Earlier this month, Washington Post reporter Ben Terris unveiled his new book, The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals and True Believers Trying to win in Washington while America Loses Its Mind. Terris wrote the book while working for the newspaper’s style section, covering not the D. C. politicos, but the sideshow of eccentrics, opportunists, and clout chasers. He calls his job “the weirdo beat.”
To chronicle this other Washington, Terris introduces us to a cast of political players who operate mostly beneath the headlines. There’s Leah Hunt-Hendrix, heiress to the H.L. Hunt oil fortune, who’s a darling of the Occupy movement. Leah knows how to throw parties (Terris is there taking notes) as well as raising money through her Way to Win organization for progressive candidates like Wisconsin’s Mandela Barnes and Florida’s youthful Maxwell Frost.
Terris tells of attending another post-2020 holiday party in the nearby home of Matt and Mercy Schlapp. Matt is the heavy-weight founder of the American Conservative Union and chair of CPAC. Not initially a Trump supporter, Matt came on board and is pressed into causes like the failed rescue of senatorial candidate Herschel Walker.
Then there’s Sean McElwee who started Data for Process, a polling business that works to drive progressive coverage. The pollster advocates for “moving the Overton window,” the range of acceptable policy. His technique: Talk a lot about popular ideas (bringing down prescription drug prices) and keep quiet about ideas that might turn off voters (“defund the police”).
McElwee hosted regular poker parties in his Logan Square apartment, luring into his orbit other Democratic operatives: Senate staffers, MSNBC correspondents, and Gabe Bankman-Fried, brother of crypto billionaire Samuel Bankman-Fried. Before crypto’s collapse, the Bankman-Fried brothers operated Guarding Against Pandemics, sluicing many millions into progressive campaigns.
Another colorful character in the book’s dramatis personae is Robert Stryk, the cowboy diplomat and fixer who launched himself into the top ranks of D.C.’s lobbying scene during the Trump era. Stryk attracted international clients from New Zealand’s ambassador to Congolese president Joseph Kabila and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. Stryk’s rationale for taking on brutal dictators like Maduro: “Everyone deserves representation.”
Terris also follows the career of Jamarcus Purley, a disaffected staffer of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who gets his 15-minutes of fame posting a video of himself dancing in a cloud of marijuana smoke atop an office desk. Terris’ book follows the Purley saga, which was also reported in Dear White Staffers, a site that compiles non-white staffers’ accounts of exploitive work places on the Hill. That’s the site that once spent a week covering a certain congressman who was known around the office as “a serial farter.”
What makes Terris’ book especially delicious are stories about those who whisper in politicians’ ears. Take his lunch meeting with Matt Schlapp whose ample belly, white hair and whiter teeth “made him look like a mascot for a team called the Washington Lobbyists.” Matt had a hard time deciding on a main course. No, not blackened salmon with kale, nor a dish served with “ugh” arugula, onions, and tomatoes.
Finally Matt settles on “chicken piccata but not with broccolini…what ever happened to green beans?” Later the waiter places Matt’s dish in front of him. A dejected Matt says, “They still gave me broccolini. I guess they had to get rid of it. What do they have? A broccolini farm?”
Then there’s the online conversation between Terris and Stryk, the back-door diplomat, right after Russian tanks and troops invaded Ukraine. Stryk was in Belarus where he was stuck while trying to negotiate a deal with President Alexander Lukashenko. The exchange:
Terris: You alright?
Stryk: Hairy right now. Airspace closed, trying to get a land route out. Train. Taxi. We have arrived at the border – Lithuania — and are confident they’ll let us in.
Terris: Does it feel like a war zone?
Stryk: It’s just nuts, surreal, dude. Most people had worried Putin would take Lithuania because it would be an easy one for him and put him into a strategic place against the Poles. Our goal is to get to Warsaw.
Terris: I’m on a plane right now watching TV with a chyron about the thousands fleeing Kiev. I’m heading to Florida to report on CPAC.
Stryk: Rather be here than at CPAC.
Terris writes how D.C. is even today struggling to recover from the craziness that overtook the town during Trump’s four chaotic years. He recalls how often people would say “this is not normal” when the leader of the free world raged at his own Justice Department or undermined civil servants or winked at conspiracy theorists.
Terris’ book is an irresistible page turner, a deep dive into the clandestine D.C. follies. The single thing that might have made the book better would have been an index, an assist to those who try to follow the shifting alliances. Still it’s not surprising to learn that one of Terris’ admiring readers was Mark Leibovich, author of Thank You for Your Servitude, an earlier dive into D.C.’s quaint anthropology.
As Terris says in his prologue, “When Joe Biden ran for president, he offered a selling point rare for political campaigns: a return to business as usual.” Terris tells readers how the Trump years changed Washington, D.C., and how the last two plus years have — and sometimes have not – been adjusting to the return of “normal.” In the prologue, Terris asks: What is normal? Good question.