a Democrat. So it never made much sense to not have people arguing the progressive side of things to that audience.” He expressed this opinion to Ailes, complete with statistics, “and one conversation led to another and the next thing I knew I was...” He trails off. Say it, Joe: A Fox News contributor.
And? “And it’s the best experience I’ve ever had.” He laughs nervously. “I’m gonna get so much shit for that.”
I’VE KNOWN JOE TRIPPI for years, long enough to know that happiness isn’t his default. He can work himself up into a tortured, insecure lather about anything: who hates him, did he just say a stupid thing, should he get his teeth fixed. That’s part of his charm. But when I talked to him recently, he seemed different, calmer. “No, I’m happy,” he said. “I really am.”
Trippi has been in politics his whole life, but he didn’t get famous until 2004, when he managed the presidential campaign of a testy doctor from Vermont. Trippi practically invented Howard Dean, not to mention the Internet as a fund-raising tool, a model that paved the way for President Obama’s spectacular grassroots buckraking in 2008. But in many ways, when the Dean campaign for president ended, Trippi crashed as spectacularly as his candidate did.
“It was bad,” Trippi told me. “I would say I was ‘in the darks’ for a good two years. First of all, my health was bad. I didn’t realize how bad it was, but it was bad.” He had always battled severe diabetes, and a campaign is no place to be a diabetic, what with the hours, the junk food, the stress. And Joe’s own slovenly habits—he was a case-a-day Diet Pepsi guy who chewed Skoal for breakfast—almost did him in. (Howard, the doctor, was pretty much oblivious.)
Then, shortly after he dragged himself back to his farm in Maryland, Trippi discovered he had a rare form of neuropathy that made him physically sensitive to just about everything: “It’s like, with your nerves? They feel pressure; they feel hot and cold. With me, it was like spikes going through me. Like, when you shake someone’s hand, you feel a little pressure. I’d feel spikes going through me. If you walk out the door and it’s a cold, brisk wind, you feel the cold. I’d feel spikes going through me.”
“And I thought I was gonna kill myself. I was, like, suicidal. After about three months with the spikes, I was gonna kill myself. But I had three kids that still hadn’t gone through college, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll kill myself after I get them through college.’” I stopped him—I really didn’t want to believe him. “No, I mean it,” he says. “That’s what I was gonna do.”
What saved him—and he’s just as serious about this—was the example set by Bill Clinton. Trippi saw how Clinton cleaned up after surviving quadruple bypass surgery in 2004, and he thought, if that guy can do it, so can I. “That’s when I got religion,” Trippi says. He started working out every day. He lost 52 pounds. He even became a vegan like Bill. “I just went cold turkey [on my crappy habits] and did it for, like, two years,” he explains, “and somewhere in there, the neuropathy went away. It just went away, which is very rare that that happens.”
The changes weren’t merely corporeal; he began to reevaluate his entire career—his whole deeply ingrained sense of mission. “I still go out every day trying to change the world, but I just got to the point where I had to start ... .” He stammers. “I had put ‘changing things’ first for sooo long that it nearly killed me. And at some point, I had to say, ‘Wait, you gotta start putting your health first.’ ... And so I stopped hating the other side. I got over hating people in politics. And I’m not worried about what people think of me anymore.”
LIFE AT AMERICA’S number one cable news network isn’t without its comforts. There’s the bunking down in hotels across the country with his new pals, Greta, Brit, Sean, and Karl—all of whom he personally likes very much, especially Karl, since “we have very similar ways at looking at numbers and calculating precincts and stuff.” There are the group trips to the gym. And as everyone knows, no network does makeup like Fox.
But there are certain indignities that accompany life as the house Democrat on Fox. Like being spoofed on “Saturday Night Live” for always being cut off by Greta Van Susteren (“and Greta is the only one who doesn’t cut me off!”). Or being told he has “no conscience” (over and over) by Sean Hannity. There’s also the flack he has to take from the left, particularly from former Deaniacs who wonder if he’s in it just for the paycheck. The paycheck? This is a guy who lost money doing the Dean campaign, because he believed in Dean too much to charge him. It’s also a guy who lives on 47 acres on Maryland’s eastern shore (down the road from Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s spreads) and who has offices in the Bay Area and London, from which he runs his highly lucrative foreign consulting business, a gravy train he’s been on for some time.
Although he acknowledges why some of his former comrades would be pissed, he thinks they’re missing the bigger point. “Look, I was always a contranarian [sic],” he told me. “I don’t just agree to do whatever’s coming from on high.” But when people on Fox say ridiculous things? Like Obama is a socialist born in Kenya? Don’t you want to slap them? “You know, a lot of this heated rhetoric on both sides, I was a part of it. I used to do that! I was one of the people out there saying George Bush was a liar. Frankly, it’s the same kind of stuff you see a lot of Republicans saying about Obama. I’d like to think I’ve matured a little bit.”
That kind of rationalization is part of Trippi’s allure to Fox News. On air, he rarely takes the bait, never outshouts the shouters, never acquiesces to the standard formula of cable news: that he who is most obnoxious wins. He just wants to run through the latest polling data and make a few points that conservatives might not have entertained. Angst isn’t his thing anymore.
But under the right circumstances, it could be. “Hillary...,” he says dreamily. “Everybody asks me, would you ever do another presidential? She’s somebody I’d do it for. I don’t know that the Clintons would have me, but I would definitely help her if she decided to go.”
Lisa DePaulo wrote for The New Republic from the Democratic Convention. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “His Happy Place: How Fox News saved Joe Trippi.”