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Wolffe at the Door

EXCLUSIVE: The radioactive book proposal from MSNBC’s much-maligned pundit/publicist.

Richard Wolffe, the former Newsweek correspondent and author of the best-selling book Renegade: The Making of a President, who now works at Dan Bartlett’s PR firm Public Strategies, Inc., is shopping a new book about President Obama, TNR has learned.

According to a person familiar with the book proposal, Wolffe’s project is titled “30 Days: A Portrait of the White House at Work.” In the proposal, Wolffe writes that he has personal relationships with Obama officials at “the highest level” who have already “expressed support informally” for the project. Wolffe envisions a fly-on-the-wall account of a month inside the White House, where he’ll be “capturing group dynamics and people in action."

Wolffe declined to comment. His agent, Kristine Dahl at ICM, said that “30 Days” is one of several Obama books Wolffe is considering for his next project. “We’ve not signed a contract, we've not settled on it,” she said. “Obviously it's going to be Obama-related. Why wouldn't it be?”

Wolffe has come under fire in recent days for wearing two hats: that of a journalist and a corporate flack. Last Friday, he filled in for Keith Olbermann on “Countdown,” prompting protestations from bloggers and media reporters. “Having Richard Wolffe host an MSNBC program--or serving as an almost daily ‘political analyst’--is exactly tantamount to MSNBC's just turning over an hour every night to a corporate lobbyist,” wrote Salon’s Glenn Greenwald on August 1. Two days later, MSNBC told Politico that the network should have divulged Wolffe’s corporate affiliations to its viewers, and will do so in the future. Writing in the Daily Kos yesterday, Olbermann also admitted to being “caught flat-footed” and remarked that “what appears to be the truth here is certainly not what Richard told us about his non-news job.” (Wolffe joined Public Strategies, Inc., in March. He is not technically a lobbyist.)

Wolffe’s new book is seeking to go deep inside the White House. According to a source with knowledge of the proposal, Wolffe would write chapters about the following topics: the President, the Inner Circle, National Security, the Economy, the East Wing, the Executive Mansion, the Communications Shop, Domestic Policy, the Travel Office, and the Vice President's office. Without mentioning Bob Woodward by name, Wolffe hints in his proposal that the style of an all-knowing omniscient narrative account is dead, and that he would reinvent the genre with in-the-room access to the top players. The reporting would take place at the beginning of 2010. Crown, which published Wolffe’s Renegade, is also the publisher of Obama’s bestsellers The Audacity of Hope and Dreams of My Father. A spokesperson for Crown did not return multiple calls by deadline. Sean Desmond, Wolffe’s editor who worked on Renegade, did not respond to calls, nor did Tina Constable, Crown’s publisher.

News of Wolffe’s Obama book is problematic for the White House. Of course, Washington is populated with journalists who have worked in politics, but granting deep access to a writer whose day job is to advise corporations is far less orthodox. Further complicating any decision to cooperate with Wolffe is Obama’s signature campaign pledge to curtail the influence of special interests in Washington.

“Mr. Wolffe has not formally presented the White House with a book proposal,” a White House spokesperson wrote in a statement to TNR this afternoon. “When and if he does we will evaluate it as we evaluate numerous others, taking account of all relevant factors.”

Wolffe doesn’t see his corporate ties as a potential conflict. “The idea that journalists are somehow not engaged in corporate activities is not really in touch with what’s going on,” he told Politico’s Ben Smith in June. “You tell me where the line is between business and journalism.”

Dahl said criticism of her client is unfair and fueled by professional jealousy. “He's not a corporate lobbyist. He's a very talented journalist. … Everything is entirely separate. There's no muddy waters,” she said, adding, “Where are the jobs in newspapers and magazines? What are people supposed to do? In the past, it was a very different world. Believe me, there is no conflict of interest.”

With his reporting at Newsweek, which some saw as being overly sympathetic to the Obama camp, Wolffe established a rapport with the president. In interviews, Wolffe has said that it was then-Senator Obama’s idea that he write a book about the campaign, one that would be reminiscent of Teddy White’s Making of the President. And among reporters covering Obama, Wolffe was granted tremendous access. When Charlie Rose asked Wolffe how may interviews he had conducted with the president, Wolffe responded, “I counted it more than a dozen. Often, you know, we had the formal sit-down interviews with the voice recorders and the handlers. But some of the best stuff was this sort of rolling conversation we had. The encounter in the hotel lobby or after a game of basketball, or, you know, along the way.”

This perceived closeness hasn’t come without its costs. Back in June, Ben Smith reported in Politico that Wolffe had strained his relationships with his Newsweek colleagues, who believed that he had withheld his best material, including news that Obama had a secret meeting with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, from the magazine’s pages (despite the fact that Newsweek spent $170,000 flying Wolffe around the country to campaign events). Wolffe reacted bitterly to Smith’s piece. According to three sources familiar with the exchange, Wolffe confronted Smith in Washington’s Union Station. Wolffe at first waved to Smith, who was seated upstairs on the balcony. Wolffe, killing time before boarding a train, then flipped open his laptop and began to read the Politico piece. Upon finishing the story, he approached Smith and accused him of being jealous of his media attention. “What do you have against me?” Wolffe asked, according to one person familiar with the matter. Smith declined to comment.

Gabriel Sherman is a Special Correspondent to The New Republic.


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By Gabriel Sherman