Over and Out

‘What He Did Was Creepy. It Was Bad, Truly Bad’: The Rise and Fall of Mark Halperin

‘Game Change’ author Mark Halperin became one of the most fêted Beltway pundits. Now his media empire and reputation are in tatters thanks to a sexual misconduct scandal.

Mark Halperin’s dazzling career ended at precisely 11:37 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, Oct. 25, when CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy posted online the explosive details of Halperin’s alleged sexual misconduct with five junior female coworkers.

Until that moment, and for more than a quarter century, the 52-year-old Halperin was both a witness to, and a star performer in, seven presidential campaigns; he was an enterprising political journalist who had leveraged his access to national politicians, vast appetite for data and gossip, gift for packaging, and flair for showbiz into fame and wealth as the king of his own multimedia empire, known informally as Halperin Inc.

As a deeply sourced reporter and later political director for ABC News for nearly two decades before he left for Time magazine in 2007, Halperin carried out—and, in a sense, invented—a form of journalism that elevated entertainment values, personal celebrity, and the oracular gloss of secret insider knowledge over meat-and-potatoes reportage and cautious interpretation.

“Mark never practiced ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism,” said former Democratic strategist and current political science professor Robert Shrum, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “He was sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but he was never in doubt. He practiced a different kind of journalism which fulfills the desire people have to know the results of the horse race before the race is run.”

HuffPost global editorial director Howard Fineman, the longtime chief political correspondent for Newsweek magazine, said Halperin led a trend “that presaged a whole new wave of insider journalism” which focused on Acela Corridor elites—especially via “The Note,” the shamelessly snobbish and ravenously consumed tip sheet he launched at ABC News in 2002—and which “became one of the symbols of the divorce of Washington from the rest of the country.”

“The old model was David Broder and Haynes Johnson [the late, legendary political aces of The Washington Post] going out and bonding with the people of St. Louis for two weeks to understand American politics,” Fineman told The Daily Beast. “Halperin essentially said, ‘Screw that, we [the media] are so important, I’m covering the coverage’ and staying for the most part in Washington. He’d get out in the country occasionally but he thought the main story was either in D.C. or inside the heads of the campaign managers. His point of reference was the power of the media and the power of strategy.”

Halperin’s opinion carried enormous weight in the media-political complex. Fineman recalled spotting him in the lobby of an Austin, Texas, hotel in June 1999 and intently scrutinizing Fineman’s Newsweek cover story on Gov. George W. Bush, who was preparing to announce his presidential campaign.

“I remember thinking it was like Frank Rich reviewing the musical,” Fineman said. “I wanted him to like it and approve of it. I cared what he thought.”

Fineman added: “He was formidable in what he chose to cover, which was the inside game at the intersection of journalism and politics. There was nobody better. But to the extent that our business is becoming more and more self-referential in a destructive way, he deserves at least a footnote, if not more.”

He was already acting like he knew something you didn’t—I found it really obnoxious

Critics of Halperin’s journalism, and they are many, include Shareblue Media senior writer Eric Boehlert, a veteran of the left-leaning press watchdog site Media Matters, who devoted an entire chapter to Halperin in his 2006 book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush.

Boehlert disparages Halperin for a top-down worldview which leads him to favor the folks in power, with a decided preference for Republicans, without much concern for the impact of their policies, and which has occasionally resulted in Halperin’s allegedly sycophantic coverage of Donald Trump.

(It must be said, however, that Halperin’s early enthusiastic assessment of Trump’s mad skills as presidential candidate—athwart a mainstream media barrage of dismissive skepticism and contempt—was exceptionally prescient.)

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“It’s ‘let’s just do the gossip and the strategy and the positioning, and the anonymous sources and the catfights,’” Boehlert told The Daily Beast, “and let’s take the policy out of politics and make it more interesting. Instead of covering how the candidates are trying to get health care created for the country, which is among the things that presidential candidates are traditionally trying to do, let’s put all that stuff aside and obsess over personalities.”

If Halperin ever cared about candidates’ policy proposals beyond their impact on political positioning—let alone their moral and ethical implications—it wasn’t manifest in his output.

Former Time correspondent Joe Klein recalled a knock-down drag-out argument on MSNBC’s Morning Joe back during the 2016 Republican primaries, in which Joe Scarborough loudly mocked him, and heatedly defended Trump, after Klein stated that “in issue after issue after issue, [Trump] doesn’t know anything.”

“Joe,” Halperin said about Klein, with the sort of indulgent smile reserved for something adorable, “likes candidates who are steeped in policy.”

Few practitioners of the news trade have been as celebrated and well-compensated—and, truth be told, resented—as Halperin, who didn’t waste time on unnecessary friendliness, and didn’t resist the impulse to lord it over colleagues and competitors.

“I met him in 1992 during the Clinton campaign. It was 25 years ago, and he was already acting like he knew something you didn’t—I found it really obnoxious,” recalled a prominent political journalist, who spoke on condition of not being named. “He’s one of those people who makes you feel bad about yourself. I felt he just didn’t respect me, for whatever reason.”

A second colleague, however, said Halperin is a complex if difficult personality, and recalled that political journalists of his generation “associated Mark with gaiety, with wit, with keen perception. He was somebody who could make the electrons jump in conversation, and make everything sharper and more fun.”

When somebody rises to the top of the flagpole, and they fall, there’s blood and guts everywhere, and everybody goes, ‘How terrible!’

Until this year, Halperin had been making a reported $1 million annually from Bloomberg Media—where he and his writing and reporting partner, John Heilemann, were co-managing editors of Bloomberg Politics and hosted a nightly television show, With All Due Respect, that also ran during the 2016 election cycle on MSNBC.

Both were fixtures on Morning Joe, as well as on NBC News, where Halperin appeared regularly to dispense political analysis on the Today show. (Halperin and Heilemann declined to comment for this story.)

Before CNN’s Darcy published that career-killing blockbuster, swiftly followed by other media outlets’ accounts of Halperin’s alleged misconduct with young women—including a Daily Beast story detailing his unwelcome sexual advances in February 2011 to a 20-year-old Tulane University junior at a dinner hosted by Tulane professor and former Bill Clinton strategist James Carville—Halperin had been riding high.

He was enjoying the proceeds of speaking engagements and a Showtime political reality series, The Circus, along with two wildly successful campaign books, Game Change (a gripping insider narrative of the 2008 race, adapted into a widely-praised feature film for HBO) and Double Down (about the 2012 campaign), both coauthored with Heilemann.

He also had a lucrative contract for a third book on the 2016 election pitting Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton, along with an HBO deal for a television series to be based on their latest chronicle.

The campaign books, which depended largely on insider versions of events shared with Halperin and Heilemann after the fact by anonymous aides, were written—mostly by Heilemann, the wordsmith of the duo—in a sweeping novelistic style in which sources were neither identified nor referred to. According to some critics, the arrangement encouraged mid-level staffers to engage in historical revisionism that burnished their roles and reputations.

“Staff porn,” sniffed a Capitol Hill wag. 

In January Halperin and his longtime girlfriend, writer Karen Avrich, celebrated the birth of their son James, and had recently, according to friends, purchased a multimillion-dollar summer house on Nantucket island, a favorite redoubt of the media and Hollywood elite.

But then, with savage suddenness, it all came crashing down—the TV gigs, the book contract, the HBO deal, all gone. Even his talent agency, CAA, publicly dropped him as a client.

“I’m gonna shock you, but in my experience with political journalism, there’s a fair amount of jealousy and career-envy that goes on in that profession,” Carville told The Daily Beast. “And what happens is what I call The Splat Ceremony. When somebody rises to the top of the flagpole, and they fall, there’s blood and guts everywhere, and everybody goes, ‘How terrible!’ ”

Carville hardly needed to add: “This is a big splat.”

Halperin grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, schooled in the belief-systems and insider dramas of the Washington Beltway elite, and graduated from Harvard University in 1987.

In a career path unblemished by an extended stay in flyover country—Fineman,  for one, spent years in Louisville, Kentucky, as a reporter for the Courier-Journal—Halperin promptly joined ABC News as a desk assistant and researcher for then-anchor Peter Jennings on World News Tonight. (A decade later, when he was directing ABC’s political coverage, Halperin would explain to coworkers that he preferred to do his job from Manhattan, rather than Washington, “because he needed to be close to Jennings,” according a colleague Halperin spoke to, “because that was where the power center was.”)  

As reported in a 2004 New Yorker profile of Halperin, his father, Morton Halperin, had been a top Pentagon official and White House national security aide under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

He supervised the writing of the Pentagon Papers, the secret government history of America’s misguided involvement in Vietnam, and was famously wiretapped by Nixon and Henry Kissinger when they suspected him of going squishy on the war and possibly leaking to hostile news organizations.

That suspicion was never borne out by evidence, but was nevertheless a harbinger of the mushrooming paranoia that prompted the Watergate scandal. After Nixon and Kissinger bombed Cambodia in 1970, Morton Halperin quit the White House in protest.

In a statement of journalistic principles that Boehlert, in retrospect, greets with irony, Mark told the New Yorker that “his father taught him that the role of the media was a simple one: ‘to hold powerful interests accountable to the public interest.’”

I thought it was a little unethical, too clever by half, and I remember we treated the ABC reporter on our bus like they were radioactive

Halperin’s big break came in 1991, when ABC’s then-political director, former Newsweek correspondent Hal Bruno, assigned him to travel with the Clinton campaign. Amid the sharp-elbowed ink-stained wretches hunting for scoops and campaign aides fighting for recognition, Halperin was a natural—befriending top Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, and trading confidences and information to the benefit of both.

According to the New Yorker, Halperin was the first journalist on the bus to confront Clinton with a question about Gennifer Flowers, the Arkansas governor’s tabloid-ready former mistress. He later challenged the campaign with an explosive letter in which a young Bill Clinton had thanked an Army colonel for saving him from the Vietnam draft—damaging proof that Clinton had been less than honest about his personal history.

The New Yorker: “Halperin handed a copy to Stephanopoulos and [Clinton aide Paul] Begala on a runway in New Hampshire and said, ‘Nobody else has this. Read it right away. We’re going to need a response.’ Begala recalls, ‘I still remember my eyes settling on that sentence—that’s when my knees buckled.’ Halperin said, ‘It was a little bit heady and overwhelming at that point in my career to deal with something that high-stakes.’”

Halperin’s career reached critical mass in October 2004, when the New Yorker’s 9,000-word profile—focusing on the outsized influence of “The Note” as the primary driver and source of intelligence for the American political class, which Halperin dubbed “the Gang of 500”—certified him as a force to be reckoned with.

“What John Hersey’s ‘PT-109’ story did for John F. Kennedy,” said one of Halperin’s competitors, recalling the June 1944 New Yorker article about the World War II heroism of a then-little known Navy lieutenant, which launched Kennedy’s political career, “the New Yorker’s story on ‘The Note’ did for Mark Halperin.”

We try to channel what the chattering class is chattering about, and to capture the sensibility, ethos, and rituals of the Gang of 500, which still largely sets the political agenda for the country,” Halperin claimed to the magazine, which pointed out that the tip sheet—which trafficked in curated news stories, rumor, speculation, and cute nicknames for operatives (such as “S.M.I.P.,” meaning “smartest man in politics,” for Dubya’s chief strategist Karl Rove)—seemed deliberately designed to be incomprehensible to outsiders.

“The Note,” as Halperin conceived it, was a public presentation of the nightly campaign memos that ABC News’ political team had been circulating internally for its producers and reporters since the election cycles of the mid-1990s; it frequently fell into the eager hands of journalists from competing outlets and campaign staffers, and was mouthwateringly read like samizdat literature.

“Mark would send those reports around to different campaigns to curry favor with the staff—sharing reports from the opponent’s campaign bus and their events,” said an operative who asked not to be further identified. “I thought it was a little unethical, too clever by half, and I remember we treated the ABC reporter on our bus like they were radioactive.”

With then-Washington Post editor John Harris, later the co-founder of Politico, Halperin co-authored 2006’s The Way to Win, ostensibly a blueprint for presidential victory in 2008 that drew on the insights and experiences of Rove and Clinton, among others, but somehow missed Barack Obama.

What he did was creepy. It was bad, truly bad

By 2007, when he left ABC News, Halperin was a popular brand-name—a near-constant presence on Charlie Rose (more than 200 appearances since the early 1990s), and Time managing editor Rick Stengel recruited him to enhance the magazine’s campaign coverage with his unique perspective and wide range of contacts.  

Halperin, who reported to the magazine’s Washington bureau but seldom showed up there, was given a team of reporter-researchers to work with him on “The Page,” a regular compendium of political dish and supposed insights.

A Feb. 25, 2008 feature, “Halperin’s Take,” listed “Things [John] McCain Can Do to Try to Beat Obama That [Hillary] Clinton Cannot,” and attracted criticism from Media Matters. The list included “Encourage interest groups, bloggers, and right-leaning media to explore Obama's past”; “Make an issue of Obama's acknowledged drug use”; “Allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama”; “Exploit Michelle Obama's mistakes and address her controversial remarks with unrestricted censure”; and “Emphasize Barack Hussein Obama's unusual name and exotic background through a Manchurian Candidate prism.”

Several colleagues at Time believed that despite a salary in the mid-six-figure range—more than a senior editor made—Halperin was saving his best material for the Game Change book he was working on with Heilemann. Unlike “The Note,” “The Page” never caught on. “The dirty little secret,” said a witness, “is that Heilemann is the writer and Halperin is the reporter.”

At Bloomberg Television, which Halperin and Heilemann joined in 2014, With All Due Respect received, at best, mixed notices, even after NBC News Chairman Andy Lack put the program on MSNBC to fill the troubled 6 p.m. time slot that Al Sharpton had recently vacated. Mike Bloomberg himself derisively referred to his expensive new hires as “Haldeman and Ehrlichman.”

Politico media writer Dylan Byers gave the October 2014 premiere a savage review: “What's lacking from ‘WADR’ is not entertainment value but added value. ‘Why am I watching this show?’ might have run through your head more than once…”

Months later, Byers wrote: “Despite its best efforts, the show isn't cool or fun. It's just smug. It's smug in the way it treats politics like a joke, and politicians like clowns.”

Halperin was compelled to apologize when an interview with Ted Cruz was widely condemned—ThinkProgress called it “the most racist interview of a 2016 candidate”—after he challenged the Texas Republican senator to prove the authenticity of his Cuban heritage by speaking Spanish on command, naming his favorite Cuban foods, and answering a series of silly pop-culture questions.

The show ended its run with Trump’s inauguration in January and Halperin left Bloomberg shortly thereafter, taking an expanded role at NBC News, embarking on a new book project, and preparing for another season of Showtime’s The Circus—none of which now exists as possibility for him.

Halperin’s frequent fellow Morning Joe panelist, Daily Beast contributor Mike Barnicle, said he recently called Halperin to tell him, “Your life isn’t over.”

“What he did was creepy. It was bad, truly bad,” Barnicle said, adding that it will take a good long while before Halperin can contemplate a comeback, even though “This is America—it’s geared for comebacks.”

“He deserves to be punished for what he did,” Barnicle added. “He deserves to have what he did be deplored. But does he deserve to die? How many times can you kill a guy?”