Love in the Time of Obama

Column: Alex Wagner, Sam Kass, and the new aristocracy

Sam Kass and Alex Wagner / AP
Sam Kass and Alex Wagner / AP
January 24, 2014

The first time he saw her from a distance. She was a reporter, observing his workplace from the outside. He was struck by her good looks, her energy. He mentioned her to a friend, who told him she was out of his league. But he persisted. His friend brought him to a party where he found an opportunity to strike up a conversation with her. One thing led to another. He took her to drinks. She mentioned she liked baseball, rooted for the Washington Nationals. They had that in common. So for their next date he took her to play catch. In Nationals Park. When it was closed to the public.

Not an ordinary love story. But then these are not ordinary lovers. He is Sam Kass, executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move health initiative, senior policy adviser for nutrition policy, and food initiative coordinator in Barack Obama’s White House. She is Alex Wagner, host of "Now with Alex Wagner" on MSNBC, weekdays at 4 p.m. Kass’s friend is Richard Wolffe, the executive editor of, a political analyst for MSNBC, and the author of Renegade: The Making of the President, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, and The Message: The Reselling of President Obama. The shindig where the couple started talking was MSNBC’s annual White House Correspondents' Dinner after-party, the invitation-only event where Rachel Maddow mixes cocktails to demonstrate her working girl credentials. The bar where Kass and Wagner had drinks was Monkey Bar, in midtown Manhattan, where you can pair a $17 glass of Sauvignon Blanc with a $26 organic chicken paillard. They are planning a summer wedding.

I learned all of these details in the February issue of Vogue, in an article with this stammering headline: "The Talk of the Town: Alex Wagner and Sam Kass—Politics’ It Couple." The article was written by Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group. According to his biography on the Leigh Speakers Bureau website, Weisberg is "one of America’s most prominent writers on politics and policy," which pretty much says it all about the state of American writing on politics and policy.

Weisberg was last spotted in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, screaming at Roger Ailes to get off his lawn. For two decades, Weisberg and his wife have owned a weekend house in Garrison, N.Y., which they love "for its scenic beauty, its peace and quiet, and its old-fashioned sense of community … it’s a refuge from the pace of city life, a place with an easygoing mix of lifestyles and a widely shared ethos about preserving what makes it special." Putnam County, where Garrison is located, is 94 percent white and has a median income of $95,000. Then Ailes showed up and ruined the place.

A similar insularity and self-satisfaction, a stubborn refusal to ascribe rationality or good faith to those outside the circle of friendship, can be found in Weisberg’s article in Vogue. The pages of Democratic donor Anna Wintour’s magazine provide him sturdy journalistic ground. Unlike his Times review, or indeed the book in the Times he was reviewing, Weisberg in Vogue actually had access to his subjects. And such access: a perfume of casual friendliness, of smarmy knowingness, sticks to these glossy pages, making them indistinguishable from an ad for Quelques Fluers. Weisberg likes these people. He finds them intelligent, accomplished, sophisticated, current, fashionable, tasteful, humble. "I’ve been a guest several times" on Wagner’s show, he tells us in an aside, but it’s not like he wants to be invited back or anything. "On good days, the conversation just clicks." Conversation does click when no one disagrees, when no one is disagreeable. Click is a good word to describe the old "Now," where five liberals sat around a table attempting to out-snark each other.

Click may be a good word for the show, but "clique" is a better one for the world described in Vogue. On the first read the Weisberg piece is notable for its status details: the little things, the style of life of bobo liberals that drives conservatives crazy. I am referring here to the meal Weisberg shares with the couple in Kass’s sure-to-be-expensive Logan Circle townhouse: "butterflied roast chicken with tarragon and preserved lemons, faro risotto with wild mushrooms and leeks, and a green salad with buttermilk dressing" served with a Barbaresco made by friends in Italy. I am referring to Kass’s "hand-forged Carter Cutlery knives, which are produced by a Japanese-trained bladesmith in Oregon." To the Hermès coat, Nili Lotan sweater, 7 for All Mankind jeans, Hunter + Rag & Bone boots, M Missoni dress, and Prada flats that Wagner wears at various moments in the piece. To the names checked by Weisberg to establish the fact that Wagner is with it, au courant, hip, cutting edge:  This Town author Mark Leibovich, Ezra Klein, Jonathan Franzen, Frank Ocean, the Tanlines, and New York restaurants Blue Hill, Carbone, Franny’s, and Vinegar Hill House.

I am referring to the cringe-inducing moments of false modesty. Wagner complains, "Every trip to the high-end knife shop in D.C.’s Union Market ‘costs us about $500.’" Weisberg reports, "Friends describe Kass as reserved," despite the celebrity chef’s multiple television credits. Weisberg writes, "Their ideal Saturday night is dinner with friends—not a red-carpet event," and then, in the very next sentence, notes, "In October, they attended the News and Documentary Emmys, at which Wagner was nominated, but sneaked in a side door to avoid the cameras." Wagner describes her horror when she broke a heel on the way to a job interview with George Clooney (she got the job). Mention is made of Kass’s five post-college odyssey years, "cooking and eating his way around the world," including "planting corn with Zapatista farmers in Mexico." Weisberg describes Michelle Obama circa 2005-2006 as "an overtaxed working mom."

But it would be a mistake to stop at the first read, for the reader to limit himself to his immediate reaction. Whatever emotions the article provokes, wherever one stands on the political spectrum, upon closer examination Weisberg’s text becomes a discomfiting ethnography of contemporary meritocracy, an acid test of how power is transacted in America today. Our politicians and celebrities, Democrat and Republican, paint an ideal picture of life where one’s success depends on hard work and initiative bolstered by community; where all Americans begin the race of life on an equal footing, and those who start off disadvantaged should be helped by some agency—whether in government or the private sector—until the contest is a fair one. The assumption is that, with the right institutional mix, one’s natural talents will carry one to the appropriate social station. It is not who you are but what you do that is supposed to count.

It is not every day that an article in Vogue magazine exposes the shaky foundations of democracy. But as I read "The Talk of the Town" for the second time I could not help noticing how these attractive, talented, up-and-coming thirty-somethings relied, again and again, on personal connections to get where they are today. Weisberg describes the couple’s success in terms of "personal intensity and random luck." But the luck here is less random than he thinks. Kass and Wagner were lucky to be born to their parents, and if they have children their sons and daughters will be lucky to be born to them. They are members of a self-perpetuating milieu, a caste of right thinking yuppies whose position and wealth and patterns of consumption are the fruit of personal relationships spanning decades. There is income inequality, for sure, but there is also status inequality, and this latter form of inequality is a topic on which most bourgeois bohemians are silent.

Kass grew up in Hyde Park, Ill., where his father taught at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the famous private institution where a half-day of pre-school costs $18,000 a year and high school costs $28,000 annually. He attended the Lab School, played baseball at a community college in the Midwest, then graduated from the University of Chicago in 2004. He’s known the Obamas since he was in high school. They were his neighbors. His father was Malia's fifth grade teacher. And when Kass returned from his culinary voyages, he ended up cooking for the Obamas at their Hyde Park townhouse. "Sasha and Malia quickly fell in love with the big-brother figure," Weisberg says. Kass was more than the Obamas’ chef, more than a big brother to the girls. He was a sounding board for Michelle. The two made plans for the White House vegetable garden, for a program to encourage healthy eating. When the family moved to Washington it was a given that Kass would tag along. "Kass and the president are known for having something of a father-son relationship." In this case the son cooks for dad five nights a week and loses to him at golf.

Wagner also owes a lot to dad. Her father is Carl Wagner, a longtime Democratic operative who helped run Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign, who served in the DNC, and who co-chaired Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. A highly successful consultant, for a time Carl Wagner ran the Entertainment Express Corporation, a California cable company that, ironically enough, was bought by Comcast, which now employs his daughter. Alex Wagner grew up in Northwest D.C., went to Woodrow Wilson High School, and matriculated at Brown. She is an only child. When she graduated from college in 1999 she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked at music magazines. After a few years, though, and a stint in Amsterdam where she tried to write a novel while living with her mom, "I wanted to switch gears."

It was back to D.C. Wagner met with Democratic mastermind John Podesta—"an old Washington neighbor" whose relationship with her father was longstanding. Podesta gave her a job at his new think tank, the Center for American Progress. Which led to a job in New York City at Fader magazine. Which led to the job with George Clooney. Which led to a gig covering the Obama White House for the now defunct Politics Daily. Which led to MSNBC. Her agent is Ari Emanuel, brother to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and to Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a frequent guest on her show. "Wagner talks about the series of events that brought her from that Los Angeles pay phone to MSNBC’s soundstage as if it were the most natural progression in the world," Elle magazine noted a couple years back. Of course she does. It was natural for her.

What the Chinese call guanxi, networks of influence, benefited Kass and Wagner. It brought them together. The incestuous nature of the relationship between the media and the Obama White House is well established. Here is another example. Kass’s friend, Richard Wolffe, is known as Obama’s most loyal scribe—a title for which there is plenty of competition. He was the ideal fixer-upper of Kass and Wagner. And it was another node in Kass’s network, Edward Cohen, a member of the Lerner family that owns the Washington Nationals, who arranged to have the park opened for that very special game of catch. I’m sure Cohen will do the same for you if you give him a call.

Both Kass and Wagner, let it be said, are talented. Or at least Wagner is. I haven’t had dinner at the White House. Wagner is pretty, bubbly, and informed, and though her show reminds me of an interminable seminar on theories of representation in the West, I’d rather watch an hour of her than any of the other MSNBC hosts. Yet I cannot help being struck by the disjunction between her attitude toward conservative elites and her attitude toward herself, toward her own part of the upper crust. I cannot help being struck by the unknowingness with which she and her guests establish categories such as "rich" and "elite" that exclude everyone they know.

"The game is rigged," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) famously told the 2012 Democratic National Convention. What an odd situation in which we find ourselves, where the most influential figures in politics, media, culture, and the academy, the leaders of institutions from the presidency to the Senate to multinational corporations to globally recognized universities, spend most of their time discussing inequalities of income and opportunity, identifying, blaming, and attacking the mysterious and nefarious figures behind whatever the social problem of the day might be. This is the way the clique that runs America justifies the inequalities endemic to "meritocracy," the way it masks the flaws of a power structure that generates Brown-educated cable hosts and personal chefs who open ballparks with a phone call. This is how a new American aristocracy comes into being, one as entitled and clueless as its predecessors, but without the awareness of itself as a class.

"It’s going to be fascinating to see where both of them go," Obama aide Melody Barnes tells Weisberg. I know exactly where both of them will be going. Straight to the top, Melody. Straight to the top.