The Rise and Fall of Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge, America’s Worst Gay Power Couple
Just three years ago, Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge were the toast of the liberal establishment. The Facebook co-founder and his politically ambitious husband embodied all the attributes of a bona fide “gay power couple.” In 2012, Hughes bought The New Republic, rescuing the flagship liberal magazine from financial peril and establishing himself as a player in Washington. At the same time, Eldridge was quietly preparing to run for Congress in upstate New York.
Young, handsome, Ivy League-pedigreed, rich (“the wealthiest openly gay men under 30” according to The Advocate, a stretch considering that the fortune belongs to Hughes), and espousing predictably liberal political views, the Hughes-Eldridge partnership was destined to work wonders for America.
How swiftly things change. In just the past two months, one half of this pair managed to single-handedly destroy a storied journalistic institution, while the other suffered a crushing electoral defeat in New York’s 19th Congressional District. Last week, the 31-year-old Hughes forced the resignations of both the editor and literary editor of The New Republic, whose 100th anniversary he presided over last month at a star-studded gala in Washington, D.C.
In protest of the magazine’s newly ensconced CEO’s plan to transform TNR into a “vertically integrated digital media company,” the majority of the magazine’s senior and contributing editors resigned.
Weeks before the implosion at TNR, 28-year-old Eldridge lost his congressional bid by a stunning 30 points, despite having outspent his opponent nearly 3-to-1 in a district President Obama won by 6 percentage points. The couple had purchased a $2 million home in the district expressly so that Eldridge could run there, their purchase of a $5 million mansion in the adjoining 18th having come to naught after that seat was won by another gay Democrat in 2012.
When Hughes bought The New Republic for an undisclosed sum less than three years ago, members of the media tripped over themselves to flatter the young Harvard graduate and his husband (Full disclosure: I was on the editorial staff of TNR from 2007 to 2009, and a contributing editor from 2010 until last year, dropped from the masthead before it was cool). “It’s difficult not to get swept up in Hughes’s sincerity, his life-of-the-mind swagger,” swooned New York’s Carl Swanson, who penned the most reverential of many notices (no mean feat).
A New York Times profile, meanwhile, set the scene at a Paris Review fundraiser hosted by the couple at Cipriani (the 42nd Street location, not the Wall Street one, where they celebrated their wedding with 400 of their closest friends). In it, a series of Manhattan literary and media bigwigs prostrated themselves before the two like nobles at a royal court.
“They are very generous with their money and time,” Richard Socarides, a former Clinton administration staffer and television pundit prattled. “They are young, rich, smart, and good-looking. It’s a pretty powerful combination.”
Powerful indeed. At their 4,000-square-foot, $5 million SoHo loft, Hughes and Eldridge hosted fundraisers for Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo, and raised money for worthy causes like gay marriage. All the while they racked up favorable coverage in the mainstream press, and even more sycophantic mentions in the gay press. In 2011, Hughes and Eldridge graced the cover of The Advocate’s “40 under 40” issue, and the following year Hughes came in at No. 28 on OUT’s “Power List.” Nearly every profile remarked upon the young men’s precocity. They possessed “wisdom beyond their years,” observed The Advocate. “The youngest old man any of us knows,” an unnamed friend of Atlantic Publisher David Bradley said of Hughes.
Earlier this year, former TNR staffer and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank sent Hughes a fawning email in which he praised the young owner for “doing the Lord’s work” in purchasing the perpetually money-losing magazine, calling him a “21st-century Walter Lippman.”
Last May, former TNR editor Andrew Sullivan produced a cloyingly self-referential blandishment of Hughes for a T magazine feature on successful twentysomethings, portraying the self-appointed editor of the magazine as a slightly more liberal, twinkier version of Sullivan’s younger self. Accompanying a picture of a pensive Hughes sitting in a coffee shop, bedecked in a $2,800 coat, $680 sweater, and $650 shirt (all Valentino), Sullivan wrote that Hughes “rescue[d]” TNR, “is a young person’s idea of what an editor should be,” and, sticking with the old-soul crap, told readers that he “felt as if I were a kid talking to a grownup.”
Today, former TNR writers and the rest of the media establishment are racing to denounce Hughes. “A dilettante and a fraud” is how Milbank describes the man whom he not so long ago likened to the journalistic second coming of Jesus Christ. Sullivan accuses Hughes of “corporate destruction, ” and signed an open letter with a raft of other disgruntled TNR alums accusing Hughes of nothing less than “deal[ing] a lamentable blow” to “the promise of American life.”
Contrary to the popular narrative, TNR did not “die” last week. Its demise as a thoughtful journal of liberal (in the classical sense of the word) thought was foreordained the day Hughes purchased the magazine. And the signs that he would destroy The New Republic as we knew it were clear for anyone willing to take off their ideological blinders. For behind the seemingly accomplished, smart, and creative prodigy that supposedly is Chris Hughes lies a deeply insecure man with few accomplishments to his name and a heavy burden to prove his self, not to mention net, worth. Hughes’s wealth and status owe little to his ingenuity as a supposed Facebook “co-founder” but rather his luck at being in the right place at the right time.
Unlike Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, with whom he roomed at Harvard, Hughes had no special programming or coding abilities. But there was a silver lining in this lack of technical expertise, in that, as the only member of this tech geek crew with passable social skills, he could take up the public-relations portfolio. “He is fortunate he found himself in the same room,” David Kirkpatrick, author of a book about the website, told the Times. “He is more socially adjusted than the rest of them.” By his own admission, Hughes’ main job for Facebook was “customer service.” $700 million, the rough amount that Hughes earned when he cashed out of the company in 2007, is a pretty good take for a glorified call-center operator.
Knowing how little he had done to earn such ill-gotten gains, Hughes set about trying to prove that he was on par with the Steve Jobses and Warren Buffetts of the world. He joined the Obama 2008 campaign’s social-media team, but was hardly “The kid who made Obama president,” as Fast Company claimed in 2009. After the election, Hughes helped launch a “cause-oriented social network” called Jumo, but it failed after less than a year in operation.
Listless and with a burning desire to show his mettle, Hughes was ready when the opportunity to purchase The New Republic fell into his lap in 2012. Without so much as a single byline to his name in a reputable journalistic outlet, never mind The Harvard Crimson (though he was, to be fair, news editor of the Andover Phillipian), Hughes appointed himself editor-in-chief of the magazine. Within months, after having promised the staff editorial independence, he fired editor Richard Just, who had approached him about purchasing TNR in the first place.
Soon, for the first time since its 1914 founding, the magazine stopped publishing unsigned editorials. Last year, after promising the acclaimed journalist Steve Brill that a 24,000-word piece he had written about the American health-care system would appear on the cover of the re-launched magazine, Hughes delayed its publication in favor of a predictably obsequious sit-down interview he conducted with his former boss, the president of the United States. Brill went on to publish his piece in Time, where it won a National Magazine Award.
By last month’s 100th anniversary celebration, Hughes’ lust for reknown had become farcical. To speak at the event, he invited Fareed Zakaria, who stands accused of plagiarizing dozens of articles, including the very first one he wrote for TNR as a lowly intern back in 1987. Zakaria also earned the dubious honor of appearing on the magazine’s 2011 list of “overrated thinkers” (“a barometer in a good suit, a creature of establishment consensus, an exemplary spokesman for the always-evolving middle.”)
But to Hughes, wining and dining this media star was more important than protecting the integrity of the institution whose reputation he claims to care so much about. Hughes’s alleged fiddling with the seating plan for the centenary dinner, at which he relegated the magazine’s staff to the back of the room, brought to mind the pathetic memory of Jimmy Carter managing the schedule of the White House tennis court.
Eldridge’s path to fame is even more accidental. In 2010, he dropped out of law school to take up a job as communications director for a gay-rights organization, an appointment soon followed by his husband’s donation of a quarter-million dollars to the group. Nine months after Hughes told New York magazine, “He’s 26. He’s going to do all kinds of things in politics, but I don’t think there’s any rush,” to run for office, Eldridge announced his congressional candidacy.
Even by the already money-drenched standards of American politics, the Eldridge campaign was a jaw-dropping spectacle to behold. In preparation for a campaign, Eldridge established Hudson River Ventures, essentially a vote-buying apparatus masquerading as an economic-development project, to win over small-business owners and their employees. He then traipsed around the district dispensing “investments” ranging from $50,000 to $500,000 to local companies. The couple then bought a property in the town of Shokan, in New York’s 19th District, just months after Eldridge told the Times that it was their original mansion, in the 18th, where “we put down roots, where we want to have a family.”
Eldridge retained SKDKnickerbocker, a heavy-hitting Democratic political consulting firm, which also happened to be doing public-relations work for his investment fund. “Candidates who employ people in the districts they’re running in enjoy some advantages. What’s so unusual about this situation is that he’s being so transparent about it,” Paul Herrnson, executive director of the University of Connecticut’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, told Politico. Lacking any sense of irony, Eldridge made campaign-finance reform a signature plank.
To no one’s surprise except, perhaps, the pampered couple, Eldridge lost the race to the Republican incumbent 65 percent to 35 percent. In light of the massive amounts of money Hughes dumped into the race, it was one of the most humiliating defeats in the last election cycle. But Eldridge’s political ambition is not likely to be satiated. Several years ago, before he ever announced his candidacy, a source close to Eldridge told me that he had SKDKnickerbocker draw up a plan for him to become the first openly gay president of the United States (Eldridge was born in Canada and until recently held both Canadian and Israeli citizenship, which would make it difficult to overcome the Constitution’s natural-born citizenship clause). Expect the couple to find another mansion in a safe Democratic district where an aging representative is expected to retire.
One suspects that had this couple been heterosexual and conservative, the initial media attention would not have been quite so toadying. We would have no doubt been treated to endless stories about how a “rapacious” “right-wing” millionaire, who had done nothing to earn his fortune, set out to destroy one of liberalism’s great institutions all the while enabling his power-mad spouse to “buy” a seat in Congress. But everything about the Hughes-Eldridge pairing militated against such a portrayal. The prospect of a fresh-faced, conventionally liberal, gay couple hit every media sweet spot.
Hughes and Eldridge are not “role models for a future generation of… gay people,” as The Advocate absurdly stated. They are little more than entitled brats who, like most fabulously wealthy arrivistes who attain their fortunes through sheer luck rather than hard work, are used to getting everything they want, when they want it, and throw temper tantrums when they don’t.
In their elitism and sense of entitlement, they represent much of what liberals are supposed to despise. Most in the media and gay community were perfectly willing to ignore this imposture when the couple was throwing their money at the right causes and dispensing jobs to their journalist and political consultant friends. Hughes and Eldridge were beneficiaries of a corrupt and compliant media and political establishment that grasped at their filthy lucre. Only now that the fairy tale has come crashing down—a magazine destroyed, a devastating political loss suffered—is the herd willing to admit the obvious.
Updated Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014:
Statement from Anita Dunn, SKDKnickerbocker: “The suggestion that SKDKnickerbocker drew up a presidential plan for Sean Eldridge is untrue and ludicrous on its face, as we have told other reporters who asked us about this urban myth. Sean’s goal is to serve in Congress and we were proud to work with him on his campaign.”