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Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker on his Darrell Issa story

Tuesday, January 18, 2011
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HH: This half hour, special treat. I am talking with Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for the New Yorker Magazine, and widely regarded as one of the premiere political reporters of the United States working at this time. Ryan, welcome to the program, great to have you on.

RL: Oh, man, Hugh. You must be setting me up for some tough questions with that intro.

HH: Well, that may happen, may not.

RL: But I do appreciate it. Thank you for having me on.

HH: Well, I’ve been reading you since New Republic days. And I read with great fascination this week’s issue of the New Yorker with your profile of Darrell Issa. Now I’d like to go behind the scenes a little bit. I survived a New Yorker profile written by your colleague, Nick Lemann.

RL: I remember.

HH: But I negotiated a long time with Nick before agreeing to do it. Tell us how the Darrell Issa agreement evolved. Who did you call up and say hey, I’m from the New Yorker, and you can trust me?

RL: Actually, there’s a good story behind that, because it gets to the Howard Kurtz thing. So I, let’s see, I started, I decided probably late October, early November, that you know, when it was clear that the Republicans were going to take over the House, and that we had already assigned a Boehner piece, so I wasn’t going to do Boehner, I thought who’s another interesting leader in this new Republican Congress that our readers would want to know about? And I thought well of course, it’s the incoming chairman of this committee, where there’ll be a lot of action in Issa’s committee. And there always is when we have a Republican House or a Democratic…when we have a House and White House controlled by two different parties. And so I started, I went to a lunch that Issa was at before the election, where it was sort of a lunch where he was reaching out to the press, and trying to get to know people, and basically trying to get his message out that he was not going to be a super partisan investigator, launching witch hunts. He was trying to very clearly differentiate himself from Dan Burton, whose reputation was harmed in the way that he investigated the Clinton White House in the 90s. And immediately, I thought he was interesting. And after the lunch, I went up to his spokesperson, and said hey, would you guys like to cooperate on a profile? And his spokesperson said yeah, let’s talk after the election, I’m sure we would. So flash forward to after the election. I call, and they’re kind of it lockdown. They don’t want to talk to the press at all, because Issa wants to wait until he’s formally elected chairman. So one day, I sit down at my computer and I read a profile of Darrell Issa in the Daily Beast, a piece by Howie Kurtz.

HH: Okay.

RL: And the piece quotes Darrell Issa. And it seemed like he interviewed Darrell Issa. I called Issa’s spokesperson, and he said, I said hey, I thought you told me I couldn’t interview Issa? What happened here? And he said Ryan, I swear to God, we didn’t do an interview with Howie Kurtz. Howie was talking to me, and he thought he was talking to the Congressman.

HH: That detail is in this profile. You’re referring to Kurt Bardella.

RL: Yes.

HH: By the way, I spoke with Kurt today.

RL: Okay.

HH: I called him up and said Kurt, got a reaction to the New Yorker piece? Nope, no reaction. (laughing) Not a good sign.

RL: I mean, you know, Kurt’s a really good guy.

HH: Yes, he is.

RL: And I came to like him quite a bit. And I hope that shines through a little bit in the piece. He’s a character, he’s a very confident young guy, like a lot of Washington operatives. And I thought you know, did the best he could for his boss. And eventually, to finish the story, you know, eventually Kurt said all right, I’ll talk to Issa about it. Kurt told me that he and Issa talked for a half hour, and had a meeting for thirty minutes to decide whether to cooperate or not. And at the end of the day, they decided to do it. And look, we’re not, not all of this in the piece, but several times while I was interviewing Congressman Issa, he said look, I’ll be very honest with you. The reason I’m talking to the New Yorker is because I need to reach beyond the conservative base. For the last two years, I’ve been in the minority, my job was a little bit different then. I was really concentrating on conservative constituents, conservative media. And now I want to broaden that out. And at one point, he said I need to move from the right to the center. And so I think that largely drove their decision to talk to a sort of general interest magazine like the New Yorker.

HH: How much time did you spend with him, because it’s apparent this has been in the oven for a while.

RL: I talked to him for a total of five hours – two one-hour sessions in his office in Washington, and then for about three hours over the course of basically an afternoon in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. About an hour of that was just us walking around the floor of the convention chit-chatting, talking to, looking at gadgets, and then about two hours, or maybe about an hour and forty minutes, going through the really tough stuff in the piece. And then we talked for about twenty more minutes doing, you know, fact-checking, and a final phone call when I was writing the piece.

HH: I want to come to that final phone call, very interesting, and it concludes the piece. But before I do that, on the Bell Curve of Congressional personalities, legislators, elected people, where you’ve got the 10% at the not-so-bright, really dumb end, and you’ve got the 10% at the really smart, where do you put Issa?

RL: Hugh, now that’s a good question. And I think he’s pretty smart.

HH: Yup.

RL: I think he’s pretty damned smart, and I think that’s partly the reason that leadership had the confidence in him to chair that committee, despite them having to know that there are a number of controversies in his past that always come up when he’s sort of reached a certain level in politics. So…but he, you know, I think he impressed leadership with the way he took on the Democrats on that committee over the last couple of years. He was pretty, he’s proven to be pretty savvy with the media. And part of that, he joked to me, part of that was Kurt, his press secretary, as he joked and we refer to as his secret weapon. But you know, I’ll also say this. He’s a very confident guy, very confident in his opinions. And in a sense, he’s a normal person. You know how a normal person in the course of a conversation will make mistakes, and say things that are wrong. Except when you’re a powerful Congressman, there are costs to that. And a number of times in the interview, you know, I was surprised. He made sort of little statements that when I later on checked out, were not quite 100% accurate. I put a couple of small examples in the piece. Now I don’t know if that’s a serious flaw that is going to haunt him, or if it’s just, you know, we were in conversation for a long time, and he spoke inaccurately a few times. But that’s something to watch. That is something to watch, to see if that becomes a thing for him, if the media really seizes on that.

HH: I’ve known him for fifteen years. I’ve interviewed him a number of times. He’s very, very smart. That’s why I’m a little surprised at the end when he calls you, and he was, “concerned” about all my questions regarding his early life, and didn’t see why they were newsworthy. Well, they’re not newsworthy in California. I mean, it’s all asked and answered out here. And you do a good job for a reader who doesn’t know anything about him. But do you really think he, or Kurt, or anyone on Team Issa, didn’t think that the New Yorker was going to go back over every one of these allegations?

RL: Well, you know, I think…my argument to him was look, this stuff, you know, he was complaining that his Wikipedia page keeps getting changed, and gets, getting changed to emphasize these allegations. And I said look, this stuff is not going away. And most, I know you think that this is all in the past, and that reporters have already looked at this and it’s over, but that’s not the case. This was looked at by California reporters when you were running for the Senate in 1998, and when you were doing the recall in 2003. That’s a long time ago. And most reporters don’t know any of that. I mean, I was shocked at the number of people, when I was writing this story, that didn’t know anything about him, didn’t know anything about his history. And you know, so to you in California, to people that have paid attention to his career, and obviously to him, this, a lot of that stuff is not new. But to, certainly to the New Yorker’s audience, certainly to me as a reporter, and certainly to most people that read that article, it’s brand new.

HH: Oh, I know. I’m surprised by his surprise.

RL: Yeah, exactly. And I think that by the end of it, I keep describing him in those interviews as sort of exhausted and frustrated, like you know, I can’t believe I have to do another round talking about this crap, although he didn’t use that word, actually.

HH: But I would. It is so much crap. Now I know why you have to cover it. But it was all just, Eric Lichtblau, I don’t expect you to agree with me, he is a notorious hatchet.

RL: He really hates Eric Lichtblau. I mean, I was surprise at how…

HH: You would, too. If you were here when Lichtblau did this, it was so unprofessional. It was the worst bit of political reporter. As good as you are, he’s that bad.

RL: Look, Hugh, if there were, I mean, you can’t say…there are five incidents. They’re all pretty serious incidents. Only one of them resulted in any kind of conviction. But they’re all pretty serious. And if you’re doing a long biographical profile about the guy, you can’t ignore it.

HH: Oh, no. A) I think you handled it responsibly. I think Lichtblau’s pieces from that era did not do the obvious stuff.

RL: Well, I read them. I think those pieces had a bit of an edge, but I didn’t find anything factually incorrect with them.

HH: No, it’s all about how you get your response. When we come back from break, I’m going to give you my one example of a tough question. I’ve got one tough question for you, then I want to talk to you about a couple of other things.

RL: All right. I can take it.

– – – –

HH: Ryan, one small argument.

RL: Go ahead.

HH: One large argument, and then a couple of questions. The small one is at one point, there’s a character in here, Franklin Porath.

RL: Yeah.

HH: And he’s fairly central in doing a real hit on Darrell Issa. You quote him as saying, “Issa is the most evil man I ever met.”

RL: Yeah.

HH: Now here’s my journalistic problem with that. You didn’t tell me anything about Franklin Porath. I don’t know who to believe. I know…that’s…

RL: Yeah, I think…look, I think that’s fair, and I’ll be very honest with you, Hugh. That was a quote that I struggled with over whether to put in or not. And here’s why I decided to do it in the end. When I was going through, when I was talking to Issa about the most serious allegation that’s been leveled against him, and that is his former business associates accuse him of arson, his factory burned down, and basically these guys, I mean, they were sort of rough and tumble, early electronics business in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 80s. They were, you know, it seems like they didn’t, they weren’t all getting along, long story short, they sort of all pointed the finger at each other after this fire. So both Congressman Issa and his brother, William, Congressman Issa was very careful. He said I’m not leveling an allegation, but the biggest beneficiary from that fire was this company, Pied Piper, which was co-owned by this guy, Frank Porath, who uses the evil quote. Congressman Issa’s brother, William, went further and said I believe that the guy that owned Pied Piper did it. So now this guy is being accused of arson as well. And so I went to him and I said look, the Issa brothers are pointing the finger at you, what’s your response? And I felt like he had, he had, he said what he said. That’s what he wanted. That was his sort of main comment on the whole thing. And I felt like if this guy’s being accused of arson, he can come right back at them and use the word evil.

HH: And that he accuses…

RL: And he throws it back at Issa and says no, he did it.

HH: Now I’ve read this stuff fairly extensively because of the 1998 campaign.

RL: Yeah.

HH: And I don’t believe there’s any merit to it. But I can see why you’d be interested in it.

RL: It’s sort of, look, he was never charged. The state of Ohio did not determine the cause of the fire.

HH: Didn’t the insurance company pay?

RL: Now the insurance company, I have to report, and I don’t know if this came out in ’98, but I have the report that they commissioned, and their investigators determined that the fire was caused by arson.

HH: But didn’t they pay?

RL: They did.

HH: You see, that…

RL: They paid twenty…well, it’s complicated, though. There were multiple claims, because there were multiple businesses in this location. And they did pay him $20,000 dollars, even though he was insured for four hundred…they paid him an initial payment of $25,000 dollars, which I don’t think was reported in ’98, but that’s what Issa told me, even thought he was insured for $462,000 dollars. And then they entered into litigation over a second payment. And at the end of that litigation, and this, Issa told me for the first time, I don’t think it was known, Issa sued them for $175,000 dollars, and he got $20,000 dollars.

HH: Okay, I don’t know that. That’s news to me.

RL: So that was news in the piece, and maybe I wasn’t careful pointing out some of the things that weren’t reported previously.

HH: Yeah, what I was, though, what I come back to is when you have obviously a business litigation situation, and enemies in the business world, and you quote one of them with the evil thing, I just wanted to know more about Franklin Porath. What do you think of him?

RL: I think that’s fair. I think that’s fair. I think that all of the people involved, and basically you have four. You have Darrell Issa, you have his brother, Billy Issa, who’s quoted and is leveling accusations. And then you have the two business associates. One is a guy named Joey Adkins, who…and then you have this guy, Franklin Porath. Now I don’t know about Franklin Porath, but the other three all happen to be some criminal…

HH: That’s what I thought.

RL: …convicted. No, but I’m talking about the Congressman, too.

HH: Well, that is what I thought, though. You’ve got a bunch of Ohio guys in a nasty situation that Darrell’s been investigated a number of times. Let’s just leave it at that, because I want to get to the big thing.

RL You got it.

HH: Here’s my big argument with the piece. I want to know where he’s going.

RL: Yeah.

HH: I hope he’s going after Freddie and Fannie, and where the money went. I want to know where all the board members took their salaries, I want to know about the lawyers and the lobbyists, because a lot of people got very wealthy. And I want to know about the Big Pharma deal with the Obama administration on Team Obama’s watch. There’s a lot of big stuff. I don’t know where he’s going when I finish your piece. Where’s…

RL: I…look, that’s a fair point, too. Actually, I may do some blogging about this, this week, because other people have asked that. And at the end of the day, he wasn’t very clear about it. And he didn’t want to tell me. And he’s been dribbling things out over the last week. But if he had opened up that process to me, believe me, it would have been in the piece. But he was very coy. He talks…I mean, the thing, quite frankly, in all the time we talked about what he was going to investigate, the thing that he was the most passionate in talking about was Climategate, which now his spokesman says no, they have no plans to investigate that. That’s not what Issa told me. I mean, Issa was really worked up about Climategate, and said that he had jurisdiction over a couple of, over whether federal funds were used to provide research for the climate group in East Anglia, and whether they committed fraud. He was really into it when I talked to him. His spokesman is saying that now, there’s no plans to look at that. He was really worked up about Freddie and Fannie, really worked up about Countrywide.

HH: Yeah.

RL: Not so worked up about the Sestak incident anymore. I didn’t hear him, we never talked about the Pharma deal, although I know last year, that was certainly something that he and the Republican…

HH: Oh, I hope you blog on that, because that matters. Last question.

RL: All right. I mean, you’ve inspired me to go through some of the stuff that he did mention, and so give readers a little bit more of an idea.

HH: I want to go finish with Kurt Bardella.

RL: Yes.

HH: At one point, you quote the press secretary, this young 27 year old who comes out of Escondido. And I talked to him earlier, and I said where did you go to school, and he didn’t. And so he’s…

RL: Yeah, he didn’t graduate college. He’s got a very interesting story.

HH: Very interesting.

RL: Yeah.

HH: But you quote him as saying, “My goal is very simple. I’m going to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure. I’m going to focus like a laser beam on the 500 people here who care about this crap, and that’s it.” Later, you quote him at the trade show talking about plastic surgery, and saying, “Some of these chicks, though, I just want to feed because they’re really, really thin. I’m like God, eat something.” These are indiscreet comments, Ryan. Did he know he was on the clock? Or is this…

RL: Oh, yeah. I mean…

HH: He did?

RL: I mean, the latter one, you know, standing there walking around the convention, I’m shadowing Issa with a recorder in my hand. And look…

HH: It’s great copy.

RL: It’s my job…

HH: It’s your job. Oh, I don’t blame you.

RL :There’s so much B.S. in politics, and so much B.S. in what gets reported. And it’s my, frankly, my mandate in being the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker, is to try and cut through that.

HH: Of course.

RL: …and to try and let readers know what people are really like. And you know, unfortunately, and I really, I like Kurt a lot, and I hope those quotes don’t cause him any trouble.

HH: That’s like the shark saying to the surfer I hope you can get to shore.

RL: (laughing) I know. I know. And you know, it’s a complicated, this is a complicated business. But you know, there are a lot of things Kurt said that were not in the piece. So sometimes you do make decisions…

HH: It is. On that note, I look forward to having you back. It is a complicated business what you guys do. And I’d love to get into that sometime.

RL: Good conversation. I would love to talk to you sometime about it.

HH: Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, great piece. Thanks for joining me, and I look forward to many future conversations. It’s available at www.newyorker.com, America.

End of interview.

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