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10 Questions for ANA MARIE COX: Highlights from The DC Issue

Highlights from The DC Issue

Ana Marie Cox in her Washington, DC home / August 2008 / Photograph by IAN ALLEN


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The following piece appears in Issue 37: The DC Issue. For more on this issue, click here


By John Williams

Ana Marie Cox grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and graduated from the University of Chicago. She came to fame in 2003 as the founding editor of the political blog Wonkette. In 2006, Cox published Dog Days, a novel that satirized life in the political whirlpool. The New York Times called it “brisk, smart, smutty, knowing and very well-written.” Cox is now at work on another book and contributes to Radar and Time magazine’s Swampland blog.

Question 1: What most immediately struck you about how DC differed from the other major cities in which you have lived?

Ana Marie Cox: It’s a lot more like Nebraska, in that it’s really flat and low. I think that’s the thing that struck me, especially after being in Chicago and New York, where the defining characteristic of the city is “tall.” In America, we associate cities with that kind of landscape, and Washington doesn’t have any skyscrapers.

Q2: How long did it take you to stop — or have you ever stopped — missing other places?

AMC: I really like Washington. I think my least favorite thing about it has been the degree to which it is — or isn’t — urban. What I miss about New York, Chicago and San Francisco is the culture. Despite the fact that Washington has this amazing set of museums, it doesn’t often feel like there’s a lot of artistic and creative ferment. People don’t come to Washington to create.

Q3: Do you remember your first culture-shock moment there?

AMC: I’ve always been something of a political geek, so the culture of Washington was not new to me, in the sense that this is the town run by people who participated in Model UN, and I participated in Model UN, so I feel these are my people. But it wasn’t my first choice. I first started to realize how different things were when my husband, Chris Lehmann, worked at the Washington Post and we’d go to these parties. At the time, I was just freelancing. We’d meet the famous-for-DC people like Chris Matthews or Ben Bradlee, and their eyes would glaze over talking to me. This is a town where you’re really defined by your associations. For me to be individually funny or interesting doesn’t count as much as who I know or where I work or what I can tell people. You get very little credit for just being an entertaining person to hang out with in Washington.

Q4: I assume at this point, the associations have kicked in and you are well known around the city. How thoroughly do you feel you’ve absorbed the culture?

AMC: I don’t know how well I’ve absorbed it. I think I’m a much better observer of DC than I am a participant. To this day, the people I enjoy being with the most are those I’ve been friends with previously, before Wonkette was what it became. I think I have a healthy suspicion. It’s not to say that people here can’t be genuine or kind, it’s just that it’s very easy to figure out what your status is. In towns where other industries are predominant, there are a lot of different factors in the social calculus of figuring out someone’s relative importance, and here there’s just the one factor: Who do you know? And no one has enemies here, because it’s way too important to have friends, and you never know when you’re going to need somebody. People are very reluctant to have feuds. People talk smack about each other, but there’s always a limit. I think that’s one of the reasons that people responded to Wonkette, because I’ve never been very good at that kind of judiciousness. When I think people are annoying or hateful, I usually say so.

Q5: From the time Wonkette started, it seemed like you were very comfortable bypassing anonymity, having your name and personality out there in full view. Was that a conscious decision at the time?

AMC: I’m very agnostic about other people’s anonymity, but I think it’s important to own your own words. I think that you are more credible when you take responsibility for what you write.

Q6: It seems like DC, the industry town, is still such a male-driven society. As a woman, do you feel as if things have changed in a positive direction?

AMC: I don’t want to say it’s harder for women, but this is a very male-dominated town. And we no longer have a hostess culture, which used to be the way women made their way in the world here. It still exists, there are still women who throw parties, but I can’t think off the top of my head of anyone who does that solely. So you have to be professional, and that means playing by this other set of rules, by men’s rules. Women are really tough on each other. There’s this sense that there’s only so much room for so many women. And every other woman is a competitor in a way that men aren’t, if there’s only going to be seats for a few women at the table and an unlimited number of seats for men. So that makes female friendships harder to cultivate. A lot of times, you meet “the wife.” If you live and work in a one-industry town, not every couple has both people in that industry, and a lot of times it’s going to be the guy who’s in the industry and the woman who’s not.

Q7: You’ve been around long enough to see the differences between the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns. Do you have any strong feelings about how this year differs from the Kerry-Bush election, in terms of the role that blogs play?

AMC: In 2004, MTV hired me to cover the Democratic convention, and I swear I did two or three interviews just on the fact that I was a blogger covering the convention. I doubt that would happen today. In 2004, people would be highly suspicious of me, because at any moment I could break out my computer and blog about them. I went to YearlyKos in 2006, as one of my first assignments for Time, and I was hanging out with the real reporters, and there was this running joke: As soon as someone said something off-color or impolitic, you’d say, “Hey, I’m gonna blog that.” Like a taunt. In 2008, I was at a Republican debate during the primaries, and I looked around the filing center and everyone was blogging. Everyone has that force propelling them to publish whatever they can. Anything that happens to them is now fodder for a Washington Post blog.

Q8: Do you think more traditional reporters still frown on blogging as if it were not a serious form of journalism?

AMC: The whole “are bloggers journalists?” question, which was always stupid, is finally fading, especially thanks to people like Josh Marshall [of Talking Points Memo], who have shown you don’t have to have a big organization behind you to be a journalist. The defining characteristic of a journalist is what you produce. I think it’s changed the question from “are bloggers journalists?” to “what is journalism?” And that is a perfectly acceptable debate to have. There’s never going to be an answer, but it starts us at a better place than simply talking about delivery systems.

Q9: You spent time on McCain’s bus earlier in the campaign. Were you surprised when he first started coming back?

AMC: I think I never counted him out as much as other people did. But I was at a very unusual vantage point. I started covering him because literally no one else was available at Time. He was not going to win it, so why would you send an experienced political reporter to cover it? So they sent me. In New Hampshire, it was a very up-close, intimate look at campaigning and the candidate, and he’s really good. The campaign is still kind of a mess. These people are not professional politicians, in good ways and bad ways. There would be times when we were traveling in the early days in New Hampshire and they would forget to buy food, and the press corps would be starving. But he was a very effective campaigner in town hall situations. You could just see him bringing people around.

Q10: Aside from your own book, do you have a favorite movie or novel about politics, or about DC in general?

AMC: My favorite book about Washington — that’s not set in Washington — is called The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer. I love being able to talk to people about it. It’s still in print by the University of Texas Press, but it’s a fairly obscure novel. It was published in the mid-Sixties, and written by LBJ’s chief of staff and press aide. It’s a very thinly veiled imagining of LBJ if he was the governor of Texas. It’s set in Austin, but it’s about the kind of relationships and maneuvering that happen in Washington every day, just on a smaller scale. It’s a fantastic book. I reread it regularly.

For more on The DC Issue, click here




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