WASHINGTON — Washington Post reporter Richard Leiby, the paper’s new Reliable Source gossip columnist, was on a utility vehicle on a highway in Kuwait earlier this year when he heard an interesting piece of gossip. Lloyd Grove, who had written the column for the last several years, was in secret negotiations with Mort Zuckerman to join the New York Daily News. “You should take that job,” said his source, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
Nine months later, Leiby, 46, is trading in his combat fatigues for a front-row seat on the social scene. His column will start in January. In the meantime, he is savoring the taste of newfound celebrity.
This story first appeared in the December 12, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“There are a lot of attractive things about being a gossip columnist,” he said over lunch. “One, it’s prominent. Two, it pays more. Three, you can have fun. I mean, I could go and get my ass blown up in Baghdad again and it would be not fun, it would pay the same and it would leave behind a horrible tragic situation for my family.
“This seemed like a very good alternative,” said Leiby, the father of three, who described his editors as “dumbfounded” when he applied for the job.
But with his impressive record of investigative stories on everything from politics to plastic surgery, Leiby was hard to discount. He broke the story about the CIA operative whose cover was blown by Bush White House sources reportedly angry at her husband, a former U.S. diplomat in Iraq, for criticizing Bush’s Iraqi policy. Leiby’s reporting on scandals involving Hollywood plastic surgeons triggered a threatened $100 million suit by the one who worked on Michael Jackson.
After a three-week stint last year in Jerusalem, he returned to his desk job in Washington editing for the Style section. But Leiby immediately started angling to return overseas. Covering the war in Iraq, he watched a boy his son’s age get wounded in the crossfire between Americans and Iraqis. “A month after the fall of Baghdad, I went back to the hospital. The kid was still in the hospital with bullet wounds and a colonoscopy bag and he’s dying because there are no antiseptics. They couldn’t even boil water. I was just so angry and I didn’t know what to do,” said Leiby, who reported the situation to Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), the international relief organization. “That kind of thing wears on you.”
These days, he’s looking forward to focusing on the political skirmishes leading up to next year’s presidential election. Considering the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates, he said that, from the vantage point of who would generate the best copy, “I’d want someone like Al Sharpton or Dennis Kucinich to be president. Kucinich is a vegan and Al Sharpton has done ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Howard Dean would also make good copy because he occasionally pops off unscripted.” As for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Leiby said, “I admire John much more now that he’s used the F-word in print.”
When it comes to the First Lady wannabes, Leiby positively gushed over Elizabeth Edwards, wife of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. “My bet for the best First Lady is Elizabeth Edwards because I’ve spent enough time with her to know that she’s absolutely brilliant and a great person,” he said. “She pursued all the credits for her doctorate in English literature, she’s funny, a great conversationalist, a soulful woman. She’s probably the only political woman I know in Washington.”
Leiby had less to say about Laura Bush, perhaps because there’s so little gossip about her. “I have no read on her whatsoever.” Regarding her husband though, he admitted, “Haven’t met him. And I don’t fully connect to his popularity.”
Asked if he has ever been friends with a socialite, Leiby fell momentarily silent. “An actual socialite? No,” he admitted.
As for his own big launch into the gossip fray, Leiby is sticking firmly to the soft sell. “The thing about gossip items is that they are like bonbons. They are instantly digested and enjoyed,” he said hopefully. “I want to make the column like eating bonbons.”