The Washington Post‘s Style section has had a rough stretch on political coverage. Its ace in-pod political guy, Mark Leibovich, bolted in March 2006 for the New York Times. Leibo had the Style sensibility down pat, cranking out ride-along profiles of top political figures on tight deadlines.
In classic Post fashion, filling the job took another year. First, the duties were slated to go to Post veteran David von Drehle, but he left for Time mag. Then it was Michael Powell, who pulled a Leibo.
In spring 2007, Sridhar Pappu hit the ground, but not exactly running. He had trouble decoding the Style political formula. One of his signature moments was falling asleep while covering a hearing—a choice clip captured on a video for colleague Dana Milbank‘s Washington Sketch franchise. After nearly a year of underwhelming his editors, Pappu was out the door.
The section isn’t going to mount a hiring process for Pappu’s permanent replacement at this time of upheaval. In the coming months, dozens of staffers will be mulling the early retirement offers that the paper’s business people have been preparing. “That has definitely slowed our efforts to fill that [position],” says Steve Reiss, a Style editor.
That means political coverage by committee, starting with staffers Libby Copeland and Jose Antonio Vargas, who has just returned to the section after being loaned to national. (Styler Lois Romano is doing a fellowship at the Kennedy School.)
Another resource for the section is that shrinking and privileged tier of Post vets who have “associate editor” before their names. Associate Editor Kevin Merida has swung in hard for Style, covering hot campaign topics in a narrative voice.
And then there’s Bob Kaiser, a former Post managing editor who’s now punched in as a Style political writer. Kaiser says he’ll be “playing the role through November,” though there’s been no discussion of an end date. It’s unclear what the paper is paying for Kaiser’s services—he won’t say whether he’s on contract or salary, though he’s still technically an associate editor.
This much is certain: Kaiser can shore up Style’s take on the role of lobbyists on the ongoing campaign. After all, he’s the guy who wrote the 27-chapter series on earmark pioneer and lobbyist par excellence Gerald S. J. Cassidy, a mammoth undertaking that drew some snickers from some folks in the newsroom but that I found captivating. He spent much of last year converting the reporting into a book.
Reiss says, “Bob and I are still talking about precisely what kind of role he’s going to play. He’s only been back a week or so and he’s basically reintroducing himself to reporting in the political world after being on book leave.”