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The Beltway Book of the Damned

Mark Halperin's forthcoming tome features dozens of Beltway insiders, showing how little has changed in This Town.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Who among us has been secretly longing for a book-length Axios newsletter that comprises the sanguine opinions of cable news greenroom habitués and is compiled by a serial sexual predator? Disgraced pundit Mark Halperin reportedly is set to deliver precisely that in November. Tentatively titled How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take, the book features several dozen political strategists who may not have predicted the 2016 election accurately, but who understand that such failures have never stopped anyone from dispensing stray advice so that Beltway scribblers can pad out their daily dispatches. 

That the wider public might take umbrage with this project apparently did not become clear to many of Halperin’s enablers—who include Donna Brazile, James Carville, David Axelrod, and Jennifer Granholm—until the nature of the project was publicly disclosed, at which point everyone was reminded that Halperin had not exactly earned a shot at rehabilitation. As Eleanor McManus, whose “informational interview” with Halperin at ABC News ended with his failed attempt to kiss her, told The Daily Beast, “He leveraged his position as a prominent journalist to prey on women. He has yet to take responsibility for his actions by apologizing to his victims or demonstrating genuine contrition.”

Asking for anything “genuine” from Halperin may be an impossible-to-fulfill request, as he’s spent his career rising to greater perches of prominence despite the fact that he’s proven to be nigh on incapable of much beyond the banal observation. While Halperin deserves credit for pioneering the political tip sheet—at ABC News, he created “The Note,” which essentially reimagined the Associated Press Daily Planner as a stylish and buzzword-filled Beltway character study—he’s never managed to hit the same heights as a writer without someone else’s assistance (first John Harris and later John Heilemann). Left to his own devices, Halperin’s career has always resembled a parody of The Picture of Dorian Gray in which the titular hero forgets to hide his cursed portrait.

For instance, after leaving ABC News for Time magazine, he created “The Page,” a web 2.0 experiment that tested this proposition: How many web pages can a single wan thought be stretched across in order to trick the reader into serving multiple ad impressions? This project is best remembered for the time when he crudely photoshopped Louisiana Governor Mary Landrieu’s hair to resemble the scene in the movie There’s Something About Mary in which Cameron Diaz’s character accidentally mistook semen for hair gel. (The entire sordid post was constructed to deliver the news that Landrieu, per a spokesperson, was reviewing a Congressional Budget Office score.)

What once seemed to be a misguided jock-joke now appears, in hindsight, as a warning to us all. Halperin wasn’t brought low until 2017, a full decade after leaving ABC News, when seven women who worked with him there accused him of offenses ranging from “propositioning employees for sex to kissing and grabbing [one woman’s] breasts against her will” to “pressing an erection against [other women’s] bodies while he was clothed.” Less than two years later, he is now seeking redemption from the very same culture that overlooked his predations. That so many people were willing to assist him in reclaiming his lost relevance demonstrates not only that he remains a master of the Acela Corridor’s marketplace of elite favor-trading, but that This Town remains as morally bankrupt as ever.

How fitting that Halperin’s publisher is Judith Regan, who has a yen for exploitative trash. She is perhaps best known for permitting O.J. Simpson to hypothesize how he might have carried out the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The folderol that ensued was among the proximate causes of News Corp’s decision to fire her from HarperCollins, a decision that touched off a twisted “did she fall or was she pushed” legal battle that eventually ended with Regan securing a $10 million settlement.

After news of Halperin’s book broke, Regan attempted to bridge the ethical crevasse. “I do not in any way, shape, or form condone any harm done by one human being to another,” she said in a statement. “I have also lived long enough to believe in the power of forgiveness, second chances, and offering a human being a path to redemption. How To Beat Trump is an important, thoughtful book, and I hope everyone has a chance to read it.” But Halperin has yet to undertake any sort of atonement for his misdeeds. The idea being put forth here, then, is that by writing an “important, thoughtful” book about how to rid our body politic of Trumpism’s infestation, Halperin is atoning, and those who would see this book waylaid are doing harm not just to Halperin’s own redemption story, but the nation’s.

It’s a good grift, exploiting the emotional insecurities of the Trump-imperiled liberal professional class, and Halperin should not be thought a fool for trying his hand at this game. After all, it has proven lucrative for any number of latter-day exploiters of The Resistance’s emotions. Both the labyrinthine tweet-threader Seth Abramson and the primrose pathfinders known as the Brothers Krassenstein successfully turned their perpetual promises of Trump’s imminent undoing into a make-work side-hustle that have included book deals of their own. If anything, it’s about time that the chattering Beltway elites tried their hand at this genre, and Halperin has handed them the opportunity to align their needs with his own.

Halperin’s co-conspirators have, over the past day, attempted to distance themselves from the project or otherwise justify their participation in it. Many of their responses take Regan’s official line about the project: Working to defeat Donald Trump is too important to not collaborate with a man who exploited his power to degrade his female colleagues. 

Anita Dunn, a former Obama White House adviser now at SKDKnickerbocker, a lobbying firm that works with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, responded through a spokesperson: “Anita cares about beating Donald Trump, that is the only reason she participated.” Carville sounded a similar refrain, saying, “I know he’s been accused by a lot of people & lost his job. The guy called me & asked me to speak to him on a topic that I obviously care about. And I spoke to him.”

Other responses were more mysterious. Brazile’s response suggested that those who agreed to be interviewed were somehow captive to some great existential event, telling CNN’s Oliver Darcy, “I’m not the author. Ask Mark why he chose us.” Axelrod suggested that some degree of flimflammery was involved, tweeting, “To those who have asked, I have known Mark Halperin as a reporter for 25 years. He emailed me three questions about the 2020 race for a book he was writing and I replied in a few sentences, without giving enough thought to how my participation would be used or interpreted.”

A perhaps more accurate description of their participation is that they willingly agreed to do a solid for someone with whom they’d spent many happy days socializing. Halperin’s entire enterprise hinges on all of the exclusivity of these transactions, and the relationships that further those transactions, which apparently continue to flourish despite the fact that Halperin obstructed or imperiled the careers of many women in journalism. It’s impossible for any Beltway careerist to enter into a conversation with Halperin without being aware of this bare fact. It’s similarly impossible to contemplate a “Mark Halperin comeback” that does not involve him being paid a king’s ransom that might otherwise facilitate the careers of several more worthy individuals.

Since no one involved in this exploit would ever suggest that they are not savvy Washington political insiders, none of them can be innocent. So what is to be done with them? Former Roll Call reporter Meredith Shiner, who possesses her own searing knowledge of what it’s like to lose a career to someone like Halperin, suggests that journalists of good conscience could simply “decide unilaterally” to never “speak to the operatives who spoke to Halperin” again. “There are plenty of other fish in that swamp,” she wrote.    

It is, perhaps, naïve to expect Halperin’s enablers to be shunned in Washington. But it’s not as naïve as believing that the few dozen people who thought participating in this book would come with no public consequence possess the political knowledge to defeat President Trump.