The Obama 20-Somethings and the Perils of Gossip
This weekend's New York Times Magazine features a long profile of the littlest Obama Administration members: "All the Obama 20-somethings." How do they cope in a world of trashy blogs, constantly trying to derail them with meaningless Facebook scandals?
Our favorite new Obama hottie features prominently in the piece: 30 year-old Alejandra Campoverdi, the assistant to a deputy White House chief of staff who also happens to be a reality TV show contestant and a lingerie model. (In 2004 she appeared on the reality show For the Love of Money and stripped for Maxim.) Her case provides an interesting study in the dynamics of gossip and the Obama 20-somethings. (I guess, early 30somethings count now, too.) Because, believe it or not, we have written much about this accomplished and beautiful person:
Campoverdi had just started her job in the West Wing after the inauguration when Gawker, the gossip blog, posted old pictures of her posing in Maxim and offered an equally tantalizing piece of gossip: The "Maxim babe" was dating the "hottie" speechwriter Jon Favreau. Gawker and other blogs turned the benign tidbit into a story and began speculating on her personal life. (She and Favreau remain friends, though the two are no longer dating.)
(Apparently, she posed in Maxim to pay for college.)
If there's anything we do best, it's turning benign tidbits into stories. And the Obama 20-somethings approach to the media is shaped largely by their fear that every human detail of their lives could somehow escape and become stories in the "real" world of D.C. policyheads. They scrub their Facebook profiles, defriend journalists, refuse to talk about their "boring" social lives and ask journalists not to report they were out partying. Here's how Campovardi deals with it. (Who in real life apparently looks like a "cuter, less sultry version of the woman in the Maxim spread." Call me?):
Like most young Obama staff members, she's wary of the spotlight, more likely to enthuse on the causes she's passionate about (health care, immigration reform) than to talk about her "boring" social life. Even now, with the slightly more relaxed mood in Washington compared to the grind of the campaign trail, young staff members are nervous about upholding the Obama creed of modesty and discretion.
This separation of public service and private persona is a constant theme. Gossip is a threat because it exposes those things which we can all pretend have no impact in the real world until they are exposed and in fact do cause kind of a splash. (See: Jon Favreau's infamous Hillary Clinton Cardboard cut-out groping, which became, in Parker's words, a "silly blog sensation.")
Ashley Parker, writing for the Times, is not allowed to truck in gossip. She uses the technique of reporting other people's reporting to keep her hands clean. Except we see that gossip also shapes the contours of the field that Parker's playing on. Envy is a staple of gossip, and the Obamakids with their sweet jobs and constant New York Times glamor shots "are bound to excite envy:"
There is real tension between those who joined the campaign on Day 1 and the perceived interlopers who came later, especially among the people who felt that they worked hard on the trail and weren't rewarded with top posts.
Sounds juicy! Parker of course doesn't detail this envy, but maybe we can offer a benign tidbit for you to chew on: After profiling Ali Campoverdi, the model/White House assistant, we started receiving tips about her bold ambition and surprising success—leaping from her position as a late-joining campaign intern to White House assistant with no previous political experience. Including: She actually had her eyes set on a position as Michelle Obama's speechwriter; she went from "Ali" to "Alejandra" a few years ago as a move to reconnect with her Latina roots; she never finished her MBA at Northwestern; she is "flirtatious," and "fully aware of her sex appeal when seeking jobs."
Yes, these details—like her Maxim shoot and her fling with Obama's speechwriter—are trashy nuggets which we all love to share and read because humans are terrible people. But they also add up to more than that. The constant Facebook paranoia of these young politicos isn't simply a defense against a malevolent press gone gossip-mad: In scrubbing photos and hiding social networking ties, they're helping to obscure how the whole damn thing works—how one group of 20-somethings get West Wing gigs and fawning profiles in the New York Times while another group languishes in the Department of Interior. And in refusing to delve into the petty squabbles behind all this, the press helps them.
Another benign tidbit: In addition to Ali Campoverdi, the piece heavily features 24 year-old Eric Lesser, David Axelrod's"moon-faced, sweet-tempered special assistant." (ABC news political director David Chalian was spotted "congratulating" Lesser on the piece at last night's Vanity Fair party.) Ashley Parker, the Times journalist who wrote the piece, also wrote a profile of Lesser last year. And here's an interesting disclosure from Parker, buried a few pages into this weekend's piece:
(Disclosure: Lesser is dating one of my housemates. They met while I was reporting this story and began seeing each other shortly thereafter.)