with Lloyd Grove
Lloyd Grove has written "The Reliable Source" column at the Washington Post for the past 4 years. He left in late July to launch a gossip column for the New York Daily News that debuts this October. Grove grew up in Los Angeles and Greenwich, Connecticut, majored in English at Yale University, and worked for several newspapers before he began writing for the Washington Post 23 years ago. Grove first worked on the Weekend section of the Post, then later joined the Style section of the paper as a general assignment writer with a special interest in politics. In 1988, he spent a year and a half covering the presidential campaign for the Post's National staff, returning in 1991 to Style, where he served as a political reporter, and also covered television and movies occasionally. Grove has written extensively for Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar, as well as the now defunct George and Talk magazines. Before leaving for Manhattan, Grove, who has jokingly described himself as a "guttersnipe gossip columnist," sat down with WL Editor in Chief Nancy Bagley.
Washington Life: How did you get the New York Daily News job?
Lloyd Grove: It was like an endless fishing expedition with a high-tech line trying to land a marlin, although I may have been the marlin. Amy [Holmes, Grove's girlfriend] and I were at the Miramax party in Los Angeles on Oscar weekend, and Mort Zuckerman pulled me aside to ask if I'd ever consider plying my trade in New York? I said, "Not really." And the conversation continued. Harvey Weinstein was standing nearby and commented, "Oh, I see jobs are being talked about." And I said, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no," while Mort giggled. But, four months later I signed a contract.
WL: I remember reading something about a drink being thrown in your face at that party?
LG: No, that was Richard Johnson, [New York Post gossip columnist] but Tim Robbins physically threatened me, after a short discussion about some items I'd written about his partner, actress Susan Sarandon's mother being a rampant Republican. He said, "If you ever write about my family again, I will f***ing find you and I will f***ing hurt you."
WL: He's a celebrity and has had a lot written about him. That seems strange.
LG: I did a whole interview with her and quoted her views. He particularly objected to my quoting his son's grandmother saying she didn't want to talk about politics with her 13-year-old grandson, Jack Henry, because his parents had brainwashed him politically.
WL: Did well-known Washingtonians ever pitch items about themselves or their enemies?
LG: I frequently hear from people in public office, people in Cabinet positions, and midlevel staffers. I hear regularly from the people in the White House and elsewhere. I must say that the Clinton administration was much better about that than the Bush administration. However, now that the Bush White House is becoming an unhappy place, I'm starting to hear from people who are anxious and eager to see items about their rivals in print. I'm very interested in talking to new people in the White House who are disaffected, and who think things should be going better. Use me. The New York Daily News wants to be at your service.
WL: You've written quite a bit about the Bush girls. What makes them fair game?
LG: These are the daughters of the President. They're out there doing illegal things in public. I wrote they were spotted by numerous people having a great time at a local Washington bar sucking down Budweisers, smoking cigarettes, and getting down on the floor to help some guy who was doing party tricks, or whatever. In D.C., unlike Texas, they would [normally] be hauled off to jail. They would put the cuffs on them and drag them out. Then they'd have to send Karl Rove to bail them out. I got a lot of reaction from it, and then I was invited on Crossfire where both Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson whaled the tar out of me. I was unprepared. But the point is: look, these are the daughters of the President. I'm all for 19- and 20- year-olds drinking as much as they want, if they want to, but don't do it in public if you're the President's daughters.
WL: But they're not public figures.
LG: They are public figures, by definition, because they're in the First Family, and are celebrities in American culture. You can't ignore them. The Clintons had a special case because their daughter was twelve when they arrived in Washington. So most people were very sympathetic to the idea that Chelsea deserved some privacy. Then she went off to Stanford, but she wasn't doing what the Bush girls [were doing]. She wasn't a party girl. She is now, and she's getting her fair share of coverage for that.
WL: You've gone to dozens of Washington parties. What were some of the best?
LG: Well, of course, there's the Washington Life party at the Ritz-Carlton, and one of the more interesting parties that I attended was a birthday party for [Rep.] John Dingell at Ron and Beth Dozoretz's house. It was just before the election of 2000 and everybody was there from the Hill: senators, congressmen, everyone showed up. Amy and I were talking to FBI Director Louis Freeh and his wife Marilyn, and the telling moment came when Al Gore walked in and no one so much as looked up. This was the nominee of the Democratic Party. I think the best parties are ones like this, where there were real reasons to be together with genuine friends.
WL: Does the CIA ever call you?
LG: No, I'm afraid I won no friends at the CIA, because I did an item about how they set a practice, year after year, of hand delivering cards into their immediate neighbors' mailboxes in McLean asking if anything suspicious is seen to call a certain number.
WL: Washington Life knows that is illegal, which is why we deliver the magazine to people's doors or driveways.
LG: Yes, it turns out it's a felony violation of Federal mail regulations. It resulted in the Postal Service calling the CIA to slap its wrist. The CIA promised they would never do it again. So, the CIA was very irritated with me.
WL: What do you tell someone who might want to pitch an item?
LG: Don't self-edit. You might not think a story is all that interesting, but there may be something in it that fascinates me. And just know that you'll have an eager ear in me. What I really love is human interest and conflict. That's really the heart and soul of a gossip column. And, I must have a way of checking it out from another source.
WL: Do you ever feel guilty about anything you write?
LG: No, I went through that before I agreed to take the job. If the item checks out and is accurate and interesting, then it's printable. I did have some moderate moments of handwringing over writing about the private romantic lives of people, but I got over that when I became a target of such reportage in the New York Daily News.
WL: I remember reading something about you in Washingtonian magazine.
LG: Yes, and the Washingtonian is not nice. Some of the people who write and edit that magazine, particularly in the front section, don't know which way is up - journalistically - and don't bother to make phone calls and verify things. It's full of mistakes. But they take their fabrications and print them in ways to be damaging. If any of those people had to write a daily column in The Washington Post, they'd be spending most of their time in depositions for libel.
WL: Why do you think people don't sue the Washingtonian more often?
LG: Because they're so irrelevant.
WL: Are there any last-minute stories you haven't shared with your readers?
LG: It's my inclination to save some of that for New York because I'm starting at a deficit.
WL: Just one...
LG: Well, let me tell you about something The Washington Post wouldn't let me print. About halfway through the general election campaign of 2000, I got word or shall I say, got wind of the fact that George W. Bush thought it was funny to punctuate a joke by breaking wind in groups of people. I first heard a story that during the campaign he called a new desk aide of Karl Rove's into his office to give him an "Austin Welcome".
WL: Oh, you're kidding.
LG: And this story got some circulation. It finally got to the point where Ari Fleischer was calling to deny it up and down, after some rather non-denial denials from the principal himself. And then later on, he was doing an interview on the plane with a news-magazine reporter where he ended up adjusting the air nozzle on the plane. He said he had just broken wind and that part is off the record. That never made print. But later on, UPI reported that during one of those secret energy meetings that Cheney hosted, Bush joked that perhaps his own natural gas was meant to be harnessed to solve the energy problem.
WL: Why wouldn't they print it? Did you have back up witnesses?
LG: Oh, I was confident it was publishable. I had multiple witnesses to various behaviors. I'd assume they thought it was pushing the envelope a little too far and I can't quarrel with that.
WL: Is there a story that you regret not reporting?
LG: Yes, I regret not reporting about a certain famous network correspondent who had been prone to fender-benders in the parking lot of their Washington bureau. This person, who I will not name, pleaded with me not to write about it, and I offered to give it a pass if they would help me on other things in the future. But, the opposite was the case.
WL: Why does this person care that much about a fender-bender? I don't understand.
LG: You'd have to ask this person. I don't think this person was interested in having any type of publicity that might give people a little chuckle over their cereal. This person's husband did not know about this fender-bender? I have no idea.
WL: Anything else?
LG: The First Lady Laura Bush, despite her protestations to the contrary, has not quit smoking. She has been known to bum cigarettes behind the scenes. I have several reports of her smoking in the quad at Davenport College, that's at Yale. She was once asked on CNN Inside Politics if she smoked and she said no. So, that was a little gray lie.
WL: Well, good luck in New York. We're certainly going to miss reading your column.
LG: It'll be syndicated, so you might even get it in one of your local newspapers.