WASHINGTON, D.C.—Mark Whitaker, the 51-year-old Washington bureau chief for NBC News, was chuckling to himself. All this talk about celebrities invading the capital had made him jumpy, and he and a bunch of his fellow guests at a party at the British embassy here on Saturday night had just participated in a group head-swivel. Who had just entered?
“Oh my God,” one guest whispered. It was Peter Orszag, the new head of the Office of Management and Budget!
Mr. Whitaker is new to D.C., and in New York, where he’d spent most of his adult life, Mr. Orszag would hardly have rated that whisper. Beyoncé maybe, or Tom Cruise. Not Mr. Orszag.
“I think it’s a grim time in New York,” Mr. Whitaker told the Observer when we found him a few days later in a conference room in an office building overlooking Union Station. “You go up to New York and everyone is talking about how much money they lost and who invested with Bernie Madoff. Down here, there’s a great sense of excitement.”
Washington had entered that regular phase of its life cycle where beltway pundits declare their city important again, as though the declaration didn’t only underline the city’s ongoing inferiority complex.
Once the culprit had been the Kennedys. Now it was the kids from Chicago, who were descending on the District, shaking things up, throwing parties, sipping cocktails and shaking loose juicy bits of gossip.
“It’s a leaky town,” said Mr. Whitaker with some satisfaction. “A gossipy town.”
Mr. Whitaker assumed the title of bureau chief in July, in a rapid response to the sudden tragic death of the bureau’s former chief, the late Tim Russert. Was he there as a placeholder, or could he make himself the man for the job over the long term? The job of Washington bureau chief for NBC News—which requires managing personnel for both a cable and broadcast news division, keeping tabs on the city’s news and gossip and serving as a kind of all-purpose Beltway ambassador for the organization—can be a whirlwind during normal times. During a presidential inauguration, it can get downright dizzying.
The past couple days had been a blur. Along the way, Mr. Whitaker had appeared on Morning Joe, analyzing the incoming administration. He had overseen meetings, mapping out every minute of MSNBC’s inauguration coverage. He had met with the head of American University’s communications school to talk about possible long-term partnerships. He had attended a crazy party at Maureen Dowd’s house in Georgetown. He had brunched at the headquarters of the Council on Foreign Relations with Tina Brown and his colleagues from Morning Joe. He had overseen editorial meetings for The Nightly News. He had monitored NBC’s pool responsibilities, covering Capitol Hill for all the networks.
And, through it all, like seemingly everybody else in the city, he and his wife were hosting out-of-town guests—namely Jonelle Procope, the CEO of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and her husband, the investment banker Fred Terrell.
When we caught up with Mr. Whitaker on Monday afternoon, at a broadcasting center near the U.S. Capitol (which also houses offices for Fox News and C-Span), Mr. Whitaker had just returned from a lunch at the National Museum of Women in the Arts hosted by his bosses, GE CEO Jeff Immelt and NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker.
“It’s a fascinating job,” he said, though his face seemed to indicate it was also a little wearying. “For me, it’s the perfect job.”
Washington will decide that latter point.
When Mr. Whitaker took over the bureau in mid-summer, he inherited a deep, talented staff full of up-and-coming talents like political director (and newly minted chief White House correspondent) Chuck Todd and savvy, deeply sourced veterans like Andrea Mitchell. But it was also a competitive group that was in the midst of a heated campaign, struggling to find the right balance between broadcast and cable sensibilities, and still coping with the sudden death of their beloved leader.
To make an already difficult job that much more so, Mr. Whitaker took over the bureau at a time when all NBC managers were being asked by upper management to significantly trim their staffs. In November, not long after moving into the bureau, Mr. Whitaker was put in the unenviable position of having to ask his new staff to apply for buyout packages. In the end, a number of talented reporters and producers were let go.
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