WaPo Sweepstakes & The Cassidy Hutchinson Market

Fred Ryan
Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan. Photo: Jabin Botsford/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
June 30, 2022

In Washington, funerals aren’t merely the place to mourn. They’re also a ripe setting for gossip, politicking, business card exchanges, and more—a mosaic of only-in-D.C. behavior that Mark Leibovich depicted brilliantly in the opening chapter of This Town, where he portrayed how Tim Russert’s state-like funeral devolved into a networking happy hour between legislators, top journalists, network executives and “power mourners.” That was 2008. Last week, the town’s swells showed up in droves for the funeral of uber-pundit Mark Shields. 

Attendees included the Times managing editor Carolyn Ryan, journalists Al Hunt and Judy Woodruff, the pundit Mara Liasson, the policy analyst Susan Dentzer and the lobbyist Fred Graefe, who mysteriously made it into the “spotted” section of my old haunt, Playbook. Notably, a main topic of conversation was the gaping hole at the top of the Washington Post editorial page, which has been vacant since its legendary editor Fred Hiatt tragically passed away in December at age 66, opening up the position for the third time since Watergate.

Washington Post C.E.O. Fred Ryan’s seven-month search has been anxiety-inducing for the Post, which is still recovering from the Taylor Lorenz kerfuffle and Felicia Sonmez’s rocky departure. Some worry that Ryan, a former Reagan chief of staff and chairman of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, will favor a more center-right candidate. There is also added curiosity about how this might reflect the personal politics of owner Jeff Bezos, whom my Puck partner Dylan Byers noted was very involved in selecting Sally Buzbee to succeed Marty Baron. During conversations with executive editor candidates, Bezos reflected on his distaste for cancel culture. Now, he’ll arguably have the first chance to truly apply the imprimatur of his ownership, indicating his politics beyond his occasional taunting tweets at the White House. After all, an executive editor is entrusted with fair news coverage; an editorial page editor is assigned with ascribing a world view. It’s one reason that figures like Paul Gigot at The Journal and Andy Rosenthal, not to mention Hiatt, took on outsized importance in the news business. At this point in the process, Ryan has been asking candidates for memos, and is nearing a final decision that will be announced soon, in consultation with Bezos.

At the Post, succession has traditionally been well-planned and highly stage-managed. Buzbee’s appointment was announced after a three-and-a-half month search following Baron’s declaration of his retirement. In fact, some were surprised that Ryan didn’t have an instant replacement on hand, as when Don Graham selected Len Downie after Ben Bradlee, or Katherine Weymouth announced that Baron would be taking over on the day that news broke that Marcus Brauchli was leaving. 

The extended Baron succession played out, I’m told, because Ryan made it known he wanted to think outside of the box and deliver “someone who would get a press release,” according to a source familiar. Even those in senior management positions had no idea Buzbee was in the mix until days before her hiring was announced. This time, Ryan has intimated that he will not be dictated by woke culture, according to a person familiar with the search. Ryan is not against picking a white man, for instance, even if it’s out of fashion. He is also considering think-tank types, even though he’s reassured many on the editorial board that he would be selecting a journalist. 

In fact, Ryan made a serious play for Peter Baker, The New York Times star reporter, and former Post star before that, who has long told colleagues he does not want to be an editor. “It was flattering to be asked to think about it. It’s one of the great jobs in American journalism. It just didn’t happen to be right for me at this point,” Baker told me after I reached out. He took himself out of the running about a month ago. 

But this agonizing seven-month search has many at the Post privately griping that Ryan, who was the C.E.O. of Politico before joining the Post, just doesn’t see how important it is to make these decisions quickly. (Alas, the biological clocks of endorphin-hungry journalists and mild-tempered business operators are not always aligned.) Indeed, the Post editorial board has outsized influence in Washington. Hiatt had direct lines to world leaders, the sitting president, top administration officials, lobbyists, senators, and congressmen, who all pined to get their opinion in the pages of the Post, or even just online. The power and traffic of this section of the paper has only grown, now with a staff of close to 90. As Gannett newspapers have given up on opinion and The New York Times has broadened its opinion coverage, the Post has become a more important voice, and many fear losing that edge.

While Ryan is close to making a decision, according to a person close to the process, he has been telling staff for months that “it took Don Graham a year to pick Meg Greenfield’s successor Fred Hiatt” and “we don’t want to do anything rushed and this is a really important position and in some ways it’s harder to find than the executive editor.” (A spokesperson for the Post declined to comment.)

It’s a legacy decision for him as well, since the last two editors were on the page for more than 20 years each. That’s why he’s favoring a younger candidate. “Fred was so beloved that finding his replacement would take a longer time than usual. He held the position for 21 years, and he was only the second after Meg Greenfield,” said Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker. “He was so unique and on so many different levels, how do you replace Fred Hiatt?” At the same time, she added, “Enough time has passed that it would be nice to go ahead and make a decision to let things settle in a bit.” 

In the meantime, Ruth Marcus, Hiatt’s No. 2, has been running the ship with the support of deputy Karen Tumulty. Marcus has made it clear that she would like the job, but her age, 64, is not working in her favor if Ryan wants to appoint a candidate who can steer the ship for more than 20 years. Those close to Marcus say it’s painful to see such a popular and talented leader be passed over for such a long period of time while Ryan carries on his search. “If she doesn’t get it, it’s not fair,” said one columnist. “They owe her to decide and let her know if it’s not her.”

Another candidate, favored by the newsroom, is Pulitzer Prize-winner Carlos Lozada, who decided to withdraw his name from consideration. The New York Times has also been strongly courting Lozada since the spring. And even though Ryan has had meetings with dozens of people in the newsroom about the job, asking for their input on what he should look for in a leader, it’s a total black box, and that’s the way Ryan wants it. “He was very transparent about being non-transparent,” said another columnist. “He said, I’m not going to talk about individuals, expose people,” said another columnist.  

“I’m in the dark as much as anybody else,” said Washington Post columnist and D.C. doyenne Sally Quinn. “I’ve been talking about this past week with a number of friends, and no one has any idea.”

The Talk of This Town…

The Latest in Klainworld: When lobbyist-turned-White House official-turned lobbyist Anita Dunn rejoined the White House again in April, the common refrain around town was that she was a successor-in-waiting for Ron Klain whenever he decides to step down. But as I mentioned the other week, I’m hearing from people close to the White House that Dunn could opt for softer influence by advocating one of her allies, like Susan Rice or even Jeff Zients, for the position. 

Rice, as domestic policy advisor, has been ascendant in Biden’s orbit and Democratic circles, as she slowly expands her influence with a team of policy wonks. Members on both the Democratic and Republican sides say she comes into meetings extremely prepared and was most recently credited with cleaning up the administration’s baby formula fiasco. (Her team was involved in getting Abbott Nutrition to reopen its Michigan plant.) She’s seen as a functional Obama person and many believe there’s a pathway for her to become chief of staff, especially if Dunn decides that she wants to go back to the private sector where she will make infinitely more money while having an ally in the top post. “Anita can leave, install an ally, and make money—or she can stay and make a last ditch effort to save the administration,” said a source close to Biden’s inner circle. 

As for Zients, his credibility as a former member of Obama’s National Economic Council and ties to the business community could position him to help manage an impending economic downturn, just as Klain, the former Ebola czar, was brought in to manage Covid. Another name that’s in the mix for the chief of staff role, if only because of his own conspicuous interest, remains Terry McAuliffe, as I’ve previously noted. Alas, The Macker has told my sources that he prefers something more stately, like a cabinet position. A source close to McAuliffe said that he would be willing to serve wherever the president thought he could be put to best use, but he hasn’t spoken to anyone in the White House about the C.O.S. gig specifically. (A spokesperson for the White House forcefully disagreed with my reporting.)

Cassidy’s Options: The morning after Cassidy Hutchinson’s heroic and gripping retelling of the chaos in West Wing on January 6, my friends at the top of major publishing houses, talent agencies, and networks all asked if I could connect them with Hutchinson, as a former White House reporter. Her lawyer was incommunicado, I was told. 

I was curious about Hutchinson’s whereabouts and reputation, myself, as I did not cover the White House when she had moved up the ranks. Her colleagues tell me that she was honest and hard-working. She did annoy some when she moved from the legislative affairs office to the chief of staff’s office, a role in which she was perceived to be bypassing the legislative affairs team in her communications with the Hill, but that was under the direction of her boss, Mark Meadows

Hutchinson, 25, has sprung to international fame with her John Dean-worthy testimony. But what is her story worth? Politico reported that even though there’s a clamor to sign her, Trump admin memoirs have been bombing, and it’s unknown what else she has to tell (unlike Dean, who spent time in prison). If she has a story, of course, she needs to keep it to herself until that book is for sale, which means bypassing the inevitable offers to sit down with 60 Minutes or do a 20/20 interview. But staying quiet to secure top offers could also cause her star to fade. “People aren’t salivating,” a top industry insider told me. “She’ll have to have a further story. She’ll need to show that she has a $30 dollar book.” 

Cable news offers yet another platform for ex-administration whistleblowers looking to raise their profile. More than 50 years later, Dean is a pundit on CNN, but TV executives don’t yet seem to be craving Hutchinson the way they fought for the photogenic Alyssa Farah, who was not only a Trump defector but had a clear point of view. 

As for some of the big speech opportunities, customers like trade associations, corporations, colleges and universities and community forums are now shying away from politics as the country remains as divided as ever. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a bright future for Hutchinson, who has had to endure threats for her bravery, but her moment comes at a time when the market for Trump-era tell-alls is diminished.