The Media’s Best Friend

Jason Chaffetz would be delighted to return your call.

This Illustration can only be used with the Michelle Cottle piece that originally ran in the 1-24-2015 issue of National Journal magazine. 
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Michelle Cottle
Jan. 23, 2015, midnight

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz — the freshly min­ted chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form — is a sharer. When I vis­ited his of­fice re­cently, two days in­to the new Con­gress, Chaf­fetz was happy to show me his cache of late-night of­fice munchies (pea­nuts, Triscuits, Stouffer’s French Bread Piz­zas …) and the roll-away cot he sleeps on, stashed in a closet. (Since his 2008 elec­tion, he has been crash­ing in his Cap­it­ol Hill of­fices to ad­vert­ise his thrifti­ness.) There are ac­tu­ally two cots, he cla­ri­fies. “This is the one I used for years,” he says, squeez­ing a thin, green-and-white striped mat­tress. “But it broke on me. In the middle of the night. That’s too many French fries right there!” Though re­l­at­ively young, the 47-year-old law­maker can do only two or three con­sec­ut­ive nights on the cot: “It’s night four that I really start to feel it.” And whenev­er his wife and kids are in town from Utah, it’s off to the Mar­ri­ott.

Dur­ing our half-hour to­geth­er, Chaf­fetz also re­counts how, while chan­ging a light bulb in his gar­age in 2005, he shocked him­self, toppled back­ward off the lad­der, and smashed his heel in­to six pieces. “I have the pic­ture here some­where,” he says, rifling through desk draw­ers un­til he un­earths pho­to­cop­ies of post-sur­gic­al X-rays show­ing the 14 screws and oth­er hard­ware now hold­ing his foot to­geth­er. “You can feel it in there,” he says, wig­gling the re­as­sembled ap­pend­age. “If I took my shoe off.” The in­cid­ent, Chaf­fetz ex­plains, has promp­ted vari­ous ad­just­ments to his fit­ness re­gi­men. Bye-bye, ten­nis court; hello, re­cum­bent bike. In his early days on the Hill, the law­maker would hang with oth­er young mem­bers who were do­ing the P90X workout in the House gym. But, he says, that wound up re­quir­ing too much “pound­ing” on his foot.

Not that Chaf­fetz has let any of this af­fect his philo­sophy on diet, per­haps best de­scribed as: the more fried food, the bet­ter. “Michelle Obama and I do not agree on this point,” he stresses. Re­call­ing that, in 2012, he was named the Na­tion­al Flea Mar­ket As­so­ci­ation’s Le­gis­lat­or of the Year, Chaf­fetz quips, “There’s gotta be some deep-fry as­so­ci­ation award that I can self-nom­in­ate for.”

Also on the loose theme of di­ges­tion, Chaf­fetz tells me about the time he “barfed my brains out” in the back­seat of an F-16. “It was awe­some!” he en­thuses (of the jet ride, not the barf­ing). Munch­ing on a Triscuit, he re­calls, “They let me fly at one point!”

Fried food, feet, air­sick­ness — whatever the top­ic, Chaf­fetz is quick with a col­or­ful an­ec­dote. Journ­al­ists, as you might ima­gine, love this. Even more, they love that his chat­ti­ness ex­tends bey­ond the purely per­son­al to con­gres­sion­al mat­ters: how he ag­gress­ively lob­bied col­leagues for the Over­sight gavel (he spent a year put­ting to­geth­er a mul­ti­me­dia present­a­tion and a 68-page, spir­al-bound “Game Plan”); what he con­siders the biggest fail­ure of his pre­de­cessor as chair­man, Rep. Dar­rell Issa (“he made things too per­son­al”); and how he plans to tackle the job dif­fer­ently (please refer to afore­men­tioned 68-page Game Plan, at which Chaf­fetz will be de­lighted to “let you peek”). Among Chaf­fetz’s first moves upon be­ing named chair­man was to in­vite in a gaggle of polit­ic­al re­port­ers to dis­cuss his vis­ion for the com­mit­tee.

Part of the reas­on for all this open­ness is that the tall, cher­ub-faced fath­er of three is a nat­ur­ally friendly guy. “The thing people no­tice very first about Jason is just how af­fable he is,” says Rep. Trey Gowdy, one of his closest con­gres­sion­al pals. “He’s im­possible not to like on a per­son­al level.”

Chaffetz (right) cites his relationship with the media as part of the reason for his rapid ascent. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images) Washington Post/Getty Images

Chaf­fetz (right) cites his re­la­tion­ship with the me­dia as part of the reas­on for his rap­id as­cent. (Melina Mara/The Wash­ing­ton Post via Getty Im­ages)Yet Chaf­fetz’s charm is also very much a stra­tegic choice; he is, after all, a one­time mar­ket­ing ex­ec who grasps the value of an ap­peal­ing mes­sen­ger. He works hard to meet all the play­ers, do all the shows, and “make my­self avail­able as much as pos­sible.” It’s all about “old-fash­ioned hu­man re­la­tion­ships,” he tells me. “You’ve got to get out there and in­vest the time. Work with the me­dia!” Journ­al­ists, in turn, have come to view the gen­i­al young con­ser­vat­ive as a go-to guy for both on- and off-the-re­cord in­sights. Says a prom­in­ent cable an­chor: “There are prob­ably only a hand­ful of mem­bers of Con­gress who are that ac­cess­ible.”

Such co­zi­ness with the Fourth Es­tate is rare in an era when, gen­er­ally speak­ing, politi­cians have moved more and more to­ward cur­tail­ing re­port­ers’ ac­cess. It’s es­pe­cially rare among Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials, many of whom share Sarah Pal­in’s dis­taste for the “lamestream me­dia,” pre­fer­ring to talk with ideo­lo­gic­ally sim­patico out­lets such as Na­tion­al Re­view, The Blaze, and Fox News.

Chaf­fetz’s ap­proach, while un­con­ven­tion­al, has worked won­ders for him — at least so far. He will be only the fifth House mem­ber in 89 years to be­come a full chair­man after just three terms. And he dir­ectly cred­its his re­la­tion­ship with the me­dia as part of the reas­on for his rap­id as­cent. “A num­ber of people have said, ‘How do you, as a rank-and-file young mem­ber, get so much at­ten­tion?’ And I like to think it’s not be­cause we’re wild and crazy. It’s be­cause we built these re­la­tion­ships. We show up to the in­ter­view on time. We know how to speak on cam­era. There’s an art to this. A lot of mem­bers can’t do that. Most mem­bers are afraid of do­ing that. For in­stance, on tele­vi­sion, they’ll call M.J.” — his press sec­ret­ary — “and they’ll book us for, ‘Hey, can you be on next Thursday at 9 a.m.’ And I’ll say, Sure! A lot of mem­bers wouldn’t do that. They would say, ‘Wellllll, what’s the top­ic? We don’t want to talk about that. Well, we’ll have to see on Wed­nes­day.’ Where­as we’re, ‘Sure, we’ll book it!’ “

Chaf­fetz has, in fact, be­come a fix­ture on the polit­ic­al chat-show cir­cuit, with at least a couple of hun­dred TV ap­pear­ances un­der his belt. (And not just on Fox News, he likes to point out.) His dir­ect out­reach to re­port­ers helps en­sure his views make it in­to the broad­er de­bate over is­sues. And his care­fully cul­tiv­ated im­age as a smi­ley, jovi­al, fun-lov­ing guy helps coun­ter­bal­ance some of his more, to bor­row a phrase from Mitt Rom­ney, “severely con­ser­vat­ive” views — like, say, his be­lief that glob­al warm­ing is “a farce”; his ef­fort to over­turn Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s leg­al­iz­a­tion of gay mar­riage; and the hard-line im­mig­ra­tion po­s­i­tions that were key to get­ting him elec­ted.

His me­dia savvy was cer­tainly a cent­ral part of his pitch to lead Over­sight. He told the Re­pub­lic­an Steer­ing Com­mit­tee — the fam­ously tight-lipped pan­el in charge of com­mit­tee as­sign­ments — that of the four con­tenders for the gavel, only he had the me­dia chops to handle the high-pro­file job. “Par­tic­u­larly with Over­sight,” he says, “the abil­ity to com­mu­nic­ate is a pre­con­di­tion.”

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Wheth­er Chaf­fetz’s charm-the-me­dia ap­proach can con­tin­ue to buy him good cov­er­age — in a job that is in­her­ently con­ten­tious, par­tis­an, even nasty — re­mains to be seen. When House Over­sight is run by the party not in con­trol of the White House, the chair­man’s role is, es­sen­tially, to at­tack, in­vest­ig­ate, and be­dev­il the ad­min­is­tra­tion at every pos­sible turn. Chaf­fetz’s pre­de­cessor, Issa, pur­sued this role so zeal­ously — on mat­ters such as Benghazi, Op­er­a­tion Fast and Furi­ous, and the IRS’s al­leged mis­treat­ment of con­ser­vat­ive groups — that he be­came a bit of a PR night­mare for his team. Par­tis­an trash talk and se­lect­ive leak­ing were one thing, but even his GOP col­leagues cringed when, for in­stance, Issa called then-White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney “a paid li­ar” or per­emp­tor­ily shut down a hear­ing and turned off the mi­cro­phone of rank­ing Demo­crat Eli­jah Cum­mings. News stor­ies began pop­ping up about how Issa’s fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans wanted him to “cool it” and how lead­er­ship planned to go in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion once term lim­its ended his ten­ure.

Chaf­fetz him­self isn’t devoid of par­tis­an pas­sion: Early in the Benghazi probe, for ex­ample, he ac­cused the White House of per­pet­rat­ing a “cov­er-up” that might well mer­it im­peach­ment. And he has ac­know­ledged step­ping “over the line a few times on the floor and prob­ably in com­mit­tee.”

That said, he’s gone out of his way to build good­will with Cum­mings, his Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­part — in­clud­ing do­ing a “dis­trict swap” with the Mary­land law­maker last year, in which the two men toured one an­oth­er’s home turf. (Cum­mings has already pro­claimed him­self “en­cour­aged” that the new chair­man “has shown a sin­cere in­terest in work­ing to­geth­er and fo­cus­ing on re­form.”)

But per­haps the most in­triguing part of Chaf­fetz’s strategy for lead­ing Over­sight is the de­gree to which he’s count­ing on his me­dia re­la­tion­ships to help him weath­er the in­ev­it­able storms. “Don’t ex­pect me to be a smooth-on-all-edges chair­man,” Chaf­fetz says. “We’re go­ing to get after some things the White House would rather us not look at. We’re pre­pared to go to battle. We just want to make sure we do so in a fair and non­per­son­al man­ner. We want to make the case about facts. We will work with the me­dia on that mes­sage. And I think we will be suc­cess­ful.”

Darrell Issa (left) was widely seen as excessively confrontational during his tenure as Oversight chairman. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP

CHAF­FETZ BEGAN PREP­PING for his close-up long be­fore he entered the polit­ic­al arena. He was raised, mostly in Ari­zona and Col­or­ado, in a Demo­crat­ic fam­ily. (His moth­er, Peggy, died of breast can­cer in 1995; his fath­er, John, is an au­thor whose books in­clude Gay Real­ity, the non­fic­tion love story of a gay couple who com­peted on the TV show The Amaz­ing Race.) After high school, Jason headed to BYU on a foot­ball schol­ar­ship. There, he earned a B.A. in com­mu­nic­a­tions (com­plete with in­tern­ship at a loc­al TV sta­tion) and got his first hands-on polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence as Utah co­chair­man for Demo­crat Mi­chael Duka­kis’s 1988 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. (John Chaf­fetz’s first wife, Kitty Dick­son, went on to be­come Kitty Duka­kis; Jason, in turn, be­came close with the Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor, who, over the years, has in­tro­duced him to a bevy of lib­er­al power play­ers. When I asked Mi­chael Duka­kis about Chaf­fetz, he de­scribed him this way: “Ar­tic­u­late, out­go­ing, ob­vi­ously a lot more con­ser­vat­ive than I am, but al­ways will­ing to reach across the aisle to Demo­crats in ways that would be good to see from a lot more mem­bers of Con­gress.”) Also at BYU, Chaf­fetz met his fu­ture wife, Ju­lie, con­ver­ted from Juda­ism to Mor­mon­ism, and set mul­tiple school re­cords as placekick­er — an ex­per­i­ence that now sup­plies his go-to meta­phor: Pretty much any time he talks about fa­cing a stress­ful situ­ation, he likens it to the pres­sures of placekick­ing.

Post­col­lege, Chaf­fetz went to work in the PR de­part­ment of Nu Skin En­ter­prises, a Provo-based firm that sells beauty products. Early in his dec­ade-long ten­ure, Nu Skin was hit with ac­cus­a­tions that it was op­er­at­ing an il­leg­al pyr­am­id scheme in vari­ous states, and the young spokes­man found him­self on the front lines of the push­back cam­paign. By the time Chaf­fetz began con­sid­er­ing a jump to polit­ics, he had a boat­load of ex­per­i­ence deal­ing with the me­dia. He also had un­der­gone an ideo­lo­gic­al con­ver­sion. Like any good Re­pub­lic­an con­ver­sion story, his in­volves Ron­ald Re­agan, who vis­ited Nu Skin in 1990 as a mo­tiv­a­tion­al speak­er. While Chaf­fetz’s world­view had been trend­ing con­ser­vat­ive for a while, his time hanging out with the cha­ris­mat­ic former pres­id­ent sealed the deal.

Now and again dur­ing his stint in the cor­por­ate trenches, Chaf­fetz had vo­lun­teered with the cam­paigns of area can­did­ates. (In­clud­ing, iron­ic­ally, the GOP House mem­ber he would even­tu­ally un­seat.) In 2004, he went all in, land­ing a job as head of com­mu­nic­a­tions for gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Jon Hunts­man. From there, Chaf­fetz swiftly rose to be­come cam­paign man­ager and, postelec­tion, Gov. Hunts­man’s chief of staff. He las­ted less than a year in the post be­fore re­turn­ing to the private sec­tor, this time as head of his own PR firm. But he kept an eye on the polit­ic­al land­scape, and, early in the 2008 cycle, he made his move, an­noun­cing a chal­lenge to six-term Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Chris Can­non. Chaf­fetz struck from the right, paint­ing Can­non as a com­prom­ised, com­prom­ising creature of Wash­ing­ton. He won the primary with 60 per­cent of the vote.

Chaf­fetz ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton rar­ing to ride the me­dia bull. Be­fore even be­ing sworn in, he agreed to ap­pear on The Col­bert Re­port‘s daffy “Bet­ter Know a Dis­trict” series. Dur­ing his seg­ment, the fresh­man law­maker ex­changed pleas­ant­ries with Steph­en Col­bert’s pet hand­gun, “Sweet­ness,” al­lowed Col­bert to give him a fa­cial (though that ap­peared only in the show’s on­line out­takes), and agreed to leg-wrestle Col­bert. Chaf­fetz lost the match, badly, and was hence­forth re­ferred to by Col­bert as “Spa­ghetti Legs.”

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Around the same time, Chaf­fetz cost­arred in the CNN.com real­ity show Fresh­man Year, a short-lived Web series that fol­lowed him and Demo­crat Jared Pol­is as they ex­plored the weird folk­ways of Wash­ing­ton. Hijinks were, of course, en­cour­aged, res­ult­ing in such eye-rolling mo­ments as Pol­is steal­ing Chaf­fetz’s stash of junk food, Chaf­fetz dress­ing up like Pol­is, and Chaf­fetz sta­ging a late-night am­bush of the guy who buffed the floors of the House of­fice build­ings.

At the time, Chaf­fetz told me that some of his col­leagues thought he was nuts for agree­ing to do the show. Look­ing back, he in­sists the ex­per­i­ence was well worth it. “That opened up the door to a lot of stuff,” he says. “I got to know a lot of people at CNN and then con­sequently at MS­N­BC. Then I star­ted do­ing the Fox stuff.”

Chaf­fetz has as­sidu­ously worked to ex­pand and main­tain his me­dia net­work. “Since day one,” he tells me, “I have gone to New York, for in­stance, every single quarter. I go out of my way to go there and build those re­la­tion­ships — not just with the on-air per­son­al­it­ies but also with the ed­it­or­i­al boards and the pro­du­cers, book­ers, and writers.” The law­maker hands out his cell num­ber to journ­al­ists and urges them to reach out any time they have a ques­tion. “He calls you back quickly,” praises one con­gres­sion­al re­port­er. “And if you have break­ing news and say that you have to talk to him, he calls you back very, very quickly.”

“He’s very ac­cess­ible — and not only in a self-pro­mot­ing way,” the cable an­chor agrees. “I email with and text with a lot of sen­at­ors and con­gress­men, but I would say that Chaf­fetz is one of the most will­ing to talk. And I mean it en­tirely in the best pos­sible way — en­tirely in the way of, ‘I’m a pub­lic ser­vant. You are some­body that shares in­form­a­tion with people. Here’s the in­form­a­tion I can give you.’ It’s nev­er like, ‘I’ll tell you if you put me on your show.’ “

“He’s not a firebrand,” says Alex Kor­son, the ex­ec­ut­ive pro­du­cer of MS­N­BC’s Morn­ing Joe. “He’s pas­sion­ate, but not dis­agree­able.” To an un­usu­al de­gree among the show’s guests, says Kor­son, Chaf­fetz seems to have his people “seek­ing out bi­par­tis­an op­por­tun­it­ies with oth­er House mem­bers.”

The law­maker is also will­ing to stray from the shel­ter of talk­ing points. “He’s just speak­ing like an every­day hu­man be­ing would about what he has heard and what he knows and what his re­ac­tion is,” says the con­gres­sion­al re­port­er. “In a Wash­ing­ton full of mes­sage-con­trol play­ers, it is re­fresh­ing.”

In­deed, Chaf­fetz prides him­self on buck­ing con­ven­tion­al wis­dom about how a loy­al par­tis­an should speak. “Hope­fully, I’ve earned a repu­ta­tion for call­ing balls and strikes as I see them. If you’re just a polit­ic­al hack try­ing to score polit­ic­al points, that only goes so far. I think if you agree with the Dems or — heav­en for­bid! — the pres­id­ent, say it. Ad­mit it.” (Case in point: Chaf­fetz whole­heartedly sup­ports Obama’s lift­ing of the travel ban on Cuba.) And he sees mix­ing it up with even hos­tile re­port­ers as something of a pro­fes­sion­al ob­lig­a­tion: “If you’re go­ing to rep­res­ent 800,000 people, you bet­ter darn well be ready and pre­pared to an­swer.” Be­sides, he reas­ons, most in­ter­views are only five minutes. “How bad can they be?”

Journ­al­ists also ap­pre­ci­ate that Chaf­fetz de­clines to par­ti­cip­ate in the me­dia-bash­ing that is par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar on his side of the aisle. “I don’t hear him rail against the me­dia,” says the an­chor. “Look, I tend to think there is a lib­er­al bi­as, and Re­pub­lic­ans are not al­ways wrong when they com­plain about it. But he doesn’t com­plain about it — at least not to me.”

Chaf­fetz isn’t ob­li­vi­ous to the fact that his me­dia strategy makes him something of an odd duck. “It’s not for every­one,” he al­lows. “A lot of mem­bers are afraid of their own You­Tube mo­ment. They don’t want to blow it.” Even so, he firmly be­lieves the GOP could be­ne­fit from a little more me­dia out­reach. “We as a party of­ten make the mis­take of just talk­ing to the same people that agree with us,” he la­ments. “We talk a lot about be­ing a big tent, but we tend not to talk to oth­er audi­ences.”

There are, of course, all sorts of vex­ing meta-ques­tions that arise from Chaf­fetz’s ap­proach to deal­ing with journ­al­ists. To what de­gree are re­port­ers be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by his fun stor­ies, deep dimples, and flat­ter­ing charm? To what de­gree do they care? Is the pub­lic bet­ter served by the gen­i­al, open re­la­tion­ship Chaf­fetz has cul­tiv­ated with the press — or by the more stan­doff­ish, skep­tic­al re­la­tion­ship that has come to be the norm in D.C.?

Whatever the lar­ger di­lem­mas, Chaf­fetz cer­tainly seems de­term­ined to stay the course. List­ing for me the wide range of me­dia out­lets he’s been speak­ing to lately — in­clud­ing ES­PN, Rolling Stone, and People — he stops to sum­mar­ize: “I just try to be ac­cess­ible, and if people have a ques­tion, I an­swer it.” A story like this one — it al­most writes it­self, no?

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