Mark Leibovich wanted to write a story about Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). That turned into a story about How This Town Works. (More)

This Town, Part II: “How It Works”

This week Morning Feature looks at Mark Leibovich’s new book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital. Yesterday we began with the webs of conflicted interests that D.C. insiders call “Suck Up City.” Today we see how Leibovich’s research sparked a Beltway mini-firestorm that in which a Capitol Hill staffer was shunned, fired, forgiven, and rehired in a span of months. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with whether ordinary Americans can make a town that works for itself also work for us.

Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine. He was previously a national political correspondent for the New York Times and a political style writer for the Washington Post. He lives in This Town and claims to read The Economist, but also admits to lying about it.

“You were had, I was chosen”

When Leibovich brought up the idea of doing a story on Rep. Issa, a colleague told said that would require dealing with the congressman’s brash, young press aide, Kurt Bardella. Leibovich’s first response was “Who the hell is Kurt Bardella?”

Bardella was developing a reputation as a “super-staffer,” Capitol Hill aides who attract media attention because their bosses seem to favor them, because other Hill staffers believe they’re powerful, or perhaps even because they’re known for doing quality work. Bardella had all three “super-staffer” categories covered.

Despite his Italian name and blustery demeanor on the telephone, Bardella is a slender Asian-American who, Leibovich writes, looks less like a ruthless Capitol Hill staffer than like a teenager playing dress-up in a pinstriped suit with matching pocket square. Orphaned in Seoul, Korea as an infant, Bardella was adopted by a couple in Rochester, New York. His parents split when he was three, remarried, and had two more sons. Bardella teased his brothers by saying “You were had, I was chosen.”

At age 10 his stepfather was accepted into a Ph.D program in San Diego and the family moved west, separating Bardella from his adoptive father. Washington is, Leibovich reminds us, a city awash in fatherhood issues. Bardella’s mom would divorce again, bringing the total to three fathers who had abandoned him, and Rep. Issa would eventually come to fill that role.

“The cool kids”

As a teen, Bardella became a political junkie, soaking up George Stephanopoulos’ book All Too Human: A Political Education and then his appearances on ABC’s This Week and Good Morning America. Bardella was also an avid fan of The West Wing. He claims to have no particular political leanings of his own, but skipped college to work for a series of local Republican campaigns in California. There he drew the notice of Steve Danon, a veteran publicist who was hired to work for the campaign of Brian Bilbray, one of 14 Republicans running to replace disgraced Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Bilbray won the primary and the general election and hired Danon to be his chief of staff. Danon, in turn, hired Bardella to be Rep. Bilbray’s press aide.

“When I first came here,” Bardella told Leibovich, “I was standing on the street corner with my suitcase thinking, ‘There’s no way I belong here. This is crazy. I’m going to get eaten alive.'”

But he also quickly noticed The Club. “You can tell that there were certain people that everyone kind of gravitated to. They walked in, and people just knew who they were. I remember thinking, I wonder what it would like to be one of those people. The cool kids.”

“Don’t ever get between a member and a camera”

Soon enough he found out. Bardella sent Stephanopoulos a fan note, saying how much he liked All Too Human. Stephanopoulos wrote back to thank him and invited Bardella to drop by if he was ever in the neighborhood of ABC’s Washington Bureau. Bardella made a point to visit and asked for career advice – which Leibovich calls “effective networking Vaseline” – and Stephanopoulos wished him good luck. Months later, Stephanopoulos called back to ask if Bardella thought the House would pass President Bush’s immigration bill. Bardella said he thought they would, and a few hours later Stephanopoulos quoted “a congressional source” on the story.

Hearing himself quoted was, Bardella said, his “first time playing with live ammunition,” and he liked it. He soon took a job with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) but left within a year. The Senate was too slow. So he camped himself outside the office of Rep. Issa, getting to know the staff and Leibovich writes, “pestered them until they hired him.” Leibovich continues:

I was struck that Bardella and Issa were focused on the approval of the Washington insider types – the ones who are anathema to the populist Tea Party uprising that would sweep Republicans (and Issa) into the majority. Before long, Issa was getting noticed inside The Club. He was living in green rooms. He owed much of this to Kurt, who was getting noticed himself – too much. Kurt had a dangerous (for a staffer) knack for getting his name in print, and an even more dangerous knack (for a staffer) for craving more.

“There’s an expression here on Capitol Hill,” Issa told me. “‘Don’t ever get between a member and a camera.'” That can be particularly harrowing in the case of Issa, who had purchased a T-shirt for Bardella that said: “It’s all about me.”

“That my story is important”

Even so, Bardella formed a close bond with Rep. Issa. Bardella made sure his boss was Big News, so the congressman overlooked most of Bardella’s attention-grabbing. When Leibovich was working on This Town, he considered including Rep. Issa in the story, but Bardella said that would be a nonstarter. Leibovich writes:

And just as well, I figured, because I was really more interested in Kurt, an emblematic super-staffer who was making Washington work for him and trying to move up in The Club. He was a kind of will-to-power orphan who was feverishly devising his persona on the fly. I loved the sheer unabashedness, even jubilance, of Kurt’s networking and ladder climbing and determination to make it in The Club.

Not surprisingly, Bardella also liked the idea:

He also saw a higher purpose to his story. Kurt viewed himself as the truth-teller type, which is of course a dangerous breed in On-Messageville. The notion carries an inherent vanity – that my story is important – that staff-level aides are trained to subvert from day one.

“Am I bcc’ing him on every email I send out? Of course not.”

Bardella first ran into trouble when he accompanied Rep. Issa to Las Vegas and spoke out-of-turn to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. The mentions of “Issa Enterprises” prompted an ethics query from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee that Rep. Issa chaired. Bardella also criticized the Beltway media for printing his press releases word-for-word, a practice that Capitol Hill press aides are supposed to encourage, not belittle. Speaker John Boehner wanted Rep. Issa to fire Bardella, but the congressman refused. Sure, Bardella might go off sometimes, but he also kept Rep. Issa in the news a lot.

The real trouble came when Bardella volunteered to send Leibovich copies of daily emails. Leibovich agreed, thinking the emails would offer a diary-like study of a Hill staffer at work. (Leibovich also believes, reasonably, that the correspondence of elected officials and their staffs should be public record.) Leibovich promised not to reveal anything from or about the emails until his book was published.

But Bardella bragged about being a subject in Leibovich’s book. And he talked about the emails. Soon, in a city where staffers routinely leak classified information to the media, “leaked” emails between reporters and a Capitol Hill press aid became A Very Big Story. The Salon’s Alex Pareene summarized it well:

The self-obsessed, navel-gazing Washington press corps is in a tizzy over the dismissal of a congressman’s communications director (the guy whose job it was to befriend and spin and leak to members of the Washington press corps), who was fired for the crime of sharing journalists’ e-mails with another journalist who is working on a book about the self-obsessed, navel-gazing Washington press corps.

“As seismic as Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston hitting splitsville.”

That’s how Fox New’s Chad Pergram described Rep. Issa firing Bardella. Which was true, perhaps, except for the part where Pitt went on to marry Angelina Jolie and Aniston partnered up with Justin Theroux.

Bardella took a few weeks off, posting frequent Facebook posts with Scripture verses and talking about “self-reflection.” Fired in March, by April he was writing for opinion pieces for Politico, of course. He soon moved on to Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller and, less than six months after he was fired, returned to Capitol Hill as a staffer for … Rep. Issa. As reported by Politico, of course.

Maybe that’s why few people in The Club worry about long-term unemployment….

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Happy Friday!