In April 2010, Bardella read a New York Times Magazine article about Mike Allen, Politico’s tireless news machine. The story examined Allen’s must-read morning tip sheet—Playbook—while exploring the quirks that make him a unique Washingtonian.
Bardella had never read anything that so perfectly encapsulated the way Washington really works. He e-mailed the story’s author, Times reporter Mark Leibovich. “You should write a book about this,” Bardella wrote.
Regarded as one of the nation’s top political-profile writers, Leibovich is a rare figure himself. He’s a regular on political Washington’s cocktail circuit but still willing to skewer it. He can get close to prominent subjects while maintaining critical distance and—when appropriate—watch them choke on their own self-image. (See Leibovich’s 2008 profile of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.)
The political hit piece is a classic Washington art form. “I befriend people, and I betray them publicly,” says one veteran Capitol Hill reporter. But when your objective is to protect a congressman’s reputation in the press, Mark Leibovich is about the last reporter you want to hear from.
As it happened, Leibovich’s article about Allen had led to a deal for a book on contemporary Washington culture. Leibovich thanked Bardella for his kind words.
That summer of 2010, Bardella worked with Leibovich on a front-page New York Times story about Issa’s efforts on the Oversight Committee. While the article helped entrench Issa’s political persona, its references to Bardella got staffers talking. At one point, Leibovich described Bardella as “Mr. Issa’s irrepressible spokesman and Mini-Me.”
Bardella had “almost a father/son relationship with Issa,” says one Republican press staffer. Democratic staffers on the committee had already been using “Mini-Me” to describe Bardella, joking that he dressed and even combed his hair like Issa, according to a reporter who covered the committee.
Bardella embraced the attention. On his Facebook page, he linked to a copy of the New York Times story, with the paragraphs about him moved to the top of the article.
Issa says his relationship with Bardella was “as close as I’ve been to any staffer.” Bardella says he considers Issa a father figure: “Darrell and I have talked about this recently. We’re both people who did it by our own playbook. We didn’t do it by how you’re supposed to do things. We forced our own way. And I definitely think he sees a little bit of himself in me.”
In November 2010, voters’ concerns about the sluggish economic recovery and government overreach propelled Republicans back into control of the House. The development would make Issa the Oversight Committee chairman starting in January. The power to subpoena the Obama administration further amplified his visibility.
Shortly after Election Day, Bardella and Leibovich got together. Leibovich was looking for characters for his book—lawmakers, journalists, staffers, and others who personified contemporary Washington. Although the two had previously discussed the possibility of Issa’s participation, Leibovich had a new idea: “I actually think you’re more interesting,” Bardella recalls Leibovich saying.
Bardella didn’t need much convincing. “I was flattered,” he says. “His fascination with me I found fascinating.”
Bardella says he saw the book as a chance to show Americans the guts of the political newsmaking process. “People wonder how the system works—and they should,” he says. He ran the idea past his superiors in Issa’s office and got their blessing.
In phone conversations and meetings in his Oversight Committee office, Bardella discussed with Leibovich his approach to generating press attention. Eventually he figured that instead of telling Leibovich about his job, he could show him. In November 2010, Bardella began forwarding to Leibovich e-mails he had received from other reporters without the knowledge of the senders.
At the same time, another reporter—Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker—was asking for face time with Issa. Lizza’s request sparked internal debate; some staffers insisted the liberal publication was unlikely to publish anything positive about a Republican known for shooting spitballs at Obama. But Bardella couldn’t resist. Bardella and some colleagues convinced his boss to participate in the story.
As Lizza reported his article, Bardella became entangled in a media dispute. In January, the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz posted a correction to a November story in which he mistakenly attributed some Bardella comments to Issa. Kurtz later claimed that Bardella had “impersonated the congressman.” Bardella denies this. He says he sent Kurtz an e-mail after their conversation to clarify that Kurtz had interviewed Bardella, not Issa.
Several days later, the Lizza piece landed. The decision to take part in the story had backfired: Rather than focusing on Issa’s Oversight Committee agenda as Bardella had hoped, Lizza walked the reader through Issa’s shadowy past: the gun charge, the auto-theft-related charges, the suspicion of arson.
For Beltway insiders, the passages attributed to Bardella were equally explosive. With Lizza’s audio recorder in sight, Bardella said the following:
“Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. . . .
“My goal is very simple. . . . I’m going to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure. I’m going to focus like a laser beam on the 500 people here who care about this crap, and that’s it. . . .”
In a follow-up story, Lizza quoted Bardella mocking reporters and news producers for “embarrassingly like begging to have Darrell on.”
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