There aren’t many people better at conveying complex matters of politics and policy than Kevin Drum. Last Saturday, however, Kevin confessed that he hadn’t written anything on the story de jour, of Bernie Sanders’ staffers snooping on the Hillary Clinton campaign’s voter files contained on the DNC’s NGPVAN database, for two reasons. First: “Everything I’ve read has pretty clearly been written by either Clinton or Sanders loyalists, who have put their own spin on what happened, most of it faintly ridiculous.” Second: “To truly understand what happened, you need to know the technical details of how the NGPVAN database and front-end search tools are set up. I don’t know this, and apparently nobody I’ve read knows it either.”
That is, until he read David Atkins’ detailed post on the subject that morning at Washington Monthly. Atkins, Kevin noted, “does know how the software is set up” and “seems to have a pretty solid take on the whole thing.”
In the subsequent five days, David’s post received a ton of traffic and garnered a record 16,000-plus Facebook Likes. The reason is not only that David is a smart guy and a great writer, but that he knows what he’s talking about, having worked on political campaigns and used the NGPVAN system himself.
Mainstream news outlets struggled with that story precisely because they don’t hire political reporters who have worked on campaigns. They avoid doing so for an understandable reason: to circumvent the perception of bias. Still, on balance, it’s a stupid rule, and one the Washington Monthly has ignored for 46 years.
My predecessor Charlie Peters worked as a state legislator, a JFK campaign operative, and a political appointee in the federal bureaucracy. That didn’t keep him from calling things as he saw them. To the contrary: the insights he gained from his varied public career are what made the magazine he founded and edited so exceptional. Some of the best writers he hired (James Fallows, Walter Shapiro, Steve Waldman, Tim Noah, Amy Sullivan, Jonathan Rowe, Phil Keisling) spent time in government and on campaigns before or after their time at the Monthly. I did a stint in the Clinton White House. So did Steve Benen. Ed Kilgore worked for three governors and wrote more convention speeches than he can count. Martin Longman worked as a canvasser for Project Vote. Nancy LeTourneau ran a social service agency that did government contract work. Experience like this gives writers not only certain kinds of specialized knowledge but a general feel or how institutions work that is hard for reporters who haven’t been on the inside to acquire.
That’s part of what’s unique about the journalism and commentary you’ll find every day at the Washington Monthly. And it’s true not just of the posts and articles our staff write, but of the comments from our readers, many of whom have had impressive careers in government, the military, the diplomatic service, in nonprofits, in academia, in corporate bureaucracies, in tech startups, and in a hundred other professions that have given them astonishing insights into how “the system” in America works that professional journalists would be wise to pay attention to.
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