We should all be afraid. Very afraid. WAMU-FM political commentator Mark Plotkin, the king of told-you-so’s, is basking in the triumph of the District’s improbable repossession of the Wilson Building last week. And we will be hearing about it for many, many years to come. The guy who takes credit for everything as a matter of course now has a very real, very important accomplishment to crow about: Plotkin saved the Wilson Building.
How big was his role? Well, there are three big offices in the Wilson Building. One will obviously go to Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Another will likely host Council Chairman Linda Cropp. And the third? People aren’t sure, but Plotkin’s name has been mentioned more than most.
Never mind that Plotkin actually works as a radio columnist and has no official position in the government. More than any D.C. official, Plotkin paved the way for the deal ensuring that the Wilson Building will remain the one place on Pennsylvania Avenue that D.C. folks can call their own. In the “but for” paradigm of causality, but for Plotkin, the District would remain dispossessed of the very seat of its governance.
For a guy who lives to peddle influence, it doesn’t come any sweeter. The fact that it fell to a quasi-journalist to lead the fight says a little something about the people who will be occupying those offices—but it says some things about Plotkin as well.
“Plotkin has nominated himself as official nudge, which is a role that he plays selectively, and I can’t say I always like his choice of targets, but this time he was right,” says D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Supposedly a washed-up pol who moved here with a vengeance 35 years ago—he raised money for Muskie, McCarthy, and McGovern back in the day—Plotkin managed to manufacture an odd medley of journalist and politician, becoming a one-man show that reports, influences, and then comments on the debate. There are those who suggest that Plotkin embodies the weaknesses of the two estates he straddles. It’s said that he filibusters with more gusto than any politician in the District—a breathtaking claim, but based on much broadcast evidence. And he loves to skewer officeholders as much as any reporter inside the Beltway. Ask a few if you don’t believe me.
“He is the Howard Cosell of District journalism….People tune in to love him or tune in to hate him, but they tune him in,” says Kojo Nnamdi, host of WAMU’s Public Interest and the adult supervisor of the D.C. Politics Hour With Mark Plotkin [Plotkin’s emphasis, not mine].
The recent home run will not come as good news to Plotkin’s legions of detractors, who had to wade through his endless prattling about the unthinkability of a Wilson Building principally occupied by federales. As a home rule zealot, Plotkin was horrified when the broke and friendless District government agreed to give up most of the Wilson Building in exchange for developer Conrad T. Monts’ agreement to rehabilitate the property, which had become uninhabitable after years of neglect. In an endlessly complicated deal, the $52 million in rehab costs was to be repaid via earnings from a 20-year lease. Under the agreement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was slated to move into two-thirds of the building—and the District would make do with whatever crumbs were left over.
Enter Plotkin. For three years, he consistently hammered pretty much every District and federal official who had even a passing familiarity with the deal. He cornered the current mayor, both before and after he was elected, and received a rhetorical commitment from Williams to re-take the entire building. People laughed, sometimes in his face, about his obsessive ways. But once the District government crawled out of the red, a few other people—most notably Norton—asked whether there wasn’t another way to accommodate the feds. Norton tried to broker a swap in the middle of the summer, but said in a phone interview that nobody in the District government seemed interested in pursuing a solution at the time.
That’s the way it stood until Sept. 21, when Plotkin convinced Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans to write a letter to the president, signed by all of his colleagues, pleading for his assistance. The letter got the attention of the Washington Post, which got the attention of the people at the General Services Administration, who got the attention of the folks at EPA. And with a suddenly interested president, a compliant federal bureaucracy, and a miraculously unified D.C. Council, EPA Administrator Carol Browner told astonished District officials that her agency had no interest in moving into the building, even though it had every right to do so.
How the District ends up taking care of rent—right now the figure being kicked around is $8 million a year—will still take some figuring out, but Plotkin is already talking about closing off a block on Pennsylvania Avenue for the grand reopening.
Few have paused to savor the irony of a home rule purist like Plotkin demanding federal assistance to get the District out of a hole it dug for itself three years ago. But the call for presidential intervention was more seemly than what he might have done had the deal not been derailed. It’s not much of a reach to visualize Plotkin lying down in front of the EPA’s moving vans when they arrived, as scheduled, in January.
“Mark Plotkin, at the 11th hour and 59th minute, played a huge role. He was absolutely persistent in terms of getting me to send a letter to President Clinton asking him to intervene on our behalf,” says Evans.
“There’s also no question that he was an obsessive and that he marginalized himself over time. I mean, people on his own program were making jokes about him and the Wilson Building. But he never got to the point where he was viewed as a complete kook. It helped that his position ended up being the right one,” says Evans.
In order to reach in and pull the levers of governance, Plotkin had to defy every notion of journalistic objectivity that most of the Fourth Estate holds dear. But, Nnamdi says, Plotkin is not like the rest of us.
“Mark has carved out a career for himself which defies traditional journalistic standards….People are not used to this kind of news analyst, especially in D.C., where we have hundreds of commentators who are struggling to put across this image of news objectivity. And here is this guy who says, ‘I am not going to pretend to be journalistically objective, but I will be passionately interested in everything that has to do with D.C. politics.’ And I defy you to find any journalist who can project that passion so that people feel compelled to listen, if only to disagree,” says Nnamdi.
Objectivity, after all, is a fallacious notion to begin with. Papers like the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and the Washington City Paper are all loaded with agendas—but each tarts up its tendentious views with notions like fairness and balance to different degrees. (The Post’s profound lack of agenda where the Wilson Building is concerned was abundantly clear in the ridiculously lowly play it gave the story, buried back in Metro. Show me another big-city daily in the country that would play re-taking city hall any place but on the front.)
Not so Plotkin. Not only is he unwilling to play the political eunuch, when things are not going the way he thinks they should, he starts making calls. “Some of the politicians needed a little help on this, and I was happy to provide that help,” he says, magnanimously.
Wily politicians have been known to solicit advice from the reporters who cover them. Journalists aren’t generally considered to be sources of brilliant ideas, but it’s disarming to be asked—quite. Reporters don’t feel so free to swing the bat on folks they’ve been strategizing with when those folks screw up down the road. Now that Evans and others have made Plotkin’s obsessive wish come true, will Plotkin be less inclined to give the councilmember a whack when he needs one?
“That’s the danger of being Mark Plotkin,” says Nnamdi. “There’s a chance that he will have close personal relationships that will prevent him from doing his job, but he is more keenly aware of that than anybody. I get the impression that most of the elected officials in the District know and understand that it is going to be a day-to-day relationship with Mark. Today they love each other, and tomorrow they hate each other. The one thing you can count on is that Mark is not going to go away.”
Plotkin, never one to get caught up in self-doubt, doesn’t believe he can be bought or rented.
“I am forever grateful to Jack Evans, but I categorically reject the notion that I am somehow beholden to him. If anything, I will go overboard to do the job of covering him. I am not going to spend the rest of my life writing thank-you notes to Jack Evans,” Plotkin says.
Plotkin says he will continue to comment on District affairs without fear or favor, and to reach in and stir the pot when he doesn’t like what he sees.
“I wasn’t going to be in this business and not have some influence. I want to make things happen,” Plotkin says. “I’m frankly surprised that something did happen this time….Look, I spoke up and stayed on this issue because there is something wrong in the District that people would allow this to happen. I mean, where were the elites that should have adopted this building and made it a cause? What kind of city allows themselves to lose control of their city hall? If you told [Chicago’s] Mayor Daly that this was going to happen, he would have thrown somebody out a window.”
Recent arrivals to the District political scene who stumble across Plotkin on WAMU are quick to suggest that the guy needs to make it official and run for something. Plotkin tried that, running for the Ward 3 council seat twice during the ’80s, and the voters decided that he should continue to play a critical role in District affairs without official portfolio.
“It’s hard to see Mark as anything but a hybrid. He is a journalist by default,” says Norton. “He ran for the council and failed to get elected, but I think he’s getting the last laugh because he gets to hold everybody’s feet to the fire.”
And the role of municipal kvetch seems to suit his temperament and skill set. Face it: It’s not the first time that unelected geniuses have decided that they know what is best for the District. The now-moldering control board more or less ran the city for years without ever receiving so much as a vote.
“I admit to being a maniac on this issue, but what was happening was so perverse, so obscene, that it could not go unopposed,” says Plotkin. “You know, in this city, when you believe passionately in something and fight hard for it, you are marginalized and viewed as a zealot. Well, I think this place could use a little zealotry. We are an abused citizenry that lacks a sense of place and is so used to accepting crumbs that we were willing to go along with this. And I couldn’t stand to see apathy carry the day.” —David Carr
E-mail Paper Trail at email@example.com or call (202) 332-2100.