A couple of months ago someone asked whether I’d read, “The other Quaz.”
Um, the other Quaz? WTF?
I was directed toward the website of Rich Ehisen, a man who: A. Covers public policy for State Net Capitol Journal; B. Should not be confused for the NFL Network’s equally excellent Rich Eisen. And there, before my eyes, was the other Quaz. It was a Q&A series, much like mine, featuring interesting people, much like mine. Only this one featured primarily journalists, and was titled The Open Mic. And, well, it kicked ass.
So I reached out to Rich and, well, here we are. Earlier today his Q&A with me ran, and now—Bam!—Rich is the magical 235th Quaz. Only he’s a helluva lot more interesting and accomplished than I am. Aside from covering myriad riveting policy issues, Rich is a survivor in the ever-tough journalism world. He’s a man who knows great loss, who nearly died in a plane accident (well, sorta), who digs Michael B. Jordan but wouldn’t recognize Shawn Mendes.
JEFF PEARLMAN: Rich, before we get to the meat, in 1993 you sat down with Kenny Stabler to do a piece for the NorCal Sports Report. He died recently, was one of my all-time favorite athletes. What do you recall from the experience? What was the guy like?
RICH EHISEN: Two things I remember most of all: he was incredibly gracious and extremely funny. He couldn’t have picked me out of a crowd of two and yet he still gave me a big chunk of his time in the middle of a work day (he was doing some kind of something for a Mississippi riverboat gambling casino at the time ), answering every question like I was an old friend. It’s too bad that I could not better convey how truly funny he was—just one of those guys who could tell you the time and somehow make you laugh doing it. Oh, and no clichés—zero. He was the proverbial straight shooter.
J.P.: So you’re the managing editor at the State Net Capitol Journal, covering public policy across the U.S. Don’t take this wrongly, please, but that hits me as an awfully boring beat. Tell me why I’m wrong. (Or not)
R.E.: No offense taken. There are definitely days it can be coma-inducing. If you ask me, making someone sit through a committee meeting on banking regulation would be a far more effective enhanced-interrogation technique than waterboarding. Hell, after a few hours of that I’m ready to confess to killing Jimmy Hoffa. That said, most days I really do like it. Politics is a lot like sports in that it is hyper-competitive and the players are incredibly driven and generally loaded with ambition and ego. Sadly, it also generally produces winners and losers, which is really unfortunate because far too often the winners already have more than any human could ever need and the losers are left to scuffle and scrape along hoping a few crumbs fall their way. Kind of like the Yankees and the A’s playing out in the real world.
J.P.: You lost your wife when you were pretty young and had to raise a daughter by yourself. I know this is very personal, but … how did you do it? What can you tell me about your late wife? And now that you’ve been married 10 years to your second wife, how were you able to move forward?
R.E.: To be clear, Jeanine and I had split up few years before she passed. I was 36 when she died, she was 39. It was very sudden and unexpected, so as you might imagine it was pretty traumatic.
She had a heart condition nobody knew about. She laid down one morning to rest while and just didn’t get up. It was incredibly sudden. I remember the phone call from the police. They were weird—they hinted around that something that something was wrong but wouldn’t tell me exactly what. Thinking that her mom was at work, I asked the officer directly if Cait was OK. He would not say yes or no. Needless to say I about freaked out. I sprinted out of work and probably set a land speed record getting over there. (Yet another reason I like my current gig so much—I work from home and manage my own schedule) It was such a surreal experience. I was of course shocked and in disbelief when they told me about Jeanine, but I admit that I also had such a sense of relief that Cait was okay. It took a while to reconcile all that in my head. Your first reaction is to care for your child. The grieving for her mom was pretty profound—it just came later.
Even in situations like ours you never stop being parents together and sharing a lot of history and feelings. Jeanine was the first true love of my life and nothing ever changes that. We only lived a few blocks apart. Jeanine was very smart, very funny and had a razor sharp wit. She could and would debate with anyone at any time on any subject for as long as she or they had breath. It was never dull. Maybe if we had not married as young as we did it would have worked out better, but in the end we were blessed to have our daughter, who is the light of our lives. Cait was only 13 at the time her mom died so it was particularly rough on her, though I do think she may be the most emotionally sound person I know. She and I have had our ups and downs, but no more or less than any other parent and child, so I guess we’re both lucky. I’m particularly lucky that Jeanine’s mom was also there for Cait every step of the way. With me at that point in full career transition and also working on a masters degree, she spent more time with her than I did. In spite of all that we all came out OK. Cait and I have always been extremely close and remain so to this day. She is also very close with Lea, who I married in 2005. Cait was even my “best man” for the ceremon
That said, it definitely took some time to get to the point where I could even consider marriage again. I was pretty averse to it for a long time. I take the institution pretty seriously and, given I had failed at it once, I just I wasn’t sure if I could ever commit to it again. But Lea changed my mind. It’s funny, we’re so different on some levels—she’s the analytical engineer who loves number crunching, I’m the creative wordsmith whose eyes glaze over at anything resembling math – but we’re very alike in all the ways that really matter. We both love the outdoors, our animals, our friends and especially our family. It’s the core of who were are. The bottom line is that she is the only other woman I have met who I could really, truly see being with for the long haul. And over this last decade we’ve traveled all over the country and the world together, with more to come. I say this all the time but I really mean it—I am the luckiest person alive. I really am.
J.P.: We’ve been journalists for a long time. I love this gig. You seem to also love this gig. But would you advise some 20-year-old aspiring writer to go into journalism today? I mean, are there sustainable careers ready to be made? Is it worth the struggle?
R.E.: That is a tough question. I’m mentoring a young reporter now who is working her ass off to break into the business. She’s a really solid writer and reporter, has done all the things you need to do (college paper, freelancing) and has all the drive, instinct and ambition you could ever ask for. I’ve introduced her to every editor and influential reporter I know to help her networking along. She’s making strides for sure, even doing some stringer work for Reuters now, but with so many papers still downsizing a full time sustainable living job in journalism has not materialized. The point is that in years gone by she is the kind of reporter any newspaper would have snapped up in a heartbeat, but these days those jobs are just few and far between even for someone as good as her. I tell young people all the time that I think the reporter skillset—the research and analytical skills, the writing ability and the willingness to challenge institutions of power to get to the truth—will always have value. I just don’t know in what form those skills are going to be utilized in the future. That makes it pretty tough to sell to a kid looking at going thousands of dollars in debt for a J-school degree. But … I get to ask people questions for a living. How cool is that?
J.P.: Womb to now, what’s your path? Like, when did you know you wanted to write? When did the bug bite? Did you have a first ah-ha moment? Etc?
R.E.: I’ve always loved writing, but outside of winning a district-wide essay contest in third grade I never pursued it much when I was young. I was the classic very poor kid from a very poor neighborhood and as soon as I was old enough all I could think about was getting a job and making some money. I was also kind of an angry young man—in and out of the house, couch surfing or living with my sister or wherever. Went from being a straight-A student to being asked to leave high school my junior year and to not return. Ever. Ah-ha moment No. 1. Not wanting to be a derelict, I managed to finagle my way into another school and graduate. (by the way— to all those teachers at Encina High School who thought I was a hoodlum, I now have a master’s degree in Political Communication. Score.)
I ended up getting job at a car repair shop when I was 16, thinking it would do until I figured out something better. By 20 I knew for sure this wasn’t my dream job and I got my butt into college, but by then I was also married and keeping a roof over our heads was my top priority. I also still wasn’t terribly focused, or at least I wasn’t until my daughter came along when I was 23. You could call that ah-ha moment No. 2. If having children doesn’t light a fire under your ass nothing will.
I still loved writing and, now sufficiently motivated, I started freelancing around my daily work and school schedules. I took any and every writing gig of any kind I could get. School magazines, local newsletters, whatever could pay me. Sometimes I would hide out in a supply closet at work so I could interview people on the phone without my boss seeing me. I guess I owe a few colleagues at the time who covered for me a big high five. I eventually started NorCal Sports because, well, sports were my passion. I really sharpened my finagling skills then—getting credentialed to cover a major sports team is never easy, but I managed to get in there enough to really learn something about the business. It got NCSR out there into stores likes Tower and built a small following, but at some point the intersection of time, money, energy and family didn’t work any longer and I let it go. It only lasted a few years but it was still the valuable experience ever.
Even so, it took me until I was 36 to get out of the car business for good. Which led to ah-ha moment No. 3. A few years later I was doing some work for a small nonprofit, though nothing I was in love with and with lots of drama and chaos from on high. One day, I basically said that’s enough and left. Halfway home the realization of what I had done hit me and I almost had a panic attack. I had bills to pay, a child to care for, etc.—what the hell was I thinking? But when I got home I had a message from an old friend wanting to know if I would be interested in covering politics. Politics has always intrigued me so I jumped at it. I have been covering lawmakers and policy trends for the State Net Capitol Journal ever since, both in Sacramento and DC. And I love what I do. I still write about sports on occasion, but now only for fun. I also realize that I wasted a lot of time when I was young being too afraid to really reach and strive for what I wanted, to take the risks necessary to make it happen. These days my philosophy is that you will never swim harder in your life than when your feet can’t touch the bottom. If something doesn’t feel too big or too scary for you, then you’re probably not stretching yourself enough.
J.P.: So I learned of you via The Open Mic, your Quaz-like Q&A series, in which you take people who fascinate you and just sorta chat. So, Rich, I know how and why I do the Quaz. But how and why do you do your series?
R.E.: It’s kind of lame, but I started it to help build a platform for a nonfiction book proposal I was working on at the time. But when I set that project aside, I decided it would be a lot more interesting to do interview writers, who I generally find to be pretty intriguing people. I started with a friend who covers the White House for NPR and it has just blossomed from there. I’ve always loved meeting and listening to people, to get their story and to learn how they do what they do. I’ve featured screenwriters, horror writers, sci-fi, a Pulitzer-nominated editorial cartoonist and even an unusual number of women who write chick lit or romance, which has all been great! Some have been people I know from the industry but many are folks who others have connected me to, or whom I have just tracked down and asked to let me talk to them. I’ve learned a lot from them and it has been so much fun. People are just interesting to me.
J.P.: As a guy who covers public policy and has written a fair deal on climate change, well, why do you think America drags its feet on this? Do you see a solution, or doom? In short, are we (or our kids and grandkids) fucked because we’re too pathetic to do anything?
R.E.: Well, some governments are working pretty hard to do something about it. Here in California we’re doing more than most of the other 49 states combined. But climate change is just another thing that should not be a partisan issue that has been politicized beyond any level of rational thinking. Instead of debating solutions they are debating whether the problem even exists. It is pure madness. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this—there is a faction of one of the major parties that is as dangerous to our future as any foreign enemy you can name. I think you can guess who I am talking about. They have already pretty much gutted their own party, and unless more rational minds get control again and start working together with the other side then yes, we may just be screwed.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
R.E.: I’ve had some pretty good moments. It may sound corny, but honest to God the best one comes every day when I get to go to this job. After spending a lot of years doing something I not only didn’t love but often absolutely hated, getting to do this for a living is beyond words. I may even return to sports at some point but no matter what, this is my calling and I’ll do some form of writing until I die.
Again, in all honesty, most of my career low moments were before I moved into writing full time. That said, I have worked on multiple book manuscripts that haven’t got off the ground, which can be very frustrating. But hey, never say die—I’m now working on a novel. It’s a crime mystery set in the world of minor league baseball. I have high hopes.
J.P.: Do you think it’s possible for journalists to be unbiased? Why or why not?
R.E.: No. All humans have their biases and opinions. It is impossible to do this kind of job and to not form opinions about the issues and people we cover. We’re not robots and it’s absurd to think we won’t have personal biases, but I laugh at people who thinks that means we can’t report the stories we do fairly and objectively regardless of how we feel about something. Not that it doesn’t happen—we’ve all seen Fox News—but the vast majority of reporters I know keep their personal biases out of their work.
J.P.: How do you feel social media has impacted political action? What I mean is, do you think 1,000 angry Tweets toward Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders impacts the decisions of Cruz or Sanders? Can Facebook change the way a candidate or officer holder approaches an issue? In short, do people who never before had power now have power?
R.E.: I don’t know if any of those folks really care about social media at all, other than it gives them a way to have reach their target audience without going through the real media. I rarely see a politician change course on a policy issues because of the response on Twitter et al. That said, I’ve seen numerous politicos absolutely screw the pooch by putting something really stupid or racist or sexist on Facebook or Twitter. Particularly Twitter, and usually in response to some tragedy or event they have an emotional reaction to. They almost always regret it and take it back down as fast as possible, but with so many people monitoring them it always gets out there anyway. You would think by now that every politician would have at least on person in the office who could explain how social media works. But apparently not.
J.P.: As I write this, I have a guest in my house who’s watching the TV REALLY loudly. I’m trying to work. I mean, CLEARLY trying to work—and he seems unmoved. I don’t wanna be a dick, but I’m pretty irked. What should I do?
R.E.: Be a dick. Guests, dogs and children always need guidance.
QUAZ EXPRESS FOR RICH EHISEN:
• Are you ever asked about the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen?: I used to be. On occasion even now when I meet someone they will say, “Are you that guy on the NFL Network.” I resist the urge to say, “If I was, why would I be here talking to you?” Instead I just say no and point out I am older than him.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Luke Walton, Comstock, Chris Paul, Shawn Mendes, Shel Silverstein, Michael B. Jordan, Dolph Lundgren, Entertainment Weekly, Alessia Cara, science, Ken Norton, fried clams, 007: Science (That whole climate change thing), Comstock (A’ butt kissing I go), Shel Silverstein (A Boy Named Sue and Where the Sidewalk Ends—enough said), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, The Wire and Creed … wow), Ken Norton (The warrior’s warrior), Chris Paul (Now if he was a Sacramento King …), Dolph Lundgren (He would break me), Luke Walton (The next great coach? Maybe?), Fried clams (Breaded and served with lime juice and a garlic aioli … yes), 007 (Grumpy old man time – not since Connery), Entertainment Weekly (Mind candy for my doctor’s office), Shawn Mendes (Sorry, who?), Alessia Cara (See above).
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes! Took a budget flight to Maui once for a conference. We had plane trouble as we approached the islands and were diverted to Oahu. We were told it was a minor thing, but when we approached the runway it was lined with all kinds of emergency vehicles. They got us on the ground okay, but after a several hour delay they put us on another plane. My overriding thought before we first landed was that I was pissed off. My wife had died about a year before and all I could think of was my daughter, Caitlyn, back home and how there was absolutely no freaking way she could lose both of us. It just did not seem fair! I actually didn’t feel scared until later that night in my hotel room. I don’t know how bad the plane’s issues actually were but seeing all those ambulances and fire trucks makes me think it was no joking matter.
• Best joke you know?:
Son: “Dad, what’s the difference between confident and confidential?”
Dad: “Hmm. You are my son, and of that I am confident. Your friend Timmy is also my son. That’s confidential.
• One question you would ask Ellie Goulding were she here right now?: Why is it that a female singer can have all the hit songs in the world but the press only wants to talk about what you are wearing or who you are dating?
• What happens when we die?: Have you seen movie “Defending Your Life” with Albert Brooks and Meryl Steep? I’m not a religious person at all but the idea of us being here over and over again until we get it right intrigues me.
• Three memories from your first date?: Oh wow, I can’t even recall my first date. That’s sad, right? I do, however, recall many things from my first date with Lea, my lovely wife. 1) I took her to a friend’s cioppino party. On the way I learned she hates seafood. 2) Once there she learned I had just got my one and only tattoo … when I showed it to a friend. 3) I thought my sweater was fly. I found out later she thought it was hideously ugly. She was right. We’ve been married now for 10 years.
• What was your first job?: Worked in a sandwich shop. Lousy pay but good snacks.
• How often do you bring your cell phone into the bathroom?: Never. I see guys talking on their phones while they’re at a urinal in the airport. Gross. Dude, the folks picking you up can wait for two more minutes to know you’re on the ground.
• What are you looking at right now?: Besides this screen? Looking at my dog tearing up a magazine she stole out of the recycle box under my desk. She’s watching me with one eye to see if she is going to get away with it. She will. She always does.