Meet Mark Leibovich’s Monster

image004As the clock struck 5:16 p.m. Wednesday, the email blast arrived. Or rather, Kurt Bardella, one of the star monsters in NYT‘s Mark Leibovich’s summer blockbuster, This Town, had risen from the ashes or the lava (Hollywood will figure out the proper visual). Meet Washington’s latest entrepreneur. Meet the town’s former Washington insider, the headline blared. Bardella is starting his own strategic communications firm, strategic being the key word, in that he gets to chose his own “adventure.”

Within mere moments, Politico‘s Jake Sherman, whose own emails may have leaked their way to Leibovich’s inbox for the book via Bardella’s untrustworthy fingertips, tweeted the news. And there Bardella was: out there in the aftermath of a book that would make him both famous for Washington and as infamous as one of the book’s other main characters, Tammy Haddad.

Back in April, I was in the grips of yet another White House Correspondents Dinner pre-party, not Tammy’s to which I’d been pointedly not invited. This one, an unusual warehouse party in Georgetown thrown by National Journal. I didn’t notice a whole lot of White House correspondents outside of ABC’s Ann Compton. One of the more interesting details about the party was that the toilets on the main floor were malfunctioning, so attendants stood outside the restrooms telling guests that they’d have to wait. Or better yet, they’d have to fight their way upstairs to the V.I.P. floor to use the commode. Upstairs, the smell of urine wafted into the hallway.

image002Back downstairs, I ran into Bardella who had flopped into an easy chair on the far side of the room. I’d known Kurt since his days in Rep. Brian Bilbray‘s (R-Calif.) office and had always enjoyed our interactions and found him helpful. By this point, it was well known that Bardella would figure into Leibovich’s book. So I asked him about it. Was he nervous, worried? Would he be embarrassed? While he wouldn’t comment at all on the record, he indicated that he might at a later point and went into a myriad of thoughts I can’t repeat because of our off the record agreement. But one thing I was instantly struck by was Bardella’s ultra-relaxed manner about the whole thing. He knew this was coming. Everybody knew this was coming. And his body language screamed that he didn’t have a care in the world about it.

Fast forward seven months, here we are at Bardella 2.0. Or is it 3.0.? The “2” might’ve been when his former boss, House Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), temporarily fired him in February, 2011, and he went to work for The Daily Caller while simultaneously writing op-eds for Politico, the publication that got him fired in the first place for leaking those emails to Leibovich for his book. It was Editor-in-Chief John Harris who spoke with Issa and pushed him on whether his own reporters’ emails or phone calls had been improperly shared.

At the time, in a Sunday letter to Issa, Harris wrote, “The practice of sharing reporter e-mails with another journalist on a clandestine basis would be egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances,” Harris wrote. “As the editor-in-chief of POLITICO, my concern is heightened by information suggesting that POLITICO journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity.”

Bardella gave the first big interview on his ambitious plans to launch his own firm to a virtually unknown publication, InTheCapital, on October 2 at 3: 15 p.m., which is why no one knew about it until he blasted the story out himself a few hours later. The reporter he spoke with, Tess VandenDolder, comically admits in her opening line that she was “a little intimated” to meet Bardella and that after an hour she was “quite taken” by his passion for politics and entrepreneurial spirit. The typo seems to make sense — was she so intimidated that she got flustered in her lede? But the sentiment doesn’t fit and the idea that she requires only one hour of spin to sway her is fantastic in the worst sense of the word. If you’ve met or listened to Bardella (please ignore this part, Howie Kurtz, this doesn’t apply to you since you might mistake him for a lawmaker), he’s not intimidating at all. The Bardella I’d known was an easygoing, jovial, fast-talking, skinny guy who could joke about the fact that he hadn’t graduated from college.

Bardella told her his new firm, Endeavor Strategic Communications, is “about having the flexibility and freedom to choose your own adventure. I’m building something to work with the people I want to work with. There is nothing like the ability to work with good friends.”

He told the easily impressed Tess, “Anything worth building takes work and effort, but it’s made easier by availing yourself to the human capital around you. Washington is a city of extraordinarily brilliant, talented, and ambitious people compressed in a two mile radius. That’s pretty unique.” She inhaled his words and concluded that his new firm “is sure to be one of the most sought after” in Washington.

Human capital? How apt. How This Town. Not since the phrase “friend source” emerged in Leibovich’s magazine profile of Politico’s Mike Allen has something made me naturally cringe. On the one hand, this is grotesque. On the other, I have to hand it to him for capitalizing on being a chapter in a book he could neither control or stop. How so appropriately Kurt Bardella 3.0.

The graphic on the previous page is by Matt Woodson of the NYT. A request for comment has been sent to Bardella. Due to the ungodly early morning deadline I gave him, he may not get back to me until later. If he does, I’ll promptly add his thoughts.

Update: A short piece in HuffPost and a brief in the San Diego Union Tribune announced the news of Bardella’s new firm some weeks back. Correction: Bardella did not break the news to InTheCapital, as was previously reported above. VandenDolder’s was the first in-depth interview on the matter.

Update #2: From Bardella…”We live in a 24/7 media landscape that is constantly evolving and shifting that creates as many pitfalls as it does opportunities. Oftentimes, when functioning in the Washington media environment, non-political entities struggle because they are working at a different and oftentimes slower pace of engagement and content output.  Just as Hollywood has its own niche media like E!,, etc. so does D.C. with Politico, Breitbart, HuffPost, FishbowlDC and Drudge.  Endeavor will sit at the intersection of politics, policy and the press and helps people/organizations successfully navigate this new, dynamic and ever-changing terrain.  In the BIG PICTURE¸ I want to build a firm that fuses under one-roof data, digital and traditional communications.  Data tells you who to communicate with, traditional PR tells you how to communicate and digital is an entirely new and transformational dimension of communications.”