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HuffPost Hill Turns 5

The newsletter "actually succeeds" at being funny about politics.
HuffPost Hill Turns 5
Nelson in the Huffington Post's DC office. Delaney's behind him on the phone.

When US Senator Rand Paul got testy with a female reporter, HuffPost Hill‘s headline was “Libertarian Not Good With Women.” When President Obama granted an audience to the Huffington Post, the newsletter sold it as “Noted Academic And Drug User Sits For Interview.” And when a power outage darkened DC buildings earlier this month, its headline was “Washington Beset By Metaphor.”

HuffPost Hill is an email newsletter mostly written by reporter Eliot Nelson that hits inboxes on weekday evenings, whether Congress is in session or not. It sprinkles “Comfort Food” (“Thieving octopus steals camera“) and a daily “Downer” courtesy of its editor, HuffPost reporter Arthur Delaney (“A bill in the Missouri state legislature wants to control poor people’s food choices” among the news of day, delivered with headlines like “CONGRESSMAN WANTS TO TAKE PORN FROM OUR HARDWORKING PUBLIC SERVANTS.”

“I read it most every day,” says Michael Steel, press secretary to House Speaker John Boehner. The email is “funny and well-written,” Steel says, and “whether or not you agree with their particular point of view, it’s an enjoyable read with fun wordplay and pop-cultural references.” Steel figures often in HuffPost Hill’s sub-beat on haircuts, and says he recently emailed the authors because he appreciated that they referenced the 1979 film The Warriors.

“HuffPost Hill is one of the hidden jewels of political writing—especially political writing that tries to be funny,” says Mark Leibovich, the New York Times‘ chief national correspondent. “This actually succeeds.”

Leibovich says he sometimes misses the newsletter because it “comes out at a sucky time.” It usually hits around 5 or 6 PM, and Nelson and Delaney say they’ve been trying to get it out a little earlier; Delaney says his wife knows he’s on his way home when it arrives. It turns five years old on Sunday, April 19 (Nelson bemoans the missed opportunity of launching on 4/20), and the Huffington Post itself turns ten this year. This conversation, which took place in HuffPost’s DC offices, has been lightly edited.

So take me through your process of collecting stuff for this. Are you looking for things you can riff on? Are you looking for news?

Eliot Nelson: From the outset we wanted it to be a pretty good overview of the day’s political news—and there have been a few occasions where the news has been so awful, like with the Newtown shootings, that we didn’t even bother trying to. So I think that’s the first priority is making sure that we touch most of the basic events of the day. We try to also get a good range of campaign news, Hill news and the like. Obviously we do beeline for some more frivolous stories that might be easier to vamp on.

I think sometimes some of the more enjoyable stuff or the stuff that makes us a worthwhile endeavor is when we can maybe inject a little DC humor and perspective about it. The government forced GE to spin off some part of its financial wing the other day as a result of Dodd-Frank. I think we quipped that all the authors of Dodd Frank were celebrating the occasion in their lobbying offices .

Arthur Delaney: I think you understand the mindset of Hill people.

Nelson: Maybe so, but I think you just have to live in Washington to get that. I think there’s this sort of osmosis, and it’s just sort of helpful to just sort of connect the dots. I think if you understand why Sidwell Friends might be a cause for people leaving government then I think you have a pretty good sense of how Washington works.

Who’s the audience for it? It can read as if it’s for people who despise politics.

Nelson: Well, I think that’s a lot of people in politics, too. There’s just that psychological mechanism where I think a lot of people want to distance themselves from it or central players in it. But in terms of the target audience, it’s first and foremost an outlet for folks involved in politics at any level. It’s also folks with just a deeper interest in politics, too.

Are you writing with a certain type of person in mind? Can people buy their way in?

Nelson: Um, yeah. I’m glad you asked. No, I mean there have been a few times when we have poked at an individual person but I think by and large we just more want to target people who have a 400-level understanding or interest in politics. That will probably be lobbyists and staffers and journalists, but there are a lot of die-hard political junkies out there who understand what you mean when you talk about cloture votes and slow-walking something. For them, too. I don’t want those people to be excluded by this.

That brings me to something I was curious about. HuffPost Hill can be very critical, but I don’t remember it ever being nasty. What tone do you strive for when you write this thing?

Nelson: Hopefully something dry but not resigned. I hope that people read this and don’t think that we get a little agitated about some of this stuff. There’s a certain extent to which anyone who’s operating in this sphere has to learn to digest some of this stuff and not get so bent out of shape each day that you can’t continue to operate.

When [former Massachusetts Governor] Deval Patrick takes a job at Bain, that certainly raises eyebrows. With something like that you want to convey a degree of at least suspicion about that development. But at the same time, one of my favorite terms that’s used in DC is the word “transition.” You see it in Playbook, it’s used to describe career shifts that can often be ethically dubious but it gives it this sound as if it’s something as natural as turtle hatchlings scampering to the ocean.

“So and so’s chief of staff is transitioning to Purple Strategies.” That term conveys as if that’s OK, as if that’s part of life. Hopefully our tone is such that we’re not necessarily pleased about it.

This sounds almost like a work of anthropology.

Nelson: A joke that I’m trying to formulate today, there was a duck and its ducklings that somehow found their way to downtown DC.

Delaney: It was at the Washington Post building.

That’s a bad place for birds.

Nelson: I’m trying to work on a joke, I wonder what lobbyist the ducks retained for their fly-in. Sometimes we’ll play stupid. But if by being so stupid and naive about it we convey a certain thing about Washington, then that’s great.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously the news editor and lead media reporter for the Poynter Institute, arts editor for the now completely vanished TBD.com, and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.