1234 H Street NE
The Tab(2) Rams Head IPA
(1) Devil’s Backbone
(1) Pabst Blue Ribbon
$22.00 + tip
Arun Chaudhary is already a few sips into his Rams Head IPA when I arrive at the Pug on H Street in Washington, D.C. H Street is what passes for Brooklyn hipster in Washington these days, and Chaudhary appreciates that “it feels like a real bar, where people actually drink,” as opposed to bars where people network and preen. Chaudhary, who says he “made a business helping people project their authenticity,” craves it.
Chaudhary was the official White House videographer during Barack Obama’s first term. In other words, he was like your annoying friend who is constantly taking photos and posting them to Facebook, except he was capturing history.
No matter your politics, it’s hard not to think, “Wow, hanging with the president all day and shooting YouTube videos. How’d he get that sweet gig?” The simple answer: By being a total nerd in his youth.
Chaudhary attended a Junior State of America summer session as a 16-year-old and stayed in touch with a girl he met there named Kate Albright-Hanna. Kate went on to become a producer at CNN, the first to shoot her own video, most famously footage of Howard Dean’s notorious “scream” on the evening of the 2004 Iowa caucus. Four years later, she signed up to work for the Obama campaign.
This is part of a storied but accelerating tradition, of course, of political leaders bringing in journalists to help shape their story. And in this age of social media, political campaigns and the White House often cut out the middlemen (the pack of journalists trailing politicians) and tell their stories directly to the American people.
To help in this effort, Kate called her nerd camp buddy, Arun, who’d been inspired by Michael Moore to combine his interests in film and political advocacy.
Arun was then teaching at New York University. He signed up, thinking simply, “I can help.”
At first, Kate and Arun were the official documentarians of the campaign. But when they were recording a simple birthday message Obama made for a volunteer (a video meant for an internal audience), they realized, as Chaudhary puts it, “that the in-between was more interesting.” They decided to focus less on formal events and more on the intimate moments that would make potential supporters feel like they were a part of the campaign.
Chaudhary would wait for the then-senator to be introduced at rallies, and when the crowd was at maximum volume, the candidate would turn to the camera to say hi. I asked if Obama, famously private, minded the ever-present camera. “No,” says Chaudhary, “he got it right away,’ recognizing the impact intimacy would have on his relationship to the voter.
Once in the White House, the job changed, as did Chaudhary’s wardrobe, up to a point. Typically a very casual dresser, Chaudhary wore a suit, but kept wearing his low-top sneakers, and his explosion of hair. He no longer reported to the communications team. He was official archivist, reporting up through the non-political staff.
As our second beer arrives, Chaudhary tells me that presidents can’t really say no to the White House photographer. Presidents have adjusted how they used those photos while in office. (Harding and LBJ made themselves more available; Nixon and Clinton were more controlling, though no less interested in trying to use images to their political benefit). But video was still so new that there were no rules, and President Obama could say no. That Chaudhary had been on the campaign made the president more receptive. Chaudhary, in the course of killing all my hopes for gossip about the president off-camera, says, “He’s the same guy in private and in public,” so he didn’t worry it would catch him doing something wrong.
Even with the president’s blessing, he had to clear some hurdles. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had to intervene to preserve the videographer’s access and independence—though later Gibbs asked Chaudhary to stop taping during a tough meeting with local politicians after the BP Oil Spill, when Gibbs thought the president wanted candor from the attendants. Chaudhary says it was so rare—it only happened twice in four years—that he didn’t recognize Gibbs’ hand signals to cut off recording. The other time he ceased recording was when long-time White House photographer Pete Souza asked him to stop when the president was about to spend time with his family.
Looking back, Chaudhary is proud of how he tried to change the pace of the news, though it’s arguable whether he had an impact. His “West Wing Week” was an intentional rebuke to the daily cable-news grind. His colleagues on the communications staff wanted him to turn video around every day or every hour, but he was protected by his official role as an archivist. The only tricky part of his relationship with the White House was meeting with lawyers and determining how to archive all the memory-sucking video files.
Chaudhary now works for Revolution Messaging, an advocacy firm in D.C. that focuses on liberal clients. He told me the present journalistic model “has to actually die before it can be reborn. I don’t think the big names who stand on the front lawn doing live shots all day are willing to let their employers do the necessary restructuring.”
Chaudhary thinks the big-name reporters are too invested in the traditional career ladder to recognize that the White House press corps is now just a note-taking job, with real reporting happening elsewhere. “It’s hard for an industry with such big mythologies to let it go. They all want to be the last Walter Cronkite, not the first …” and here he gestures to suggest that we fill in the blank with the first journalist to make a name for him or herself in the new paradigm.
The week we sat down at the Pug, the Senate had failed to pass an expansion of background checks on gun sales, something supported by nearly 90 percent of the public. Was this another sign that Obama’s presidential campaigns, though they may have changed the way people get involved in electoral politics, seem to have had negligible impact on policy outcomes? Why won’t folks stay engaged?
Chaudhary cited two possible reasons: First, people may want change, but not for their own home district. Second, there aren’t enough impressive people in politics, mainly because most impressive people would never put up with the crazed gauntlet of running for office and becoming a career professional fundraiser. Still, as in the dawn of most generational cycles, he’s hopeful millennials will see past the drudgery and join up.
He does offer hope, sort of, for those of us tired of the 30-second commercial: “It’s definitely dead by 2020, maybe by 2016.” He says you’ll see political messages embedded in other media, just as you see products embedded into reality programming. (“Win this challenge, Survivors, and you’ll win a $75 box of supplies from Target.”) If people can zip through the commercials, the commercials will find their way into the content. For a guy who turned a candidate’s private moments into a long-running campaign ad, it made a lot of sense.
As I departed the Pug for the trip home, it occurred to me I won’t miss the 30-second ad, but I can only hope that the new media Chaudhary envisions will elevate—and not invent some new bottom—for how we conduct politics in this country.