Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney are developing a movie reportedly based on Howard Dean’s failed presidential campaign.
“It’s about a young, brash press secretary,” explained Jay Carson, the young and brash former press secretary of the Dean campaign.
Mr. Carson, Bill Clinton’s former communications director and now Hillary Clinton’s increasingly visible traveling press secretary, denies the movie is based on him—“Leo is way too good-looking to play me,” he said—but among the nation’s community of stressed-out, monitor-tanned Democratic press aides, he’s about the closest thing there is to a glamour boy.
Certainly, that was part of the appeal for the Clinton campaign when they cast him in his current role as the presentable, approachable messenger in a press operation best known for its naked aggressiveness.
Last month, after Mrs. Clinton trounced her opponents during a debate in Las Vegas, he walked—all smiles—into a union hall and told reporters that Barack Obama had shown his inexperience by taking the bait on a Robert Novak column reporting that the Clinton campaign was had dirt on the Illinois senator.
“A Democratic candidate should be smart enough not to fall into a trap,” said Mr. Carson, adding, “If you don’t know how to do that in a primary, you are going to be in a world of hurt in the general.”
In between the debate and the union meeting, the 30-year-old sat down for dinner and a few glasses of wine at the strip’s Mandalay Bay hotel. He spoke about his experiences working on the presidential campaigns of Bill Bradley and Howard Dean and as national spokesman for the former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. He described how Mrs. Clinton “reads all her clips” and earned his fealty back in 2000, by making an unprompted call to boost the spirits of his sister, who was going through a bout of depression.
As he did during most of his downtime in Vegas, Mr. Carson wore slim jeans, a fitted striped sweater, a trim beard and black high-top Converse All Stars that, according to his close friend Beau Willimon, he spent 30 minutes scuffing in the dirt after purchasing to achieve a more authentically “punkified” look. (Mr. Willimon, another veteran of the Dean campaign, also happens to be the author of the play Farragut North, upon which the DiCaprio-Clooney political thriller is based. He said that Mr. Carson helped come up with the play’s title, but asserts the main character is entirely fictional.)
Mr. Carson, who spends most of his time now in vans and hotels, and reading about 200 pages of clips a day, cast himself as something of a rebel in the khaki world of Washington operatives. He spoke longingly of his airy loft in the Fairway Building in Red Hook, where he currently lives with his bright-eyed and fashionably trim fiancée, who works at Elle magazine. He said that when he picked her up at Prospect Park during a TV on the Radio concert that he attended with his mentor, Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson, “She thought I was an A-and-R guy.”
Like three other core members of Mrs. Clinton’s aggressive communications team—Mr. Wolfson, Phil Singer and Blake Zeff—Mr. Carson got his start working for Chuck Schumer. (Mr. Schumer must, at this point, be considered the Johnny Appleseed of Democratic press operatives.)
“It’s a complementary group,” Mr. Carson said, choosing to explain the temperamental difference between him and Mr. Wolfson in geographic terms. “Howard is a New Yorker, I’m from Georgia.”
In an interview with The Observer, Dr. Dean—who is currently chairman of the Democratic National Committee—guessed that Mr. Carson was also added to complement the group constitutionally.
“He’s smart enough to know that the best way to get his viewpoint across is not to go and hit everybody over the head with it,” Dr. Dean said. “There are a lot of people in that group who are very, very aggressive. Jay is very laid-back.”
He added, “My guess is that people seek him out for advice in that campaign.”
MR. CARSON’S INTRODUCTION to Democratic politics came early. His father, a lawyer who now paints professionally, skipped out on his wife’s Lamaze classes to watch Jimmy Carter’s 1976 election returns. When the newly elected President Clinton dropped by his high school to campaign for a local Democrat, Mr. Carson watched with adoration as the president played a saxophone that now sits in the Georgia music hall of fame archives.
“I was like eight feet away,” said Mr. Carson, who has all but lost his Macon accent. “It was a huge deal for me. I felt a lot of kinship with a Southern Democratic governor.”
Mr. Carson attended Columbia University, joined the school’s rowing team, wore his hair to his shoulders and tended bar at the local watering hole 1020. After working in Estonia on a fellowship during the summer after his sophomore year, he won a George Soros–funded grant from the Eurasia Foundation to work with the anticorruption unit of the Republic of Georgia’s parliament.
Back in New York, Mr. Carson hung out downtown, at Spy bar and Don Hill’s, and engaged in what could be called an active social life. (“He’s been known to date a few people,” said Mr. Willimon.)
But his real interest turned out to be politics.
During his junior year at Columbia, he interned as a book researcher for George Stephanopoulos, who in time suggested he work on Mr. Schumer’s first Senate campaign.
Mr. Carson was assigned assorted menial tasks, including service as Mr. Schumer’s driver.
“Jay took to the campaign trail like a duck to water,” Mr. Schumer wrote in an e-mail to The Observer. “It was clear then that Jay was destined to do great things in the political world.”
Mr. Carson remembers Mr. Schumer demanding unerring competence of his aides and that he wanted to make sure his campaign intern “was discreet and an aggressive driver.”
He recalled the time Mr. Schumer, running late, needed to get to Albany. Convinced that if Mr. Carson failed to make a green light near his Park Slope home, he would miss his meeting, he ordered the intern to step on it. (At the restaurant in Las Vegas, Mr. Carson demonstrated the bold maneuver by cutting his BlackBerry off with his cellphone, both of which he kept on the table throughout dinner.)
“Oh, good,” he remembered Mr. Schumer saying after they had made the light. “I bet you didn’t learn that in Georgia.”
The day after graduating from Columbia, Mr. Carson moved to California to work advance for Mr. Bradley’s presidential campaign. After they lost, Anita Dunn, the Bradley campaign’s communications director, helped get him a job with Mr. Daschle. “A very serious trial by fire,” Mr. Carson called it.
Later in 2000, Mr. Daschle loaned him out to work on Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan’s Senate campaign. Mr. Carnahan died in a plane crash before the election, and Mr. Carson was reassigned to Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaign in New York.
After she won, he returned to the employ of Mr. Daschle, where he was made national press secretary at the age of 25. His second tenure was punctuated by the attacks of Sept.
11 and, shortly afterward, a brush with an anthrax-contaminated envelope mailed to Mr. Daschle’s office.
In the summer of 2003, Mr. Carson signed up with the Dean campaign, where, somewhat ironically given his present employer, he skewered John Kerry for being an establishment politician running a Washington insider campaign. He also had to contend with Mr. Dean’s somewhat unpredictable outbursts.
“Being press secretary for me during that campaign probably wasn’t much fun,” said Dr. Dean. “I was, should we say, a little unscripted.”
Dr. Dean said that Mr. Carson often had to speak with him bluntly, but that he was always honest, sometimes brutally so. He described Mr. Carson as a voice of reason among his more boisterous advisers, one of whom, Joe Trippi, is rumored to be played by Mr. Clooney in the movie.
“He rolled with the punches—he knew who he had,” said Dr. Dean. “My guess is that it prepared him. I have a feeling that the great job he did with us made him very attractive to the Clintons because you were in the fire every day with me, and that really prepares you for the big leagues.”
For his part, Mr. Carson recalled the “meteoric rise” of the Dean campaign with affection, but when asked what went wrong, he turned pensive. “I saw the superior field operations—what Gore had against us with Bradley, I saw the same thing with Dean. People who weren’t as sea-sound—people who hadn’t done it before.”
These days, when Mr. Carson sees Mr. Obama’s noisy supporters shouting antiestablishment rhetoric on the campaign trail, he cuttingly points out to reporters that they remind him of the Dean campaign.
In 2004, the flameout of the Dean campaign so dejected Mr. Carson that he nearly left politics. He tried to combine his passions for Democratic politics and music by working briefly at a political advocacy group called Music for America and attending concerts in his spare time at the Mercury Lounge with Mr. Wolfson. He subsequently worked for New York’s ill-fated Olympic bid.
Then Mr. Clinton’s office called.
Attached to the former president’s side as the communications director for the Clinton Global Fund, Mr. Carson visited scores of countries and now has an insert in his passport for stamps. Mr. Clinton’s passport, he said, “is like a bible.” Before sitting down at the Mandalay, Mr. Carson spent a half an hour on the phone with the former president, though he wouldn’t give the slightest indication of what they talked about. When asked what the job was like, he answered vaguely, “Playing cards riding in cars, traveling the world with President Clinton. That sentence says it all. It’s an amazing job.”
Even from his perch at the do-gooder Clinton foundation, Mr. Carson had the opportunity to indulge in some hardball politics, playing a major role in pummeling ABC for airing a docudrama that essentially blamed Clinton administration bungling for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It was like a return to what I’ve done,” said Mr. Carson, adding, “This, I know how to do.”
He also helped push GQ into a decision to spike a not-entirely-favorable piece about Hillary Clinton, using the threat of withholding access to Bill Clinton for a subsequent cover story.
These days, of course, there’s no shortage of heavy action.
While Mr. Obama has criticized the Clinton campaign’s tough tactics, Mr. Carson is unapologetic. He said that to beat the Republicans, “you have to be as tough as they are in order to win. But there is a difference between nasty and tough. If a mugger confronts you in an alley, you don’t mug him back; you punch him in the face and stop him.”
Then, after a pause, Mr. Carson said, “You can’t hope him away from you.”