Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

with Richard Leiby of the Reliable Source

Washington Life: There was a lot of speculation about who was going to be the next Reliable Source columnist. When you were chosen it was a surprise to many. How did it all come about?

RL: I was in Kuwait, when fellow [Post] columnist David Ignatius said he’d heard Lloyd Grove was leaving and that he thought I should take that job. At the time, I just filed it away, thinking that’s not really me and that Robin Givhan who was a fashion writer or Roxanne Roberts might be a more natural fit.

WL: Why?

RL: I’ve been a reporter for 25 years and never done that sort of thing. When I returned from Kuwait, I was editing the Sunday Style section and I was concerned with finding a good Reliable Source columnist because we wanted to put the Source in on Sundays. I was also debating over whether to remain the editor of the Sunday Style section. I spoke to the editors about my suggestions for the job but still, Ignatius, Al Kamen, and others kept asking me if I was going to be the next Reliable Source? Then I started to think about [my options]. I could go back to covering the continuing problems in Iraq with the Military Unit but that held the prospect of bodily harm and my family was not too keen on the idea, or I could go to parties. I picked parties.

WL: How is your column going to be different?

RL: It’s going to be a little more newsy and unpredictable. I hope it will be funnier. I think I have a few things in store that might bring that out, but it will ultimately rest on whether it’s good or not.

WL: You’re also interested in breaking some news stories?

RL: Yes. The Reliable Source can break stories in a way that others can’t. A good example of this was the famous Clinton haircut on the tarmac of Air Force One. I think that broke in the Reliable Source.

WL: Will it be different from Al Kamen and others’ columns?

RL: Different from Kamen’s but still having a social-political component.

WL: I think it was written in Washingtonian magazine, that people said you have no sources in the social arena. Do you care to comment on that?

RL: Well, I know you [laughs]. I am also getting out and meeting social people. I have a very good assistant, Anne Schrader who spent two years working in the green room at CNN. She knows many more people than I do. I could not do this job without her and I make no bones about that. Also, I still have connections with the military and intelligence communities that I’ve cultivated and built trust with over the years as an investigative journalist which will help. So I am hoping to develop stories that you won’t find anywhere else.

WL: Would you agree that much of the business in Washington gets done at social events?

RL: I agree. Actually knowing how these people connect socially is sometimes more important than knowing where they are in the whole scheme of administrative flow charts.

WL: What kind of values as a columnist are you going to set for yourself?

RL: I don’t think it should be the goal of any columnist to be supercilious or to embarrass. The facts tend to speak for themselves, so you don’t really need to spin them.

WL: You’ll report fairly?

RL: Right. I’m not out to destroy careers or be a bully with this column. It’s not about me. It’s about the people I write about.

WL: Is there anything that is off-limits?

RL: Well, we have to abide by what are called the Meyer Principles at The Washington Post. I can’t quote them verbatim, but essentially it’s a gentleman’s newspaper in the old-fashioned sense of the word, in that we don’t mean to offend at the breakfast table, we remain above conflict of interest, and tell the truth as best as we can.

WL: Anything else?

RL: What’s off-limits may be decided by my editors rather than by my lawyers or me. It’s an edited column, as is everything in the Post. Before I pursue something, we have a general sort of agreement that this is going to be worth my time. I’m not going to pursue [a lead] if it’s not gonna make it in the paper. Let’s just cut our losses at the beginning and not pick up the phone.

WL: Are children off-limits for you to write about?

RL: Not if you’re a political candidate and you send Rebecca Lieberman or Matt Gephardt to campaign for you.

WL: Well sure, when children are put in that kind of position, but if they are not, are they off-limits?

RL: You have to really weigh it. I mean, how is the child relevant? I have three kids and I’m a protective parent myself, so I feel that sense of obligation. One, not to invade the space of children who are minors; and two, they shouldn’t suffer the sins of their parents. I wouldn’t want my son being written about because I write a gossip column in the Post [since] he doesn’t have anything to do with it.

WL: Many of the most powerful people in Washington are journalists. Are they off-limits?

RL: In this case, that’s a transaction I’ll make with Howie Kurtz because that’s his beat. There may be pieces that he wants to send me and of course, it works both ways. But he does a very thorough job covering the media, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

WL: There is a lot of intrigue and rumors about the relationships between the White House press corps and the people they are covering. And it just seems that it is difficult for the White House press corps to be objective and balanced in their reporting, as they are supposed to be in a democracy, when Presidents don’t give access and don’t often have press conferences. If a journalist angers the Administration he can be shut out or ignored.

RL: There are times when reporters on any beat will come to me with material in order to camouflage their association with it. I can put it in the paper, whereas if they did it, it would cause them to be shut out. So I’m happy to play that role. But I think the ultimate goal of this kind of column is probably the same as in Shakespeare’s time. I mean, we’re here to show you what’s happening inside the castle. This is a form of anthropology that has been conducted forever by writers. People want to know about other people. But, it’s an old job and there was probably someone writing on Sumerian tablets what they thought might be happening with the king and why he might act a certain way. Is that gossip or is it just curiosity? We’d like to do it in a factual way. But, it’s anthropology of power and success.

WL: You won an award from the National Association of Black Journalists?

RL: Yes, their top feature-writing award for a profile of a kid from Washington who was supposed to spend 19.6 years in prison for his first drug offense. The point of the article was how draconian the drug laws are when it came to crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.

WL: That’s right. The statistics are all there that illustrate how these laws are racist, unequal, and unfair.

RL: Yes, and at the time the [Clinton] Administration was considering trying to equalize this because obviously it was unfair to black people who then were the predominant users of crack, whereas the powder dealers who dealt in much larger quantities [of cocaine] were basically serving less time or plea-bargaining their way out entirely. So, I won the award for that and I was very proud of it, but more satisfying to me was on President Clinton’s last day in office, he pardoned the young man that I wrote about, along with a few other crack users. There was no other way for this kid to get out of prison and the article is what started the process to get him noticed.

WL: How many years did he serve in prison?

RL: About six years.

WL: Of course it doesn’t look too good for presidents to be pardoning crack-cocaine users does it? A lot of people complained.

RL: Well let people complain. The facts were there: non-violent crime, first offense. The kid made a mistake, right? He was sorry for it. Rapists and murderers are sometimes out after several years.

WL: You and Dana Priest wrote a story on Valerie Plame, the undercover CIA agent that was outed by an Administration official and reported on by Robert Novak. What did you think of her and what is she like?

RL: Well, I met Valerie prior to knowing she was a CIA operative because I’d interviewed Joe [her husband] for the story that Walter Pincus and I wrote. On first impression, Valerie was like any other busy working woman in Washington, especially one with twins. I have twins so we connected on that level, and frankly we talked about nothing else except how you get the kids bathed and in bed during the witching hours between 6 and 8 p.m. She struck me as very polished, attractive, welcoming and gracious, and I had no clue that she was a spy which is as it should have been. Now I see her in a different context.

WL: Now that she has posed for Vanity Fair, do you think that she’s fair game for Washington Life and other publications to photograph?

RL: She was photographed with sunglasses and a head scarf. From that I’d have a pretty good sense of her facial features, but I don’t think I’d be able to pick her out of a mug shot lineup. The damage was already done by Novak, and somebody within the administration who wanted it out. She was anonymous, and how she now handles herself is her business. I’m not gonna sit in judgement of it.

WL: So then you think it is okay to photograph her now?

RL: That’s a privacy issue and a call you have to make as a journalist or as an editor. I would still be reluctant.

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