Mr. Gannon Stays in Washington
Drop by the National Press Club on any given day and you’re likely to see the glistening bald pate of Jeff Gannon, a.k.a. James Guckert. The former White House correspondent for the now-defunct conservative Web site talonnews.com haunts the Club’s premises like a lobbyist at the Charlie Palmer Steakhouse. Dana Milbank, a former Washington Post White House correspondent whom Gannon calls “the worst” of the lot (and with whom Gannon claims to be engaged in “a long-running battle”), says that he sees Gannon at the Press Club “almost every time I’m there.” Milbank reassures me that Gannon has “been fully clothed each time.”
Gannon, you must remember, gained notoriety in January of 2005 after he asked what has now become an infamous question — “The Question,” as Gannon calls it — of President Bush during a White House press conference. Opening with a claim that Harry Reid had warned the country about imminent “soup lines” thanks to the Republican-managed economy (something which Reid had never said and which Gannon later admitted he ripped from Rush Limbaugh), Gannon asked, “How are you going to work — you’ve said you are going to reach out to these people — how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?” Within a week, Gannon’s past work as a $200-a-night male escort was exposed by liberal bloggers, he had quit his job at Talon News, and his last name was bestowed the most notorious suffix that can be granted to a D.C. resident: “gate.”
Given Gannon’s low place on the Washington totem pole, it’s hard to believe now, but Gannon was — and remains — the subject of many fervid conspiracy-theories on the Left. “It’s just suspicious as hell,” says John Aravosis, a liberal blogger who found nude photos of Gannon and posted them online, that a former prostitute using a pseudonym and writing for an obscure Web site could gain regular access to White House press briefings. Many liberal bloggers prophesied about a scandal reaching into the highest levels of the White House, darkly alluding that Gannon had provided sexual services to prominent administration officials. Gannon says he was unable to convince a Hollywood producer or book publisher to buy his story because “they wanted a tell-all, but there was nothing to tell.” Instead, Gannon has now self-published a book, The Great Media War: A Battlefield Report (“print-on-demand and self-publishing is the wave of the future,” he says), about liberal media bias, which he showcased at the Club’s annual book fair last November.
Gannon joined the Press Club in June of 2006, and by all accounts he has been a model member. Jerry Zremski, the Club’s president, told me that he does not “recall any discussion at the time” about Gannon’s suitability for membership when his name came up for nomination. He’s on the Club’s Newsmakers and New Media committees, where, respectively, he helps plan panels and “integrate[s] new media communications into some of the inner workings” of the Club. He says he’s at the Press Club at least once a week attending panels, utilizing the library’s Lexis-Nexis access, or engaging in friendly arguments with fellow members at the bar of The Reliable Source, the Club’s restaurant. It is there that I met him for lunch a few months ago.
“America needs to be defended,” he told me, when I asked him why he decided to pursue a career in journalism. “And there’s many ways people can contribute. In the aftermath of 9/11, people lined up and gave blood, they gave money.” Gannon saw his role as a writer defending the president’s policies in the War on Terror, and he played the part with gusto, living the life that many, much younger, aspiring writers in Washington lead. He attended a Leadership Institute seminar on political journalism and tried to snag jobs at a series of conservative think tanks, to no avail. At the same time, he freelanced for the conservative Web site GOPUSA.com, founded by Texas Republican operative Bobby Eberle, and took advantage of the (then) surprisingly lax rules officiating the disbursement of White House press passes (which puts a dent in the liberal assertion that Gannon was trading sex for favors). His career as a Washington political journalist was coasting until “The Question” caught the attention of the oversensitive busybodies at Media Matters.
Since the eruption of “Gannongate,” Gannon’s career as a would-be conservative pundit has had its ups and downs. In July 2005, Chris Crain, then-editor of the Washington Blade (a gay newspaper), gave Gannon a regular column. But when a new editor succeeded Crain, one of the first changes he made was to end Gannon’s relationship with the paper. “Basically, my concern is that he has a huge credibility problem, for obvious reasons, and if a member of my staff lied about their identity, lied about their name, lied to their editors, lied to their sources, I would fire them. I wouldn’t publish them,” Kevin Naff, the new editor, said at the time. (Full disclosure: I used to write a column for the Blade).Now “a new media creature,” Gannon writes for his eponymous blog and freelances. When I ask him what publications he writes for, he refuses to name them because “that’s part of the deal.”
Gannon is similarly evasive about his once-fruitful relationship with the conservative movement. Unlike other high-profile right-wingers who have faced public humiliation over behaviors their moralizing followers condemn (think of the painkiller-abusing Rush Limbaugh or gambling addict Bill Bennett), the revelations about Gannon’s gay hustler past seem to have fatally affected his ability to rehabilitate himself amongst the conservative movement that initially quoted his articles and rallied to his defense. When I ask if he’s promoting The Great Media War on the conservative circuit, he says that he has “present[ed] my book to many of my associates,” but won’t tell me any of the venues because “a lot of those are off the record.” Smeared by the Left and abandoned by the Right, Jeff Gannon seems a lonely man in Washington.
THE VERY TITLE OF GANNON’S BOOK, The Great Media War: A Battlefield Report, is indicative of its martial tone. Whereas John McCain was a “foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution,” Gannon is an infantryman in the battle against liberal media bias. He complains of the “Democratic Congressional jihad against me” and warns of the “Old Media” working as a “‘Fifth Column,’ aiding the enemy by eroding the will of the American people.” He was “a casualty of The Great Media War” (abbreviated as TGMW throughout the book), but reassures readers that he “suffered only cuts and bruises” in comparison to former CNN Executive Eason Jordan, “whose self-inflicted wounds proved fatal.”
Like the twilight struggle against Islamofascism and the Cold War before it, TGMW is a generational fight with dispersed theaters of conflict. Though it was hell on earth, the White House briefing room was hardly the front line of combat; Gannon writes that, “The actual battles were fought in other places, under hopefully more favorable conditions and times that provided a tactical advantage.” He slings arrows at his erstwhile colleagues, devoting an entire chapter to Helen Thomas (whom he labels an anti-Semite), attacks the New York Times’ Richard Stevenson as a “fragile, sniveling, nearly invisible Ichabod Crane-type” and describes the rest of the lot as “an unspectacular collection of wanna-bes, has-beens, and never-weres.” (One wonders what that makes Gannon.)
Gannon’s bellicosity is nothing new for right-wing screeds, but it also serves as a reminder of his history of posturing: He portrayed himself as an ex-Marine on various escort websites despite never having served in the military.
He is given to bluster. In the summer of 2006, I saw him address the New York City chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP organization. Devoid of much substance (in what he now admits was “more of a comedy routine”), Gannon tried his best at a gay male version of Ann Coulter, riddling his speech with outrageous and salacious comments. He said that David Brock’s conversion to liberalism had less to do with a genuine, ideological change of heart than the fact that “at 35, he decided that he loved shoving dollar bills down the pants of the twinks at Wet,” a now-shuttered D.C. strip club. He complained of the media’s sympathetic reporting on former Democratic New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, “who by day, he’s doing photo-ops with his wife and kids, and by night he’s on his knees at a truck stop.” Gay Democrats, he said, are conflicted about “being in a party that says it’s firmly behind you but won’t give you that all important reach-around.”
Today, Gannon eschews such prurience, having replaced it with newfound religiosity. On a recent Sunday morning, I accompanied him to a service at The People’s Church, a mostly black congregation that meets at an old movie house in Eastern Market south of Capitol Hill. An article Gannon wrote about the congregation for The Hill Rag, a neighborhood newspaper, is enlarged and framed behind a glass case facing the street on the brick wall of the Church’s storefront building. It was there that I met Gannon’s “Church Family.”
Gannon has been a member of the congregation since 2003, and he attends services several times a week. “Part of my testimony is that I had walked past this church every day,” he tells me. “These people have been so good to me and supported me through my troubles,” he says, and the morning I spent with him there seems to confirm his assertion. Congregants are delighted to see him, and vice versa. He seems comfortable and at ease in an environment that would probably intimidate, at least initially, most white people.When the pastor asks the congregation, “How many look back from where God brought you?” Gannon raises his hand with the rest of the churchgoers and replies aloud, “Oh yes.”
It soon becomes clear to me that spreading the gospel, not conservative politics, has emerged as the most important cause in Jeff Gannon’s life. Religiosity infuses his writing, his conversation. Two years ago, in the wake of Gannongate, he was apprehensive about submitting to an interview with Vanity Fair because of its liberal editorial line. But he now says that the magazine’s decision to enlarge one of his quotes — “Did I know sin before I knew salvation? You bet!” — made the whole experience worthwhile.
Gannon’s personal narrative today is about redemption. “The one thing I’ve learned through the black church is how important forgiveness is,” he tells me. In the last chapter of his book, he corrects those who claimed that his previous employment as a male escort discredited his work as a journalist. “Many had described me as ‘disgraced,’ but that was never the case as I was never without Grace.” In the midst of comparing his plight to Job’s, he suggests that his downfall at the hands of liberal bloggers was divinely inspired. “I stood up one night in January 2005 and asked for God to use me,” he writes.
Gannon is blunt in describing how he feels he was treated — and how his homosexuality and political orientation made him a target. “When someone goes over the fence on the pink plantation, they go and kill them,” he says in his typically colorful way. It’s not hard to see why he remains upset. His homosexuality and past work as a male escort ought not to have been an issue for the liberals who publicly humiliated him. At least judging by their rhetoric, liberals have no problems with either homosexuality or prostitution. Yet Gannon was a conservative, and an unabashed one at that. It was this factor alone which made him a worthy target for the Left, particularly the gay Left. “The scorn and the hatred of the left-wing bloggers was so profound,” he tells me.
In light of his newfound religious fervor, it was this obviously fraught aspect of Gannon’s life that I found most interesting. Over lunch at the Press Club, I turned our conversation to the subject that must make his friends on the Right uneasy. I ask him if he thinks being gay is immoral. He pauses. After a few seconds, he replies, “Well, the Bible says it is. The Bible is rather unequivocal about it.” He says he opposes gay marriage on principle, and admits: “It’s hard to reconcile the gay agenda with my religious beliefs.” All of this talk about Biblical injunctions against homosexuality — as well as his use of the loaded term “gay agenda,” a favorite of the Religious Right — seems to complicate his statement, minutes later, that, “As you can see I’m sitting in front of you, I’m not conflicted or self-loathing at all.”
GIVEN THE HIGH-PROFILE EXCORIATION he received, one could not fault Gannon for giving up on Washington and starting his life over, again, this time somewhere else. “He’s a harmful gay,” Aravosis flatly states, justifying his investigation into Gannon’s past and his publishing of sexually explicit photos of Gannon on his blog. Most people victimized by this sort of smear campaign would give up on public life altogether, but not so Gannon. He’s perpetually cheerful and bounds about Washington as if he had never been the subject of a scandal. His sunny disposition led Bob Johnson of Rightalk.com, a conservative Web site that hosted a Gannon podcast, to tell Vanity Fair that Gannon “was like a newborn baby, full of glee and giddiness” when he came to Washington seven years ago. Milbank tells me that Gannon usually sits in the front row of Press Club events.
Gannon has no misgivings about his future; if anything, he sees even brighter career prospects for himself. “I don’t have a single regret,” he tells me. “Look, you’re interviewing me. You wouldn’t be interviewing me two years ago…My small place in history is assured.” In a city full of arrogance and cynicism, this sort of blissful unawareness and optimism makes him hard to dislike.
Over the course of our conversation, he mispronounces Valerie Plame’s last name twice — Valerie Plomb — something he did at the Log Cabin event as well. To defend against the oft-leveled charge that he’s not really a journalist, Gannon says that the “Press Club is the most prestigious association of professional journalists in the world,” which is a little like saying that possession of a SAG card is de facto proof of movie stardom.
He recently mailed an entry on his blog to Condoleezza Rice (“who I know”) ridiculing Jack Croddy, a Foreign Service Officer who protested the State Department’s mandatory work requirements for diplomatic postings at the American embassy in Baghdad as a “potential death sentence.” In a letter to Rice, Gannon offered to serve as a replacement for Croddy, whom he called a “coward.” It’s “hard to say” if Rice will respond, Gannon tells me, in a tone that’s utterly serious. Just when I think there’s a small chance he might be joking, he explains further. “The way the mail works in the government now, it will take weeks for it to get there. We’ll see. I’m willing to do it.”
With most Washington blowhards, such piques of grandiosity would be insufferable. But with Gannon they’re somehow endearing. “I’m keeping the name Jeff Gannon, since I paid for it in blood,” he writes in the epilogue of his book. “All of the reasons I chose it in the first place are still operative, and it remains one of the most recognizable names in journalism.” Take that, Milbank.
Gannon came to Washington on September 12, 2001 out of patriotic fervor, and he’s staying put for the same reason. “When everybody else was heading out of town I was heading into town,” he boasts. Nor has his harrowing experience as the target of swarming, angry bloggers chastened his determination to stay in the spotlight. “Had I left town, I could never come back,” Gannon answers when I ask if he ever wanted to up and leave. “But if you stay here and you hang in here and don’t give up, people tend to respect you…Those that run away are finished.”
–James Kirchick is an assistant editor at The New Republic.
(This piece appears in the Spring 2008 issue of Doublethink. Photo by David Donadio.)