It's a warm Saturday night and the venue is the Dupont Circle brownstone of journalist/writer Peter Bergen, the dapper Al Qaeda specialist. Joe Lockhart, former press secretary to President Clinton, is there. By the fridge is Tricia Enright, spokeswoman for the pre-implosion Dean campaign. A State Department official, amid a cluster of British publishing types, is bemoaning the Halliburton subsidiary that lost her laundry while she was in Iraq. She wonders, in a mock whine, if the vice president might be able to retrieve her lingerie.
The occasion? The launch of an irreverent, sometimes scurrilous, occasionally inane, often hilarious new Web log about (what else?) politics.
The arrival of wonkette.com - and its rising notoriety here - signals that even a serious town like Washington (where rumor serves a purpose but gossip is somehow disdained) can capitulate to Hollywood-style tittle tattle. To those who fear the erosion of serious journalism, the wonkette's arrival on the steps of the Capitol is a quiet victory for creeping National Enquirer values. It is also another example of the boundary-busting powers of the Internet, where writers like to be less deferential to authority, more saucy, and frankly less accurate than established print or television.
Fellow blogger Nick Confessore, who writes for The American Prospect, acknowledges that wonkette.com is not just another political website. "She is not covering politics as politics, but rather is looking at it all as a Kabuki theater with stupid rituals and absurdities," he says. "She's in a category of her own."
"She" is Ana Marie Cox, a 31-year-young redhead from Nebraska with a biting tongue, a snappy prose, and a self-proclaimed "shamelessness." Her politics are left - "big fat commie pinko," as she puts it.
But she asserts she lets no one off the hook: "What doesn't kill a politician only makes them stronger," Ms. Cox announces. It's hard to make fun of people with integrity (Sen. John McCain is tricky, she notes), but for all the rest, there is nowhere to hide.
The wonkette claims, wrinkling her nose at the question, not to know or care who and how many read her site. By some reports, the site had 55,000 hits its first day up, in late January, and its numbers have since tripled.
"The buzz around town is that everyone loves the wonkette," says Anne Schroeder, a writer for The Reliable Source, a Washington Post gossip column. "She's fun and fresh and right on the money - and is writing what others think but can't always write.... She can curse, for example."
The wonkette's irreverence did not always work in her favor. She has been fired, by her own account, from most jobs she's ever held. Then, last fall, her personal blog caught the attention of Nick Denton, publisher of popular blogs such as Gawker.com (devoted to New York publishing and celebrity gossip), Gizmodo.com (high-tech gadgets), and Fleshbot.com (porn). Soon, he hired Cox to start wonkette, with his stated goal of "causing trouble and covering costs - that's about it."
The wonkette spends her mornings, in pajamas, in front of her laptop in her Arlington, Va., home - checking out what's news, creating links to other sites, and getting tips from sources on sightings (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich crossing the street with a rapt intern by his side, or John Kerry riding an expensive Serotta bicycle - "$3,000 on a bike? Think of the Botox one could buy!" she cries).
Original reporting would not be the wonkette's forte. "I don't get paid enough to go out every night," she says. As a consequence, perhaps, she is not the best informed blogger around town - and is first to admit it. "I don't claim to have the most sources or the best news. But I'm funny, and that's what's missing elsewhere. People like being shocked and I have a job to do that."
Mischiefmaking is part of her job description, and some antics have been attention-getters. Take the "sloganator" episode, in which she encouraged her readers to take up the Bush campaign's online invitation to create slogans for printing on a Bush-Cheney poster. Think "Read my lips. No new jobs." Her trick caught national attention, and the Bush team pulled the feature.
Is there anything she won't make fun of? Sure, she says, and reflects. She does not make light of people's disabilities, or the way they look. She does not recycle anyone else's jokes. "I don't make jokes about President Bush being dumb," she says. "It's not true, to begin with. But it's also boring. Why say something everyone is?"