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Pete Buttigieg Tin Man?

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The new Pete Buttigieg documentary reveals a gifted politician struggling with how much to reveal of himself.

Pete Buttigieg

Two and a half years after his run for president, Pete Buttigieg has managed to hold America’s attention and fascination. | Courtesy of Amazon Studios

By RUBY CRAMER

11/08/2021 12:35 PM EST

 

  • Ruby Cramer is a senior staff writer for Politico Magazine.
 

The first voice you hear, somewhere off-camera, belongs to Jesse Moss, the filmmaker.

“Anything you want to make sure that I ask him?”

 

By this point, Moss has spent 11 months with his subject, filming him backstage at events, in his home, in his car, at the airport, in every session of debate prep he held with his campaign advisers. But as the new documentary “Mayor Pete” opens, the director is asking for help. The person seated across from Moss is not Pete Buttigieg, but his husband.

 
 

Chasten, holding the couple’s one-eyed puggle upright in his lap, tells Moss to ask Buttigieg about his identity. “He did everything to climb every ladder without being his authentic self,” he says. Buttigieg didn’t come out of the closet until 2015, when he was 33, already mayor. “You spent so much of your life hiding who you really were — did you feel like you were able to be your true self on the campaign trail?”

“Do you think he’s ready to answer that question?” Moss asks. “Can he answer that?”

“He should. You can try.”

Buttigieg walks in the room. Before he leaves, Chasten turns to his husband.

“Don’t bull---- us, Peter,” he says.

Two and a half years after his run for president, Buttigieg has managed to hold America’s attention and fascination. Roads and bridges have apparently never been so interesting. The beat-like coverage of his arrival in Washington this year — of his new kids, his aides, his role in the Biden administration, his presumed future presidential run(s) — is not typically commensurate with the job title of transportation secretary. Now a feature film by Moss, director of the 2020 film “Boys State,” aims to fill the lingering curiosity gap about a candidate who has shaped his own unexpected political identity, first in South Bend, Ind., and now in Washington. But peeling back the layers, Moss found, could feel like an impossibly frustrating task.

 
 
 

The proposition he interrogates in the film, built on cinéma vérité-style footage from inside the 2020 campaign, is that when it comes to Buttigieg, what you see is what you get. In one sense, this is proven true. For 96 minutes, in scenes ranging from public events to the privacy of his own home, there is Pete, acting like Pete: reserved and calm, a sweet husband, a nerd (“Did someone say pivot table!?” he asks in one scene, exuberant at the chance to help format an Excel spreadsheet), an introvert. He does not, by his own admission, have the “gregarious charisma” of Bill Clinton. You can sense there is constant activity happening, not on screen, but somewhere inside his head, far off and out of reach. At points, Moss says, he felt confounded by his own subject, turning to Chasten to bring Buttigieg emotionally within arm’s length.

“I was very stymied by that,” Moss told me ahead of the film’s release this Friday. “There were moments where I threw up my hands in frustration and despair.”

 
Pete Buttigieg and President Joe Biden

The beat-like coverage of Pete Buttigieg's arrival in Washington this year is not typically commensurate with the job title of transportation secretary. | Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

 

And that’s the underside of Moss’s premise, the dilemma in his film on constant display: It’s not exactly that Buttigieg is “bull----ing” us, as Chasten says in the first scene, or even that what you see is not, in fact, what you get. It’s the feeling of an inaccessible interior — of watching a person who is still becoming comfortable with himself and doing so on the biggest stage imaginable. The real drama that unfolds on screen is not about the ups and downs of a campaign, or even Buttigieg’s political prospects, though he states plainly in the film’s final scene that he could run again: “Time is on my side.” What you see instead is more basic: a story about personal identity in politics — a man, then 37, a presidential candidate, a breakout star, now the most prominent member of President Biden’s cabinet, who at every turn was unsure of how, or exactly how much, to share himself with the world. Always, he erred on the side of less rather than more. Always, it was against the urging of his own husband and campaign team.

 
 
 

The sharpest moments of tension come when Chasten and campaign aides push Buttigieg to open up, including about his identity as a gay man. In one subtly heartbreaking scene, Chasten is in their Des Moines hotel room, watching live coverage of the Iowa caucus returns. Bernie Sanders is on TV, speaking on stage surrounded by his wife and family, when Chasten says from the couch, “You’re gonna be the only candidate that didn’t have your spouse standing next to you.” Buttigieg doesn’t really respond. In a seated interview for the film, Chasten recalls the early days of their relationship. “I would say, ‘What’s going on in that head of yours?’ And he’s grown a lot, being able to verbalize. I think he’s learned to allow personal narrative to have more impact,” he tells Moss. “Opening up.”

In debate prep sessions, when Buttigieg rehearses his response to a police shooting of a Black man in South Bend, his senior adviser Lis Smith says, “He’s comin’ across like the f---ing tin man up there.” When he talks about his experiences as a gay man, she tells him it’s like he is “reading a f---ing shopping list,” she says. “You’re not, like, f---ing, an anthropologist here.”

“This is, like, a thing that you feel,” she says, as if literally reminding him.

It was only late into the project that Moss discovered he was watching a candidate’s “journey” to express himself in a more fundamental rather than political way. That journey is the invisible framework of the film, and you have to look carefully for signs of the scaffolding as the camera tracks Buttigieg moving swiftly through the benchmarks of a national campaign, from his launch in April 2019, to his rise via CNN town halls and debates, to the night he wins the Iowa caucus and, just four weeks later, stares down the reality that “the numbers” are “just not there” with Black voters. But what Moss does manage to reveal between the action tells us more about the man himself, and his limits.

“Sometimes people who participate in documentaries don’t fully consciously know why they do it,” Moss told me. “There is a complicated relationship that is formed with the filmmaker, and there's a need that you fulfill.

“The film may have functioned as a part of that self-questioning. It may have been wrapped up in what Chasten recognized to be the larger project that Pete was on — to open up.”


The first time I met Buttigieg was at a Sheraton in Phoenix in January 2017. He was still mayor of South Bend, a city of 100,000, a new entry in the race to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, his first introduction to the national stage. As an aide led me up to his suite, she told me he was “the next John F. Kennedy.”

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  1. ‘He’s Comin’ Across Like the F---ing Tin Man Up There’This being a DNC candidate forum, an unglamorous and musty affair, it was quite the claim. Inside the room, I asked Buttigieg about how he wanted to lead the party, and he quickly steered us into a conversation about what it means to lead a city with “values” — specifically, he said, the values of trash pickup services.

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"The values of trash pickup?" I said.

“Yeah. It’s connected to the meaning of life, in the sense that whatever the meaning life is —”

"Trash pickup?"

"Yeah,” he said, “because what's the meaning of life for you?"

I stammered.

“Whatever it is, whether it’s your professional growth, or faith and family, or you’re building a business, you will not be able to meet that life of your choosing if there’s not clean, safe drinking water for you, or a road to get you where you’re going — or if the trash isn’t getting picked up.”

 
Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg, a skilled narrator, is President Biden’s most prominent messenger, on the Sunday shows nearly every weekend. | Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

 

Buttigieg could do that, even back then — turning a mundane question into a larger-than-life answer. He could sell his record in South Bend as a national model. His view of politics was philosophical, esoteric. He presented voters with a view of one era bleeding into the next — the New Deal era lasted for 50 years, he’d tell voters, then came the Reagan era, and he wanted to define the era that came next. As transportation secretary, he is President Biden’s most prominent messenger, on the Sunday shows nearly every weekend, talking up the infrastructure bill that will finally become law after a vote late Friday. In policy and politics, he is a skilled narrator.

 
 
 

The film “Mayor Pete” documents the way his personal narrative, on the other hand, boiled down in the Democratic primary to a collection of outré biographical data points that delighted reporters at every turn: Maltese American, left-handed, gay, war veteran, Episcopalian, mayor, millennial, fluent in eight languages (including Norwegian), reads French poetry, loves James Joyce, prefers blue Paper Mate Flair Felt Tip Pens (medium point, 0.7mm), played a minor role in a possible bread price-fixing scandal in Canada and so on. “People want to fix you onto a spectrum and find a box to put you in,” Buttigieg once told me before he ran for president. “I spent Thanksgiving in a deer blind with my boyfriend’s father. Identity buckets aren’t comfortable places for me to be in.”


Buttigieg had only just launched his exploratory committee when Moss, still editing “Boys State,” approached the campaign, then just a team of a few people. His producer had pitched the idea. Buttigieg was interested. Moss was skeptical. “I said no, actually,” he says. “It sucks to cover campaigns.” After watching Buttigieg on a CNN town hall, an appearance that helped incite “the overall fascination with Pete,” Moss told me, he reconsidered. “I said, ‘Well, if the access is really there, and Pete’s really willing to give it, even though he’s not going to go far and this might be a foolhardy effort, I'll just go out and start filming, and we'll see how it feels.”

As he trailed the campaign in 2019, Moss found that although his film crew of one had access no other journalist enjoyed — to his campaign headquarters, his marriage, his living room in South Bend — Buttigieg could present an inaccessible front. The first time they met was on a train to Washington, D.C. Moss introduced himself. “I’m like, ‘I’m Jesse.’ And he’s like, ‘I’m Pete.’ And then he was back to work. I sat down on the empty seat next to him and waited for the small talk to begin, and it didn’t.” He stayed for “two awkward minutes,” he says, and then returned to his seat. “A very awkward first day.”

 
 
 

Weeks later, Moss remembers filming him from the passenger seat of a car. Buttigieg was in the back, reading or dialed into a call, Moss watching his face. “It was placid. I wouldn’t say blank — that’s not the right word — but it was impenetrable,” he says. “And yet I found it fascinating because I thought, what is going on? He’s juggling a lot of balls in the air here. He's obviously containing a lot — emotionally and intellectually and tactically — and all of that was concentrated right there in his face for me.”

“There’s an experimental version of the film, which is just him thinking,” he laughs.

“But that’s also not great dramatic storytelling, right? He is so restrained. He’s a difficult, dramatic protagonist. In some ways, he's so comfortable in front of the camera, at least in certain environments. And yet, he wasn’t uncomfortable privately. But he was not revealing.”

Moss’s wife and filmmaking partner, Amanda McBaine, advised him at some point “to get Pete drunk or something.”

Buttigieg rationalizes his restraint in his own words, late in the film, quoting a poem by Carl Sandburg, written from the perspective of a father giving advice to his son: “It says, ‘Tell himself no lies about himself / whatever the white lies and protective fronts / he may use amongst other people.” Everybody “has thought about that,” Buttigieg tells Moss. “What’s the difference between the faces the world makes you put forward and your shifting understanding of who you actually are?”

 
Chasten Buttigieg

At points, filmmaker Jesse Moss says, he felt confounded by his own subject, turning to Chasten to bring Buttigieg emotionally within arm’s length. | Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

 

Moss learned to rely on Chasten. Really, the two colluded in the project. At one point, Moss is trying to interview Buttigieg — “and I could see he was slipping into this mode of like, ‘I'm talking to any reporter,’ and it’s just unusable.” So he asks Chasten to step in as the questioner. “I've never done that before with a documentary interview, and it felt a little transgressive, but we immediately got more interesting. I thought, ‘My God, now I'm filming them talking about this campaign together.’” Chasten sits down at their dining room table, behind a portrait of Kennedy propped up on a small piano. “How do you know how to do what you’re doing?” he asks his husband.

 
 
 

Buttigieg, in particular, laments what he calls the “gamification” of politics, but it’s Chasten who is constantly pushing up against what he feels are the boundaries of the campaign. When he wants to start telling audiences about the couple’s difficulty having kids — “it’s something very real and felt by a lot of people” — a staffer tells him it’s a bit too intimate to bring up publicly. The two briefly debate the question before the staffer says, “If you want to make it a part of ‘the narrative,’ we can have that conversation.”

Moss believes he wouldn’t have been able to make the film with just Buttigieg. “You couldn’t,” he says. “I think that I was really struggling. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t make a film.’ Chasten allowed me to kind of short circuit what would normally either be impossible or take forever.”

You do see intimate moments in “Mayor Pete”: In March 2020, after dropping out of the race, you watch him return from the campaign trail, changing into sweatpants and slippers before taking calls from President Obama and Joe Biden. At home, he does laundry, brews Keurig, types on his iPad, wrestles with his dogs on the floor, takes Chasten on a “date night” to Dairy Queen (“Can we eat the ice cream before the chicken gets here?” he asks), plays dominoes with his family and works at the mayor’s office in South Bend. “Oh, Mr. Bill, Mr. Regular Bill, sitting here, on the mayor’s desk,” he hums in a singsong voice to a stack of paper, chipper as he signs each page with his fine blue marker. “This is how a bill becomes law!” he declares when an aide walks in. “Mhm,” she says, walking out.

There are notable absences in the film, too. Moss documents Buttigieg’s struggle with the police shooting of Eric Logan, a Black man in South Bend, but the film leaves out the tensions over race and inclusion that divided his own campaign staff. (Rather, Moss presents the operation as a small, home-grown family, where aides are expected to “be really, really kind,” as campaign manager Mike Schmuhl tells staff early in the film.) You also don’t hear Buttigieg talk about his father, who died just before his campaign launch, around the same time Moss began filming. Buttigieg didn’t discuss his grief on the campaign trail, and he doesn’t in the film. Moss says he didn’t want to overload the documentary with too much early biography.

“My way of coming at the world, the stronger the emotion is, the more private it is,” Buttigieg says. “And it is a strange thing, because politics is an emotional pursuit, of course.”


Chasten’s question for his husband — were you able to “be your true self on the campaign trail?” — is at the center of every run for office, and of every documentary that tries to reveal the harrowing gauntlet that is American presidential politics.

“Journeys With George,” Alexandra Pelosi’s home-movie-style film about her time embedded with the 2000 Bush campaign, shows the candidate as viewed from inside “the bubble” — a daily, rote exercise in following him from one place to the next. As reporters slip and slide across a frozen tarmac in Iowa, waiting to watch the candidate arrive, Houston Chronicle reporter R.G. Ratcliffe yells over the drone of jet engines, “This is insane! The only reason we’re out here is in case Bush comes out, slips on the ice and falls down — because we’re vicious predators.”

 
 
 

A more recent political documentary series, “Hillary,” shows a candidate looking on from the other side of the bubble: “I am a private person, but I think it’s important to be a private person if you’re in public arena,” Clinton tells filmmakers, “because the crushing intensity of total wall-to-wall coverage, the expectation that you share your innermost feelings with people — is there anything left if you’ve basically lived everything out in public?”

“Mayor Pete” presents viewers with something in between. The audience is neither on the outside looking in, nor fully inside. If Buttigieg was able to be his “true self” on the campaign trail, or in the documentary project he invited into his home for a year, the question is left open by Moss. “I'm always interested in the faces we put forward to the public and then the private self,” Moss says. “It does articulate to me a central question of Pete’s journey through the campaign and his own growth. It’s the question every candidate goes through. For Pete that has particular meaning, because he’s a gay man.”

Now a father to twins, Buttigieg has not participated in the promotion of the film. The only staff member interviewed in the documentary, the campaign manager, Mike Schmuhl, declined to discuss the project, too.

Moss did share a rough cut of the movie with Buttigieg and Chasten earlier this year. They both watched it. Buttigieg only offered one piece of feedback: Why wasn't there more policy? “It may just be that they’re processing. It’s sort of hard to see past their own lived experience to what the film represents,” Moss says.

 
Pete and Chasten Buttigieg

“Mayor Pete” is less of a political document than films like “Mitt” or “War Room.” Moss says he’s enjoyed referring to it as “a love story.” | Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

 

“Mayor Pete” is less of a political document than films like “Mitt” or “War Room.” Moss says he’s enjoyed referring to it as “a love story.”

By the end of the documentary, we see Pete and Chasten backstage before an event in New Hampshire. He’s just won the Iowa caucus and backstage in a small hold room, when Chasten asks Buttigieg if he would ever say: “To that kid, cracking the door open, wondering if it’s really safe to come out in this country, I say, ‘Look what we can do.’”

 
 
 

“I don’t know, maybe,” says Buttigieg, seated at his iPad.

When he goes on stage, he gives his own version of the line and chokes up.

If you can see Buttigieg’s growth in the film, Moss says, this was it. “I think what they were negotiating, in the relationship, and then on the stage, both together and separately, was how to live as themselves. How much of myself do I offer?”

“Are we left with a similar feeling of unrequited knowledge with Donald Trump? Probably not. We probably know everything and more than we need to know. What is it about Pete that creates that sense that there’s something elusive? And is that a valuable thing to have?”

Moss, against his own interests as a filmmaker, offers one possible answer.

“Maybe we need more political leaders who offer us less of their personal selves.”

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3 hours ago, Pete1111 said:

Is that kind of a brutal thing to say

I believe that quote was from Lis Smith... Mayor Pete's communication director. She's very cynical in a Washington way but the very fact she's working with him means she sees a potential in him for the BIG job. She did help Obama.

Pete can come across as a cold fish.

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Buttigieg was recently on 60 Minutes.  He was awesome.  Anderson Cooper interviewed.

Buttigieg still comes across as capable and a clever man.  

I wonder how long he'll remain as Sec. Of Transportation and if he'll run in 2024.

 

 

 

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On 7/1/2022 at 8:20 PM, Pete1111 said:

if he'll run in 2024

Older article(2020) on Lis Smith and Pete:

 
 

Lis Smith and The Unknown Mayor

On the Ground WitLis
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Smith and Buttigieg on the campaign bus on November 9, 2019, headed to an event at Lebanon Middle School in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Photo: Rob Strong

A couple of months back, I was in New Hampshire, bumping along on a tricked-out campaign bus stocked with SkinnyPop and White Claw hard seltzer (snacks befitting the first millennial presidential candidate), when Lis Smith, Pete Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser, told me something that caught me off guard. She loves the New York Post, she said, and gets it delivered to her home. The Post is the same paper that once called Smith a “bimbo” and wrote a story, among many others, claiming that her then boyfriend, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, had spent part of a Jamaican vacation sucking her toes in a hot tub.

That she could still love a paper that had so publicly abused her stayed on my mind while I shivered in an uninsulated barn, a brewery, a theater, and a middle school watching Buttigieg stump along with the other reporters Smith had invited for an on-the-record ride through the state. She mostly stayed on the warm bus. At night, during an off-the-record ride back to the hotel, with the candidate safely cocooned away in some reporterless SUV, Smith drove the conversation, peppering the members of the press with questions about their thoughts on the day’s events, the bus tour, and the state of the race. While campaign manager Mike Schmuhl and press secretary Chris Meagher sipped their drinks wearily, Smith answered questions and needled the assembled crowd of reporters. She was the uncontested center of attention.

At 37, Smith is already a campaign-worn strategist and Washington, D.C., folk hero, credited with launching the 38-year-old mayor to, if not the top tier of the presidential race, its second tier — not a bad showing for someone who was a relative unknown this time last year. Even before she dated the “Luv Gov” and was marked by the particular kind of celebrity that only New York tabloids can bestow — niche, intoxicating, and troubling all at once — Smith seemed destined for notoriety. “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t,’’ was her high-school-yearbook quote, a line spoken by Lady Macbeth. “She came, like, fully formed in the stilettos to college,” one Dartmouth classmate said.
 

With jet-black hair and big hazel eyes lacquered with mascara and smudged with liner, Smith looks like a slightly devious Snow White. She is partial to all black and leather jackets and wearing sunglasses indoors, which, she told me, has a particular utility: “I have very expressive eyes, and sometimes, when we’re doing those on-the-record bus tours, wearing sunglasses is sort of a way to sit back and look around the room without people knowing.”

On the New Hampshire bus trip, modeled after John McCain’s Straight Talk Express (Smith met McCain at a fund-raiser when she was in high school), she hovered near Buttigieg at all times, glowering over her phone listening to questions as she scrolled. Smith’s theory of media domination means putting the candidate in the direct line of the press and hoping the access — rare in national politics — generates goodwill. The countless hours spent answering questions has proved a clever way to burnish Buttigieg’s smart-young-man image. Even if he doesn’t exude the chummy presence that McCain had on a press bus, Buttigieg still gets credit for wanting to. That feeling that attracts voters to Buttigieg is something Smith crafted, bugging reporters to let him talk about his military record and precocious ambitions.

The need for a campaign to have a good story line is something Smith has understood for a while. Politics has become pop culture, and the formerly dull mechanisms of government and the people who understand them are either basking in odd new categories of fame (see the Obama-alum staff of Crooked Media) or grasping to maintain relevance (see the New York Times editorial board dabbling in the tropes of elimination-show reality TV by announcing candidate endorsements via a heavily edited episode of the paper’s FX docuseries). In response, campaigns have “moved from messaging to content creation,” and Smith is especially good at it, David Turner, the 34-year-old communications director of the Democratic Governors Association, told me.

Turner met Smith when he was running press for a dark-horse governor’s race and she was working out of the DGA headquarters. He considers her a mentor, the purveyor of sage advice like what to do when you’re stuck on a dud of a campaign. “She told me with a long-shot challenge you can experiment,” he said. It’s advice she herself has taken to heart. James Singer worked with Smith on Martin O’Malley’s presidential bid in 2016 and told me that Smith was already toying with the total-saturation approach to campaign communications she’s used this election cycle, but Buttigieg provides an even better vehicle to test her theories about political media. “With Pete, she had this talented ball of clay,” says Singer. Buttigieg knows how to sing for his media supper, speaking French and Norwegian and talking about James Joyce and bringing Democrats and Republicans together with sensible policy solutions. And Smith knows how much reporters, America’s underpaid political gatekeepers, love to talk about how they’ve read (parts of) Ulysses. She knew what they wanted: not just a good quote but a good character. She gave them Mayor Pete. Though Buttigieg is now struggling through a harsher phase of media critique, catching flak for the whiteness of his supporters and drawing questions about just what he means when he talks about “heartland” values, Smith has already made her mark — everyone knows his name, even if they’re tweeting sourly about him. Whether the campaign can move beyond its current problems remains to be seen, but Buttigieg has as decent a shot as he could have hoped for, and that is Smith’s doing. “On campaigns, you’ve got a lot of handwringers, a lot of lemon suckers,” former governor of Virginia and former Smith boss Terry McAuliffe told me. “Not with Lis.”

 
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On Buttigieg’s campaign bus during a four-day tour of Iowa in September 2019. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage

It’s difficult to divine precisely how a person acquires the sort of self-assurance that allows them to speak candidly with would-be Masters of the Universe for a living, but a childhood in Westchester is not a bad start. Since Smith and her twin brother are a decade younger than her older siblings, Smith’s parents “didn’t do kiddie stuff” with them. Smith was worldly from a young age. At 9 years old, in the midst of the 1992 Democratic primary, Smith was able to spot Jerry Brown and point him out to her mother as they stood outside the Parker Meridien hotel. “I’d go into the first day of fourth grade, and they’d ask me, ‘What did you do over the summer?’ And I’d name like ten countries I’d been to,” she said. She told this story while sitting in the lobby bar of Santa Monica’s bougie haven Shutters on the Beach (a sentimental favorite from childhood).

Her parents, both lawyers, had their own connections to Washington politics. Smith’s father, Thomas, is a cousin of Senator Sam Ervin, who famously ran the Watergate hearings; her mother Adrienne’s family was entrenched in the New Hampshire “first in the nation” primary process, meeting the candidates, like Reagan and Ted Kennedy, on their whistle-stop tours. “My father was born toward the end of the Depression, an only child, in a mill town in North Carolina,” Smith told me, sounding an awful lot like a politician telling her origin story to a pancake-breakfast crowd. “Obviously, the fact that Sam was family was big.”

Smith talks about her time at Dartmouth almost as another campaign. She got heavily involved in Democratic politics there, and by the time the 2004 presidential election rolled around in her junior and senior years, she was volunteering nearly full time for John Edwards. In one formative anecdote she relayed with particular glee, his campaign sent her to do some low-grade ratfucking at a town hall for retired Army general Wesley Clark. The mission was to use a pointed question about his record to make him look like a corrupt insider. She wore a pair of low-slung Juicy Couture jeans. (“There were never fewer than, like, two inches between my sweater and my jeans,” Smith said of her aesthetic at the time.) “I probably didn’t look like the person that would ask Wes Clark about his long record of lobbying.” “Tell them you did a good job,” a Clark aide told her on the way out.

When she graduated, Smith went to work on Claire McCaskill’s 2006 Senate campaign in Missouri. Richard Martin, McCaskill’s campaign manager, said it was obvious that Smith was talented but frustrated by her lowly status on the press team. “I just thought of her as a shooting star, and either she was going to burn out or she was going to make it big,” he said. After McCaskill’s win, she joined a 2007 Kentucky governor’s race as traveling press secretary (lost), a 2008 Illinois House race as communications director (lost), two governors’ races in 2009 as press secretary — McAuliffe’s in Virginia (won) and Jon Corzine’s in New Jersey (lost) — then Ted Strickland’s 2010 Ohio governor’s race as communications director (lost), and the Democratic Governors Association for a stint, followed by a big break as director of rapid response on the Obama 2012 campaign (won), then a job as press secretary on Spitzer’s comptroller campaign in 2013 (lost) and gigs as a spokeswoman for Bill de Blasio for mayor in 2013 (won), deputy campaign manager for O’Malley for president in 2016 (lost), then spokeswoman for Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2018 (won), and finally Buttigieg in 2020 (?).

Along the way, she built relationships in the media — not just in the egotistical TV-studio cesspools of New York but in swing states, too. “I remember at the time almost being afraid of her,” said Joe Vardon, who was a reporter at the Toledo Blade during the 2010 Ohio governor’s race. Smith had a way about her, he said. “She would stare at you when you’re face-to-face, and she does want to kill you in that moment — it’s believable.”

But Smith’s real power is that reporters actually like her. It helps that she’s fun — “She’ll have a beer or a vodka or several,” Vardon said — but it’s also that she knows how to spot and place a story that will pop. Vardon, who now writes about the NBA at the sports site the Athletic, put together that Buttigieg looks a little like Brad Stevens, the coach of the Boston Celtics. He sent Smith a message on Twitter. “I had just started to pitch the idea” about arranging a conversation between the two youthful, Indiana-born overachievers, he said, “and before I could even finish, she just said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,’ and she put me on the phone with Pete for a half-hour, which, as you know, is a long time to be on the phone with a candidate.”

Singer worked on opposition research for O’Malley. (He later headed up Kamala Harris’s 2020 research team.) Part of his job was to pitch Smith, O’Malley’s deputy campaign manager, on stories that she could then pitch to the press. He recalled one story they placed in 2015 that compiled all the times Hillary Clinton had spoken positively about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that became a bugaboo for Bernie Sanders supporters as a sign of her supposed anti-working-class bias. “That was big for me because we got it pitched and Tapper published it,” Singer said, referring to CNN star reporter Jake Tapper. It wasn’t enough to save O’Malley’s campaign, but it was a good shot at the front-runner.

Smith made waves on the Obama 2012 campaign largely because of her Twitter attacks on Mitt Romney, which were prolific. Rachel Cohen, a Senate communications director who worked with Smith on that campaign, said she remembered Smith taking her computer with her into the ladies’ room so she wouldn’t miss anything that happened online. Much of the content of Smith’s attacks seems quaint in the age of Trump: She harped on Romney’s unreleased tax returns and, in the final days of the election, hammered on his misleading spin that an auto manufacturer would be leaving swing state Ohio for China.

She also wasn’t afraid to use the right’s megaphone to plant her message. In 2016, “she always went to a bunch of right-wing people,” Singer said, like Ed Henry at Fox or writers at The Weekly Standard. According to Singer, Smith’s philosophy was, “Sometimes it’s not about getting in the New York Times or the Washington Post, but if you can get something in an ecosystem — it can be the left or the right — it will churn up and turn into something larger.”

During the Buttigieg campaign, she’s drawn fire for her record of having worked for conservative Democrats as well as progressive ones; she lacks a core belief system, her critics might say. Smith isn’t bothered. “I’m a true believer in terms of the Democratic Party, but I believe in a big-tent Democratic Party,” she said. “My personal views are, you know, I’m from New York. I’m a pretty liberal Democrat.”

Smith has also proved particularly suited — or particularly well adapted — to the masculine culture of professional politics. She knows how to gossip and isn’t stingy with colorful on-the-record comments. “Lis gets on the phone with me, and on the record is like just dropping F-bombs,” one reporter told me about a story he was working on. “The F-bomb was this gratuitous quote, but it also just made the story.” She is a good hang who listens to the notoriously boorish Barstool Sports podcasts and watches ESPN to unwind while she exercises. “She can talk basketball, she can talk sports, she can do all of that,” Turner said. She bullied the O’Malley team into a fantasy-football league and would joke every weekend “that she wanted to rip our throats out,” Singer said. At his going-away party, she made an unusual request: “She wanted a lock of my hair, which is so fucking weird and hilarious, and of course we were absolutely hammered,” he said. “I think there’s a picture somewhere of her in a very dingy Baltimore bar clipping my hair for good luck.” One former campaign co-worker said that being a woman in the heavily male space of politics can be an advantage. “There’s a certain element of particularly male reporters who find her good-looking — this is not minimizing her, I want to be clear. This is minimizing a nerdy press corps,” he said.

Smith herself seemed a bit on edge when I asked about her persona. “I’m not just a caricature, you know,” she said, over drinks at a West Village bar. Her time in the tabloid spotlight began in 2013, when she was working for de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign: During the transition from campaign to City Hall, the New York Post broke that Smith was dating Spitzer, who had stepped down as governor in 2008 after being caught up in the sting of a high-priced prostitution ring. (Smith is so enmeshed in the brutally parochial school of New York politics that she is a glittering thread connecting three of the state’s most powerful politicians, all of whom hate one another — de Blasio, Cuomo, and Spitzer.) “Ho! Ho! Ho!” proclaimed one Christmastime Post cover featuring Smith and Spitzer. “Xmas Leg Nog” was the Daily News’ take on the holiday photos of Smith in a dress. “Eliot and DeBabe,” read another Post cover with a picture of the couple emerging from Smith’s apartment.

This just isn’t an era where having an overdeveloped sense of shame really helps you much.

Smith’s tabloid drama has become part of her arsenal of professional assets. She’s the rare staffer who can accurately claim to understand what her famous boss is going through while suffering in the media glare. As for Spitzer, Smith was largely mute about him on the record, as were others I interviewed. “It was a relationship that became very public, but I would like to keep that private and any aspects generally of my life private going forward,” she said.

She considers herself an introvert. “Part of being an introvert is you sit back and watch people and see what makes them tick,” she said. One political reporter said she’s good at “making what must be 100 reporters feel like they’re intimately involved with this campaign and this candidate and can reach out for anything.” She responds to texts and emails, seemingly at all hours. When Politico’s “Playbook” newsletter wrote up her birthday party in October, many reporters from CNN and the Times made the “spotted” list. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and soon-to-be Times media columnist, pointed me to the interview he’d done with Buttigieg, part of a series with all the candidates, as something “emblematic” of the way she operates. Though he texts Buttigieg, she replies first, giving him shit for texting from a “couch in Brooklyn” and asking why she doesn’t see any BuzzFeed reporters at her press gaggle in Iowa (“Not a buzzfeeed [sic] reporter in sight. Sad!”). “I’ve done a bunch of these with candidates, and it’s the only one where the flack gets ahold of the phone and takes it away from the candidate,” he said.

“There’s not a really positive way to say this,” he said of Smith’s outsize presence, “but I mean this positively: This just isn’t an era where having an overdeveloped sense of shame really helps you much.” She has this in common with President Trump, for whom Smith admitted her selective admiration. “I would be lying if I said I hadn’t studied some of his approach with the media and what worked, what didn’t work.”

 
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With Spitzer at a March 2014 Knicks game and alongside de Blasio at the White House in December 2013. Photo: James Devaney/Getty Images/2014 James Devaney; Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images/2013 AFP.

In January 2017, Buttigieg decided to run for chair of the Democratic National Committee. He lost the race but gained a key asset: Smith. President Obama’s top communications adviser, David Axelrod, told me that, as he recalled it, Buttigieg had specifically asked him about Smith. “This is a campaign that is very, very tight knit, with Mike, me, and Pete,” Smith said, referring to Buttigieg and his campaign manager and childhood friend, Schmuhl. “It was just the three of us, really, at the beginning.” Neither Buttigieg nor Schmuhl had a political résumé beyond Indiana politics before a couple of years ago, and they’re both on the placid end of the spectrum, at least by political-world standards. “They’re very different,” Axelrod said of Smith and Buttigieg. “She’s about as subtle as a bulldozer.”

“The fact that he had a veteran campaign warrior who understood the media and understood how to deal with media was not only practically important for him as a candidate but also signified that he was serious,” Axelrod told me. But Smith needed Buttigieg just as much; it’s not as if Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren were likely to welcome her into their campaign inner circles. Smith considers Axelrod a mentor. She worked for him on the Obama 2012 campaign — Smith was “a standout,” he told me — and continues to seek his advice informally. (Both were at pains to emphasize that Axelrod has no formal advisory role.) Axelrod is, she told me, “to some extent, someone who I want to be, you know?”

Early on, Smith said, she liked that Buttigieg was moving in a different direction from other Democrats, who were trying to meet the challenge of Trump with pugilism or by following a mantra of former Obama attorney general Eric Holder: “When they go low, we kick them.” Instead, Buttigieg oozed preternatural calm. The attraction may have been that Buttigieg was simply so at odds with what was already out there. Smith tried to explain it to me: “Growing up, my favorite band was Guns N’ Roses. My older brother was into it. I was obsessed with Axl Rose. But then one day, I listened to Radiohead. And I was like, This is so fucking different. I don’t even know what this is, but I like it.

Smith also cultivates comparisons of Buttigieg to Obama, telling me that they’re both “people who don’t view the world in just very stark, black-and-white terms where you’re a good person or a bad person.”

I asked Axelrod if Smith had found her own Obama figure in Buttigieg, but he politely rebuffed the idea. “I think Pete has an agile and interesting mind,” he said, but Obama possessed other qualities. “He had extraordinary intellectual power but also a great humanity.”

 
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Addressing the press on the campaign bus. Photo: Rob Strong/© 2019 Robert C Strong

When I saw Smith in Santa Monica, it was a day before the last debate of 2019, and she was holed up with Buttigieg to prep. It’s in debates that a sharper side — a more Smith-like side — of Buttigieg emerges. When Warren attacked him for his “wine cave” fund-raiser, he shot back that he was the only non-millionaire or -billionaire onstage. “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” he said. “The dynamic in debate prep, I can guarantee,” McAuliffe said, “is she’s telling Pete, ‘You go after them, you go for the jugular, you don’t stop.’ I mean, she’s a fighter. She takes no prisoners.”

Jugular is a word that came up often when people talked about Smith, and she would certainly take the characterization as a compliment. “It’s important on a campaign to have spokespeople and to have people in public-facing roles who can go a little farther and be a little edgier than what the candidate is going to do,” Smith said. Like when she called Cynthia Nixon “unhinged” on Twitter during the actress’s primary challenge of Cuomo. She can be frank about “the edifice of politics,” one reporter said. The reporter recalled a conversation they’d had during a news cycle in which a shooting occurred while another candidate was rolling out his campaign — television news was covering the shooting, not the candidate. As in a cold-blooded and theatrical West Wing hallway conversation, she confided that these were the sorts of things that kept her up at night, the ways a national tragedy could affect a campaign.

Singer thinks the analogy doesn’t even cut it. “I always joked with her [that] you couldn’t make up Lis Smith. If Lis Smith was a West Wing character, you would roll your eyes.”

Many of the people I talked to described Smith as talented, though a little difficult at times, but in the same breath acknowledged that it might sound sexist to characterize her as such — they didn’t mean it to be. Her colleagues in the flacking profession can seem irritated by the high profile she keeps. “Sometimes she forgets that she’s the staffer, and ultimately our job as the staffer is to communicate on behalf of our principal,” the operative who has worked on campaigns with Smith told me. Even Smith loyalists will admit that, at times, she can be a lot: “Sometimes I felt like she was a little out of control, but I never felt like it was unfair,” Singer said.

If Lis Smith was a West Wing character, you would roll your eyes.

Her instinct for the jugular can also misfire. Back in October, a story appeared in the McClatchy-owned newspaper The State that described a focus group of black voters in South Carolina and surmised that some of Buttigieg’s struggles with black support might have to do with homophobia in the black community. (The campaign has recently struggled with public complaints by its own minority staffers that senior management didn’t listen to their concerns about Buttigieg’s poor showing in communities of color.) MSNBC analyst Zerlina Maxwell tweeted, “I am offended that some folks in the media are covering Mayor Pete like he can win when he’s at zero with the base of the Democratic Party. BLACK PEOPLE. Your bias is showing so please be aware and tuck it in.” Smith responded, “I would agree that bias is showing, but it ain’t from those folks.” (Smith’s tweet has since been deleted.)

The campaign denied leaking the story, but I had my suspicions, given that Smith and the story’s author appear to be friends. I asked one person about a post on Smith’s Instagram that suggested (jokingly, it seemed, but still) that they had been engaged and broken it off. When I went back to reference the picture, it had been erased.

It was one of several instances in which I was pretty sure my questions to others were being poured back into Smith’s ear. Once she’d agreed to be interviewed, Smith was mostly friendly over text, making small talk but also letting me know she knew that I’d talked to a variety of political notables, often just hours after I’d gotten off the phone with them: “Omg lol terry just texted me. How was your convo???” Smith mentioned that she’d told the bartender at the place we’d planned to meet for our first sit-down that she’d be bringing a reporter in for a drink. What, I wondered, was he supposed to have done with that inside information? Mix mine a little stronger?

 

On my last night in Santa Monica, I watched the debate in my hotel room and, when it was over, headed to a party in Venice Beach that I wasn’t invited to. Smith’s name got me in the door.

I found my way to a largely empty lounge area sponsored by Bank of America and “Politico 2020,” according to the pillows. A variety of people, some of whom definitely looked familiar from TV but whose names I didn’t know, drank wine and posed for a photographer in front of a white backdrop. I spotted one D.C. guy who holds political “salons” in his house with his wife and for a while was rumored to be shopping a reality show about it. I tried to picture the party with more cameras and the vaguely famous TV faces throwing wine at one another. It would still have had overwhelming sponsored–by–Bank of America vibes. But a Lis Smith show? “She’s just somebody who I’ve thought for years, like, Huh, there’s going to come a story where Lis Smith is the protagonist, not the flack,” Ben Smith said. Lis Smith is “never gonna have a conventional life,” her friend Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, said. “It’s just not who she is.”

Smith finally arrived and slipped into the crowd. Someone grabbed her a drink. At one point, a woman approached her. “I fucking love you,” she said and talked about how good she thought Buttigieg’s answer on China had been in the debate. After she moved on, I asked Smith how often stuff like that happens to her. “More than it used to,” she said, shrugging.

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New Lis Smith book interview:

Lis Smith Loves Politics (If Not All Politicians)

1b57d487ec655d8099b793c447051c2cdf-liz-s
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

There’s nobody more fun to get spun by than Lis Smith. A hard-rockin’, quick-draw political operative who, in her own telling, loves “some good trench warfare” and “to roll around in the mud,” she became famous for making Mayor Pete semi-plausible as a presidential candidate. She has a sharp answer for everything, and an unnerving nerviness.

And yet … is she really tearing up when I ask her about working for Governor Cuomo during his auto-da-fé last year?

“It’s hard for me to talk about,” she said, clenching her teeth and a bottle of Bud Light last Friday night at Barrow’s Pub, a dive bar near her apartment in the West Village. We were there to discuss Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story, her new book out Tuesday, July 19, which ends with her time attempting to advise Cuomo on communications. Not that he was listening. She knew going in that the job was “notoriously an exercise in masochism,” and contends that she got played by Cuomo. “He’s someone I cared for, I loved, I trusted, I viewed as a mentor, a father figure, and it breaks my heart,” she said, lower lip quivering.

After the first blush of accusations against Cuomo, she’d stuck around because he swore he’d merely been “stupid” and that nothing else would emerge. The ground kept shifting as more women came forward. As Smith writes, “America’s governor was quickly turning into America’s asshole.” The eventual attorney general’s report on his sleazy behavior was the coup de Cuomo.

Smith said it pains her to think of “the collateral damage of his actions, all the people who lost their jobs and had their reputation ruined. Frankly, I’m not one of them.” But some of that mud did splash back on her, I pointed out. Texts between Cuomo aides that were published as part of the attorney general’s report showed Smith bragging about how she worked over reporters. (In other words: She got caught doing her job.) Read one entry: “I’m texting w Katy tur. Katy is saying my spin live. Like verbatim on CNN.” Tur, who actually works for MSNBC, was furious about that. “That was taken completely out of context and was completely unfair to her,” Smith protested. “She was talking to Cuomo sources and I was a Cuomo source. She did nothing wrong. She did something people do every day of the week. That is her job. I do feel bad about that.”

But Smith also had a spicy anecdote to drop: “In the last week or two of Cuomo’s governorship, when Cuomo was hemming and hawing and defying all his advisers about whether or not he should resign, Chris Christie confided in one of the advisers that he would personally get in his car and drive to Albany to get Andrew to resign.” (The two ex-govs are as tight as traffic on the GWB.)

Smith, 39, has advised races for governor’s mansions (Terry McAuliffe; Jon Corzine), the Senate (Claire McCaskill), and the White House (Barack Obama; Pete Buttigieg). She grew up in Bronxville, just outside the city, the daughter of two lawyers deeply enmeshed in politics. She was inspired by the The War Room, the documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign that focuses on his strategists, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. “That was, for me, why I wanted to get into this,” she said, “but let’s be real, it’s a very male movie.” That didn’t intimidate her much. Smith is comfortable in her own skin, drinking, smoking, swearing, and — when necessary — intimidating, all from behind her Gucci sunglasses, which she often wears inside for the same reason Anna Wintour is said to: so nobody can see what she is looking at.

0a6da141046f039bd8391b6450400a416d-pete-
With Pete Buttigieg in April 2019. Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Smith writes that a presidential campaign is “unpredictable. It’s not like tracking a menstrual cycle and knowing the window when you’ll be most fertile or the day you need to carry tampons in your purse.” (I bet Karl Rove has never thought of it quite that way.) Male political operatives, she said, “are deified for being rakish and cursing and drinking and women are expected to be, like, school marms.” Sitting there in her black tee shirt and cutoff jean short-shorts while queuing up Johnny Cash and Guns N’ Roses on the jukebox, Smith looked like the farthest thing from a school marm. She’s fun — something that is in exceedingly short supply in today’s Democratic Party.

She learned the strategic importance of fun from McAuliffe. “Republican leaders said the fact that he was relentless, the fact that he always invited them over for beers, made it easier for them to work with him,” she said. “We sometimes are perceived as the party of school monitors, but we don’t have to be, and there are a lot of people in our party who are not that way. I would say Joe Biden, especially, is not that way.”

Maybe so, but Biden isn’t exactly winning over many Americans these days. And he’s walled off the press. “Biden is not the slickest, sharpest talker on the block, but he never has been,” she says. “That was always his appeal as Obama’s running mate. I worked as the campaign’s director of rapid response in 2012, and there was a yin-yang dynamic. At times, it could be frustrating, because in my job, I’d always have to clean up when he’d say, ‘Good morning, Pennsylvania,’ when he was in Ohio, or talk about Governor Tom Kaine when he meant Tim Kaine, but that’s part of his regular-guy appeal. Most people don’t speak in perfectly formed sentences.” She said Biden should get out there and “talk to people every day, let them know you feel their pain, you’re on top of it, you’re listening to them, and care less about what the D.C. media is saying about your style, and whether you won the day or not.” Perhaps she should go work for the White House. Somniferous Biden could use a doubleshot, and there are job openings, after all.

Her passion for politics is clear, and sometimes, at least according to her book, this can get blurred into her feelings for the politicians too. When John Edwards first lost in 2004, she wrote about how she “sobbed uncontrollably. Edwards was my first political love. When his campaign ended, it hurt as badly as my first breakup.” At Dartmouth, she dated her professor, Jeff Smith, and then moved with him to Missouri when he ran for state senate. “I’d always been a little boy crazy,” Smith writes. After Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor, busted in a prostitution scandal, he ran for city comptroller in a splashy attempted comeback bid in 2013 and hired Smith. She fell hard, writing, “I was a goner the second I agreed to consult for him.”

Their relationship became tabloid dynamite. The New York Post staked out her apartment, her parents’ house, and tracked the couple to Jamaica. It’s clear the scrutiny took its toll. She writes about developing insomnia, paranoia, picking up a Klonopin prescription and losing, for a while, her sense of self-confidence. After years spent shaping press for others, seeing herself slinking across the cover of the tabs was like looking into a funhouse mirror. “Every scandal needs its archetypal characters, and the role I’d been cast in was that of the conniving whore,” she writes. Particularly acute was the agony of explaining it all to her family: “Trust me — no dad or brother ever wants to hear the words, ‘I’m in love with Eliot Spitzer.”

De Blasio, for whom she was a chief spokeswoman when he ran for mayor in 2013, fired her after news of her relationship with Spitzer became public. And she’s not forgiven him. She writes about the rising panic she felt when she first interviewed with de Blasio, realizing that “the likely incoming mayor of New York was childish, intellectually lazy, overconfident in his own abilities, and annoyingly condescending.” She describes him spewing pseudo-intellectualisms while sipping Chianti, his teeth stained purple. “I basically blacked out for the next ten minutes as he talked about everything from Fiorello La Guardia to Buddhism,” she writes, comparing him to the “gross unshowered guy in college who showed up to Philosophy 101 and hogged ten minutes of class time to yell about the necessity of seizing the means of production.” Smith writes how “disingenuous” her firing was, given that a top de Blasio aide — the incoming head of New York City’s Department of Investigation — had been emailing Spitzer repeatedly, begging for his support, writing in one email that “Bill and I were both wondering if you would be open to getting involved.”

“I can see why de Blasio was pissed,” writes Smith. “Both of us had tried to get in bed with Eliot, but only one of us had been successful.”

None of which aligns with how most politicians, or even their operatives, talk these days. But again, she’s no school marm. Post Me Too, workplace entanglements are verboten. But she has only so much patience for that. “My parents met at the workplace, when my dad was in a position of power over my mom,” Smith shrugged. “I dated my college professor. I dated a candidate I consulted for. In my case, I didn’t feel like there were any power dynamics, but I fully understand that other circumstances might be different.”

The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” began to play in the bar. “I wanted this to be Pete’s campaign anthem,” she said, “but our campaign lawyer said it had Me Too undertones. We went with ‘High Hopes.’”

She thinks Ron DeSantis could be a formidable 2024 contender. “To succeed in the Republican Party,” she said, “it’s not as much about ideological purity. Sometimes it’s more about how much you hate the people the Republican base hates. Christie got it, he hated public employees as much as the Republican base did. Trump hated immigrants as much as or more than the Republican base did. With DeSantis, it’s the experts, and he’s taken on the experts in the education field, the experts in the medical field. He combines it with a real working-class pedigree, and an Ivy League pedigree, and I think he’s figured out the right style, and the right Republican erogenous zones to hit with everything he does.”

The Democratic backbench appears to be nonexistent. “We’ve got to look outside D.C., because voters can smell D.C. on politicians,” said Smith. “I think the future is found a lot of times in states and cities.” She’s been helping out the Michigan Democrat Mallory McMorrow. She also cites as stars the Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval, Colin Allred of Texas, and Ritchie Torres in the Bronx.

Does she worry this book she’s written might torch future job prospects? “Sure, there are people who won’t hire me after reading it,” said Smith. “The decision I made was that, I don’t give a fuck. If you think I’m good at what I do, you’ll hire me. If this bothers you, then you weren’t worth my time anyway.”

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On 7/8/2022 at 9:56 AM, Lonnie said:

New Lis Smith book interview:

Lis Smith Loves Politics (If Not All Politicians)

1b57d487ec655d8099b793c447051c2cdf-liz-s
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

There’s nobody more fun to get spun by than Lis Smith. A hard-rockin’, quick-draw political operative who, in her own telling, loves “some good trench warfare” and “to roll around in the mud,” she became famous for making Mayor Pete semi-plausible as a presidential candidate. She has a sharp answer for everything, and an unnerving nerviness.

And yet … is she really tearing up when I ask her about working for Governor Cuomo during his auto-da-fé last year?

“It’s hard for me to talk about,” she said, clenching her teeth and a bottle of Bud Light last Friday night at Barrow’s Pub, a dive bar near her apartment in the West Village. We were there to discuss Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story, her new book out Tuesday, July 19, which ends with her time attempting to advise Cuomo on communications. Not that he was listening. She knew going in that the job was “notoriously an exercise in masochism,” and contends that she got played by Cuomo. “He’s someone I cared for, I loved, I trusted, I viewed as a mentor, a father figure, and it breaks my heart,” she said, lower lip quivering.

After the first blush of accusations against Cuomo, she’d stuck around because he swore he’d merely been “stupid” and that nothing else would emerge. The ground kept shifting as more women came forward. As Smith writes, “America’s governor was quickly turning into America’s asshole.” The eventual attorney general’s report on his sleazy behavior was the coup de Cuomo.

Smith said it pains her to think of “the collateral damage of his actions, all the people who lost their jobs and had their reputation ruined. Frankly, I’m not one of them.” But some of that mud did splash back on her, I pointed out. Texts between Cuomo aides that were published as part of the attorney general’s report showed Smith bragging about how she worked over reporters. (In other words: She got caught doing her job.) Read one entry: “I’m texting w Katy tur. Katy is saying my spin live. Like verbatim on CNN.” Tur, who actually works for MSNBC, was furious about that. “That was taken completely out of context and was completely unfair to her,” Smith protested. “She was talking to Cuomo sources and I was a Cuomo source. She did nothing wrong. She did something people do every day of the week. That is her job. I do feel bad about that.”

But Smith also had a spicy anecdote to drop: “In the last week or two of Cuomo’s governorship, when Cuomo was hemming and hawing and defying all his advisers about whether or not he should resign, Chris Christie confided in one of the advisers that he would personally get in his car and drive to Albany to get Andrew to resign.” (The two ex-govs are as tight as traffic on the GWB.)

Smith, 39, has advised races for governor’s mansions (Terry McAuliffe; Jon Corzine), the Senate (Claire McCaskill), and the White House (Barack Obama; Pete Buttigieg). She grew up in Bronxville, just outside the city, the daughter of two lawyers deeply enmeshed in politics. She was inspired by the The War Room, the documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign that focuses on his strategists, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. “That was, for me, why I wanted to get into this,” she said, “but let’s be real, it’s a very male movie.” That didn’t intimidate her much. Smith is comfortable in her own skin, drinking, smoking, swearing, and — when necessary — intimidating, all from behind her Gucci sunglasses, which she often wears inside for the same reason Anna Wintour is said to: so nobody can see what she is looking at.

0a6da141046f039bd8391b6450400a416d-pete-
With Pete Buttigieg in April 2019. Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Smith writes that a presidential campaign is “unpredictable. It’s not like tracking a menstrual cycle and knowing the window when you’ll be most fertile or the day you need to carry tampons in your purse.” (I bet Karl Rove has never thought of it quite that way.) Male political operatives, she said, “are deified for being rakish and cursing and drinking and women are expected to be, like, school marms.” Sitting there in her black tee shirt and cutoff jean short-shorts while queuing up Johnny Cash and Guns N’ Roses on the jukebox, Smith looked like the farthest thing from a school marm. She’s fun — something that is in exceedingly short supply in today’s Democratic Party.

She learned the strategic importance of fun from McAuliffe. “Republican leaders said the fact that he was relentless, the fact that he always invited them over for beers, made it easier for them to work with him,” she said. “We sometimes are perceived as the party of school monitors, but we don’t have to be, and there are a lot of people in our party who are not that way. I would say Joe Biden, especially, is not that way.”

Maybe so, but Biden isn’t exactly winning over many Americans these days. And he’s walled off the press. “Biden is not the slickest, sharpest talker on the block, but he never has been,” she says. “That was always his appeal as Obama’s running mate. I worked as the campaign’s director of rapid response in 2012, and there was a yin-yang dynamic. At times, it could be frustrating, because in my job, I’d always have to clean up when he’d say, ‘Good morning, Pennsylvania,’ when he was in Ohio, or talk about Governor Tom Kaine when he meant Tim Kaine, but that’s part of his regular-guy appeal. Most people don’t speak in perfectly formed sentences.” She said Biden should get out there and “talk to people every day, let them know you feel their pain, you’re on top of it, you’re listening to them, and care less about what the D.C. media is saying about your style, and whether you won the day or not.” Perhaps she should go work for the White House. Somniferous Biden could use a doubleshot, and there are job openings, after all.

Her passion for politics is clear, and sometimes, at least according to her book, this can get blurred into her feelings for the politicians too. When John Edwards first lost in 2004, she wrote about how she “sobbed uncontrollably. Edwards was my first political love. When his campaign ended, it hurt as badly as my first breakup.” At Dartmouth, she dated her professor, Jeff Smith, and then moved with him to Missouri when he ran for state senate. “I’d always been a little boy crazy,” Smith writes. After Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor, busted in a prostitution scandal, he ran for city comptroller in a splashy attempted comeback bid in 2013 and hired Smith. She fell hard, writing, “I was a goner the second I agreed to consult for him.”

Their relationship became tabloid dynamite. The New York Post staked out her apartment, her parents’ house, and tracked the couple to Jamaica. It’s clear the scrutiny took its toll. She writes about developing insomnia, paranoia, picking up a Klonopin prescription and losing, for a while, her sense of self-confidence. After years spent shaping press for others, seeing herself slinking across the cover of the tabs was like looking into a funhouse mirror. “Every scandal needs its archetypal characters, and the role I’d been cast in was that of the conniving whore,” she writes. Particularly acute was the agony of explaining it all to her family: “Trust me — no dad or brother ever wants to hear the words, ‘I’m in love with Eliot Spitzer.”

De Blasio, for whom she was a chief spokeswoman when he ran for mayor in 2013, fired her after news of her relationship with Spitzer became public. And she’s not forgiven him. She writes about the rising panic she felt when she first interviewed with de Blasio, realizing that “the likely incoming mayor of New York was childish, intellectually lazy, overconfident in his own abilities, and annoyingly condescending.” She describes him spewing pseudo-intellectualisms while sipping Chianti, his teeth stained purple. “I basically blacked out for the next ten minutes as he talked about everything from Fiorello La Guardia to Buddhism,” she writes, comparing him to the “gross unshowered guy in college who showed up to Philosophy 101 and hogged ten minutes of class time to yell about the necessity of seizing the means of production.” Smith writes how “disingenuous” her firing was, given that a top de Blasio aide — the incoming head of New York City’s Department of Investigation — had been emailing Spitzer repeatedly, begging for his support, writing in one email that “Bill and I were both wondering if you would be open to getting involved.”

“I can see why de Blasio was pissed,” writes Smith. “Both of us had tried to get in bed with Eliot, but only one of us had been successful.”

None of which aligns with how most politicians, or even their operatives, talk these days. But again, she’s no school marm. Post Me Too, workplace entanglements are verboten. But she has only so much patience for that. “My parents met at the workplace, when my dad was in a position of power over my mom,” Smith shrugged. “I dated my college professor. I dated a candidate I consulted for. In my case, I didn’t feel like there were any power dynamics, but I fully understand that other circumstances might be different.”

The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” began to play in the bar. “I wanted this to be Pete’s campaign anthem,” she said, “but our campaign lawyer said it had Me Too undertones. We went with ‘High Hopes.’”

She thinks Ron DeSantis could be a formidable 2024 contender. “To succeed in the Republican Party,” she said, “it’s not as much about ideological purity. Sometimes it’s more about how much you hate the people the Republican base hates. Christie got it, he hated public employees as much as the Republican base did. Trump hated immigrants as much as or more than the Republican base did. With DeSantis, it’s the experts, and he’s taken on the experts in the education field, the experts in the medical field. He combines it with a real working-class pedigree, and an Ivy League pedigree, and I think he’s figured out the right style, and the right Republican erogenous zones to hit with everything he does.”

The Democratic backbench appears to be nonexistent. “We’ve got to look outside D.C., because voters can smell D.C. on politicians,” said Smith. “I think the future is found a lot of times in states and cities.” She’s been helping out the Michigan Democrat Mallory McMorrow. She also cites as stars the Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval, Colin Allred of Texas, and Ritchie Torres in the Bronx.

Does she worry this book she’s written might torch future job prospects? “Sure, there are people who won’t hire me after reading it,” said Smith. “The decision I made was that, I don’t give a fuck. If you think I’m good at what I do, you’ll hire me. If this bothers you, then you weren’t worth my time anyway.”

I haven't read her book but, from your post, might we assume she'd work for Buttigieg if he runs in 2024?

I hope he does.

 

 

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8 hours ago, Pete1111 said:

I hope he does.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have someone to root and maybe work for...right now he's in a lose-lose position with energy prices soaring and green energy still a futuristic dream.

I don't think he's enjoying his job as Transportation Secretary or being in Washington D.C.  It must of been humiliating that no one noticed when he stayed home for 2 months paternity leave.

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13 hours ago, Lonnie said:

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have someone to root and maybe work for...right now he's in a lose-lose position with energy prices soaring and green energy still a futuristic dream.

I don't think he's enjoying his job as Transportation Secretary or being in Washington D.C.  It must of been humiliating that no one noticed when he stayed home for 2 months paternity leave.

Fox gave him grief about taking leave.  

One might wonder whether Pete and family are missing their spacious home in South Bend.    Apartment life in DC must be a huge change for his hubby and dogs.

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On 7/19/2022 at 6:25 AM, Lonnie said:

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have someone to root and maybe work for...right now he's in a lose-lose position with energy prices soaring and green energy still a futuristic dream.

I don't think he's enjoying his job as Transportation Secretary or being in Washington D.C.  It must of been humiliating that no one noticed when he stayed home for 2 months paternity leave.

He's actually lived here most of his adult life. Was a lobbyist for Republican ex-Sec Cohen's military firms. Almost won chair of DNC. Lived here for much of his McKinsey/Saudi Arabia work too. Don't believe the theater. 

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On 7/23/2022 at 4:43 PM, Pete1111 said:

use the N word.

Don't be so sensitive Pete1111...tassojunior didn't use the "n" word without overwriting it to make it cartoonish...diminishing it's hateful sting.

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