Ryan Lizza’s got a crush on Obama.
Wearing a purple skinny tie and a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers, Lizza seemed more a contributor to GQ than a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. However, his lunch discussion at the Kelly Writers House yesterday was all politics, as he spoke about his career as a political journalist.
And in recent years, his career has centered on Barack Obama’s presidency.
Lizza jokingly referred to his life as divided into two parts — “B.O and A.O, or before Obama and after Obama.” He reflected on his 2007 profile in The New Republic of then-Senator Obama. In this piece, titled “The Agitator,” Lizza famously predicted Obama’s presidency and now considers the piece a turning point in his career.
However, it was clear in the talk that Lizza’s reputation as a high-profile journalist comes more from his ability to portray the politicians whom he profiles from a fresh and often humorous perspective.
Lizza kept the audience chuckling as he retold a story of his experience interviewing Obama for a profile in the Atlantic in 2004, which he deemed “Doodlegate.”
In response to his editor accusing him of “falling in love” with Obama, Lizza added a key detail to his piece. “I couldn’t help noticing that as he was making his fundraising calls, he was doodling … what appeared to be a picture of himself.”
The story made it to print, and Obama confronted Lizza the next time they met, saying, “You see me doodling a picture of a guy with a long face and big ears and you automatically think it’s me?”
But few would have guessed that Lizza would be chatting with presidents as an adult. By his own admission, he spent much of his undergraduate years at the University of California, Berkeley in a “pot-smoke haze” and often skipped class to read magazines at the many independent bookstores near campus. Reading magazines turned to writing for publications such as The New Republic, The New York Times and The Atlantic.
To the aspiring journalists in the audience, Lizza insisted on the importance of “clean spare prose” and fact-checking, since “journalism is a reputational business.”
Of the writing process, he added, “I imagine it’s what giving birth is like.”
The discussion was followed by a lively question-and-answer session, where audience members questioned Lizza on subjects as diverse as politics, journalism and psychoanalysis.
1959 School of Education graduate Carole Karsch said of Lizza, “I think he brings a perspective I’m very interested in. He is highly regarded.”
A particular question that raised contention among audience members dealt with the state of politics today.
“The most important political trend is polarization,” Lizza said, describing the “asymmetric polarization” he sees where “there are no liberals in the Republican party … and few conservatives in the Democratic.”
In particular, he believes the future of political struggles will focus more on social issues than the economy and national security. He said that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, — the subject of a profile he is writing now — is an “interesting politician” because he is “grappling … at the edge of social issues.”
Perhaps Lizza’s found his new crush.
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