The Boston Phoenix
January 28 - February 4, 1999

[Don't Quote Me]

Bush league

John Ellis may be the Globe's most intriguing op-ed columnist. He's certainly the best connected.

Don't Quote Me by Dan Kennedy

Last Saturday, John Ellis finally threw in the towel. Ever since the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Ellis had used his op-ed column in the Boston Globe to excoriate Bill Clinton as a sleazy liar who's demeaned his office -- and to predict the president's imminent demise. Sneers a critic of Ellis's at a competing news organization: "Clinton's resignation has been certain every day for a year now. One of these days it might actually happen."

Which is why the fact of Ellis's surrender was so surprising -- even as his rhetoric remained true to its incessant Clinton-bashing form. "It's over," he wrote. "The votes aren't there for conviction, and they're never going to be there." A well-considered observation. But then he added petulantly, "Those of us who believed that principled people in the Democratic Party might draw the line at immoral behavior and illegal acts were wrong. Those of us who thought a sense of shame might cause Clinton to resign for the good of the country were wrong."

So much for matters over which, to quote House impeachment manager Lindsey Graham, "reasonable people" can differ.

If it sometimes appears there's something personal about Ellis's obsession with Clinton, well, there is. Clinton, you see, turned Ellis's Uncle George into a one-term president back in 1992. Of course, one needn't be related to George Bush to conclude that Clinton is a scumbag; but it doesn't hurt, either. And the family connections don't stop there. Ellis's late grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a US senator from Connecticut. A first cousin, George W. Bush, is governor of Texas and a possible Republican candidate for president. Another first cousin, Jeb (as in John Ellis Bush), is governor of Florida. In fact, it's likely that the only journalists in America more genetically well-connected than Ellis are George magazine editor John Kennedy and NBC correspondent Maria Shriver.

Unlike Kennedy and Shriver, though, Ellis is not especially well known; his readers are informed of his family ties only occasionally. When he writes about George W.'s presidential prospects (as he did most recently last Thursday), he never fails to note the relationship. But when he whacks Clinton, be it for lying about sex, botching US policy toward Iraq, or taking too much credit for the balanced budget, the Bush connection goes unmentioned. "He's had many, many columns just fucking raking Clinton over the coals. And the readers need to be reminded that there's a family grudge with the guy," says a respected Boston Herald writer who asked to remain anonymous.

It's an issue that both pains Ellis and puts him on the defensive. "I think the `conflicts' issue is bogus," Ellis said in an e-mail exchange. "My columns about Clinton have been harsh not because I am George Bush's nephew but because I find Clinton truly loathsome. . . . My opinions about Clinton may seem extreme in Boston; they are routine in most editorial boardrooms." It is also true that Ellis, when judged by his work, appears to be no more tanked up than (to name one example) his Globe colleague Tom Oliphant, a notorious White House toady. But Ellis shouldn't be surprised when observers take a family connection more seriously than mere bias.

Ellis is a guy whose entire career has been entwined with people he grew up with and people he knows. After a decade-long career as a producer in the NBC News election unit, Ellis resigned in 1989 to avoid the appearance of a conflict created by Bush's inauguration as president. For much of the 1990s, Ellis worked as a business consultant for politically wired dealmaker Larry Rasky and wrote a weekly freelance column for the Globe, leading to repeated -- if dubious -- accusations that Ellis used the Globe to reward Rasky's friends and punish his enemies. (That awkward situation finally resolved itself last fall, when Ellis left the Rasky/Baerlein Group and joined the Globe as a full-time staff member.) Ellis has even drawn some behind-the-back sniping for praising novelist Joseph Kanon (Los Alamos, The Prodigal Spy), who just so happens to have taught modern literature to Ellis when he was a senior at Milton Academy. ("A wonderful student," recalls Kanon, returning the favor.)

Of course, it would be one thing if Ellis were an untalented hack. The truth, though, is that Ellis is a first-rate talent -- a passionate writer with a wide-ranging intellect who reports knowledgeably on topics such as Internet commerce, the decline of network television, technology, biowarfare, genomics, and culture. With the exception of his one-dimensional Clinton columns, his political analysis is sharp and to the point. (He was almost alone, for instance, in predicting then-attorney general Scott Harshbarger's near-upset of Governor Paul Cellucci last fall.) And if some criticize Ellis for conflicts and the appearance of conflicts, that may simply be a function of his having lived an interesting, privileged life among interesting, privileged people.

On an op-ed page long dominated by such mind-numbingly predictable liberals as Oliphant, David Nyhan, Ellen Goodman, and Derrick Jackson, offset only by token right-winger Jeff Jacoby, Ellis's mildly conservative eclecticism is, on his non-Clinton days anyway, the best thing going. And though Ellis's network of relationships may be an occasional source of discomfort, it also offers some insight into a man whose phlegmatic exterior masks considerable drive and ambition.

"He was a ferocious football player," recalls former congressman Joe Kennedy, who was Ellis's roommate at Milton Academy and remains his friend. "He was captain of the football team. A lineman. One of those guys who, when he put on a football helmet, just became a different personality. John has the killer instinct in him when he wants it to come out."

To a degree that no doubt makes some of his fellow journalists suspicious, if not envious, John Prescott Ellis, 45, moves easily among those with power and wealth. During a lengthy interview over breakfast at the Four Seasons, Ellis comes across as studiously diffident, using exactly the same tone of voice when he's saying, "I always wanted to be a columnist, since I was a kid in college," as he does when he's commenting on the poached eggs.

Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell is at the next table, and he and Ellis exchange pleasantries. As it turns out, Ellis nearly went to work for Purcell last spring: he was leaving Rasky's employ, and the Globe had not yet come through with a staff position. So Ellis approached Purcell about the possibility of contributing to the Herald. It didn't work out -- the two sides were far apart on money, and Ellis and editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen reportedly did not hit it off (Cohen declines to comment). But it's nevertheless surprising to learn that Ellis nearly left the Globe, given that his ascendance to full-time pundit status at 135 Morrissey Boulevard had long been thought to be only a matter of time.

After five years of writing for the Globe once every other week, and later once a week, Ellis finally got the two-columns-a-week staff job he was looking for last fall. To make room, editorial-page editor H.D.S. "David" Greenway bounced WLVI-TV (Channel 56) political reporter Jon Keller, telling him Ellis would be writing frequently on Keller's specialty, local politics. (Ironically, Keller landed on the Herald op-ed page, prompting Shelly Cohen to say, "We definitely got the better end of that deal.") Yet the first thing Ellis did was move out of town -- to Westchester County, New York, so that his wife, Susan Ellis, a former Hill Holiday hotshot, could take a high-paying job as executive vice-president of the BBDO advertising agency. (Which leads to yet another example of the difficulties of being well-connected. He says he once had to kill a piece on the future of money that he'd put 19 hours into after Susan told him that Visa -- which was "all over the column" -- was a BBDO client.) Greenway says only that he still expects Ellis to write about local politics occasionally, and that he hopes Ellis moves back to Boston someday.

John Ellis says he now has most of the couple's responsibility for taking care of their two young children, although he does pack in a weekly Boston marathon: he catches the 6:05 a.m. train from Stamford, Connecticut, on Tuesdays, and doesn't return home until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays. "Having two full days to do nothing but work is fabulous," Ellis says, explaining that he uses his six hours on the train to whittle away at an always intimidating pile of reading. Greenway and former Globe editor Tom Winship (who went to high school with Ellis's late father, Alexander "Sandy" Ellis, at the Belmont Hill School) are now sponsoring Ellis for membership at the Somerset Club so he can take advantage of its $40-a-night rates when he stays over. "We Yanks are very tightfisted," quips Greenway.

If it all sounds clubby in an impossibly blue-blooded, Cabots-and-Lowells manner, well, that's the kind of life to which Ellis was born. He, his two brothers, and his sister grew up in affluent Concord. His father, Sandy Ellis, was an insurance executive in Boston. His mother, Nancy Bush Ellis, was the daughter of a senator and the sister of a future president. A family friend who asked not to be named describes the Ellises as "picture-book WASP types" and Nancy Ellis, in particular, as "fun, funny. There's a lot of Katharine Hepburn about her -- a very classy, west-of-Boston dame." She also remains an important part of John Ellis's life: at the Four Seasons, he gestures across the Public Garden toward Beacon Hill, where his mother now lives.

After several years of public school, young John began attending the Fenn School, a private school in Concord, in the fourth or fifth grade (he can't remember which), and then went off to Milton Academy for high school. While Joe Kennedy remembers Ellis's exploits on the football field, it is hockey that Ellis recalls as his principal athletic endeavor. He was a defenseman who was named the assistant captain of an American prep-school all-star team that played in Finland, Sweden, France, and Russia. The highlight: playing the Russian Army team and losing, 19 to 1. "I got to play against Kharlamov, which was the high point of my hockey career," he recalls. "The great Russian centerman. He was a spectacular player. Incredible."

Growing up, Ellis remembers a family that was "huge. Huge and close. Everybody went up to Maine in the summer. Christmastime was in Connecticut. So we saw everybody. The Bush cousins, the Walker cousins, etc., etc., etc. And we really grew up with the George Bush kids. Jebbie and I, because we're exactly the same age, would go to visit my grandmother and grandfather together in Washington and Florida. A lot of the boys came up here north to school. And my mother and dad lived in Lincoln" -- they moved from Concord when Ellis was 16 -- "so that's where they came with their laundry when they got the weekend off."

Ellis went to Yale, his Uncle George's alma mater (he says he declined an invitation to join Skull and Bones, the secret society to which Bush belonged), and hooked on at NBC as a temporary researcher in 1978. After leaving to do some advance work for his uncle's unsuccessful presidential campaign against Ronald Reagan, he came back, rising to become a key player for the election unit, where he built a reputation for hard work and for accurately predicting the outcome of state and local races. "He probably knew more people across the country, talked to more people across the country, than anyone at any of the three networks," says Republican National Committee member Ron Kaufman, a long-time operative for George Bush. Ellis also developed a reputation for being loose and relaxed in a high-stress environment; Saturday Night Live's headquarters were right down the corridor from the election unit's, and Al Franken was a frequent visitor to Ellis's office.

After 10 years, though, Ellis needed a change. His sense of ennui no doubt was accelerated by his uncle's inauguration as president, in 1989. "It was uncomfortable for me and it was uncomfortable for them, and it didn't work," he says. "It just didn't fit. We were doing the news. We were not doing opinion."

Ellis's years as a political journalist had convinced him that there's more than a little insanity to the way Americans choose their president. As the Appleman Fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, part of Harvard's Kennedy School, in 1990 and '91, and as a consulting fellow at the K-School's Institute of Politics in '91 and '92, Ellis was instrumental in drafting a proposal that became known as "Nine Sundays." The idea was to air 90 minutes of high-toned presidential coverage -- debates, interviews, and the like -- on network television every Sunday between Labor Day and Election Day, and to let the networks sell commercial time to pay for it.

It didn't catch on (Globe columnist Alex Beam at the time lampooned the idea as "Nine Sundayzzz"). But Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center, who also helped draft the idea (along with then-executive director Ellen Hume, now with PBS), remains optimistic -- and says it has already influenced the way CNN and some radio stations cover presidential politics. "I still think it's a terrific idea," Kalb says.

After a brief post-Harvard stint at his wife's old advertising firm, Hill Holiday, Ellis hooked up with Rasky, with whom he had formed a friendship on the campaign trail -- first simply to share office space, later to work on some joint projects. Around the same time, Ellis began writing for the Globe. A number of Rasky critics complained that Ellis, a "political consultant" (in fact, Ellis says he has never worked as a political consultant), was using his column to further Rasky's agenda -- praising then-Massachusetts Senate president Bill Bulger in 1994, for example, while criticizing Bulger challenger Bill Keating (now Norfolk County district attorney), and flatly predicting that Bill Weld, from whom Rasky was seeking favors, would unseat US senator John Kerry in 1996.

"He never made any attempt to contact any person on our side," charges political consultant Michael Goldman, who advised Keating in 1994. But Rasky, a Democrat whose allies were often skewered by Ellis, ridicules the notion that Ellis ever used the column to carry Rasky's water. "Every time John wrote a column, I would get blamed for it," he says. "I can assure you that his column cost me a lot more business than he ever made me."

At a time when the Republican Party has devolved into fractious moralizing and rank hypocrisy, there is something reassuringly grown-up about the brand of politics John Ellis espouses. (Despite his family pedigree, he is a registered independent.) His animus toward Clinton aside, he expresses a brand of moderate politics that used to be associated with the Republican establishment of his grandfather, Prescott Bush, and that indeed used to be associated with George Bush -- that is, the George Bush who ran against Ronald Reagan's "voodoo economics," as opposed to the Reagan sycophant who once boasted that he followed Reagan "blindly."

Ellis calls himself "a right-winger in Boston and a mainstreamer in Texas," "a big First Amendment person and a big Second Amendment person, on the theory that if we can have the First, they can have the Second." He's not entirely opposed to government intervention in the economy, believing that the market can be "as stupid and ridiculous" as government bureaucracies. And though he claims not to have clear positions on abortion rights and the death penalty, he supports -- quietly -- the full range of gay and lesbian rights, including marriage and military service. "Whatever rights I enjoy, they should enjoy," he says. (Weirdly, he also wrote a column after the November election in which he praised religious conservatives as "the soul of the Republican Party, . . . neither intolerant nor unforgiving," although he also used the occasion to blast most of their leadership -- Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Gary Bauer.)

There's a lot of Bush-style solicitousness in John Ellis. New York Times reporter Jill Abramson, who got to know Ellis when he was at Yale and she was at Harvard and who later worked with him at NBC, speaks with near-awe about Ellis's network of friends and the time he puts into maintaining that network. "He may have a reserved manner, but he is outgoing in terms of cultivating his friendships," says Abramson, who describes herself as the frequent recipient of humorous e-mails from Ellis. "I give him the credit that we're still such good friends." And though Ellis is no doubt sincere about his friendships, those ties have paid off for him many times as well. He himself points to that network as the reason for his success as a business consultant. And one of his ex-clients, former Republican politico Roger Ailes, head of the Fox News Channel, now employs Ellis part-time, to crunch the numbers during election season and to write a technology column for (Ellis says he recently tried to find work at Fox for former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, but nothing came of it.) "I was a beneficiary of many friendships over the years," Ellis frankly acknowledges.

Ellis's incessant networking, combined with his reserved manner, rubs some people the wrong way. A few casual acquaintances describe him as "arrogant," a "name-dropper." The truth is that Ellis may serve as something of a Rorschach test for how people respond to wealth and connections: those who are naturally suspicious of such things react negatively to the sort of person they assume him to be. "Somebody at the Globe said to me, `I wish he'd just eat lunch in the Globe cafeteria now and then,' " says Ellis's friend Averil Lashley, a Boston public-relations executive. "They see him coming down the hall and think he's arrogant, but he's not."

Ellis's closest brush with public controversy came last February, at a Kennedy School forum on media coverage of the Lewinsky frenzy. Under prompting from moderator Marvin Kalb, Ellis conceded that a tidbit in one of his previous columns had come from Starr's office -- a faux pas, since other journalists were careful enough to attribute their leaks vaguely, to "sources familiar with the investigation" or some such thing. Later, New York Daily News columnist Lars-Erik Nelson acidly noted Ellis's family ties and wrote that Ellis's remark was evidence that Starr was using leaks "to hound the President from office." Ellis's admission has caused him some problems: he says he can't talk about it "on the advice of counsel," an apparent reference to the possibility that he'll be (has been?) questioned in an ongoing investigation into Starr's conduct.

Perhaps every columnist should be conceded one blind spot, and clearly Ellis's is Clinton. But soon Ellis may be facing an ethical challenge that will make his Clinton problem look insignificant: George W. Bush's possible presidential candidacy. Bush is widely considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination and is running ahead of Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, in early polls. If the Clinton columns raise questions about Ellis's ability to be fair on matters touching his family, Ellis doesn't see it that way: he claims he rather liked Clinton the first time he ran, and wasn't at all bothered when he beat his uncle, whom he describes as exhausted and in shaky health. "Had he [Bush] served a second term, I believe it would have taken 10 years off his life," Ellis says. Whatever.

Ellis and George W. Bush share an unusual bond: George, after years of carousing, stopped drinking when he was 40; Ellis, an alcoholic, has been sober for 10 years. "I don't have any special insight into this issue," Ellis said by e-mail. "And what I did or did not do with Governor George W. Bush years ago is private and properly so." Still, Ellis knows Bush better than almost anyone, and he appears to take seriously -- more seriously than most pundits -- his cousin's statements that he might not run because of the harm it could cause his 17-year-old twin daughters.

It seems clear that Ellis, though he insists his cousin would make a great president, would be more comfortable if George W. decided to remain as governor of Texas for four more years. He insists that he would remain at the Globe rather than join the campaign. And when asked whether the Globe is hoping for exclusive insider stuff from the Bush campaign, he replies tartly: "They'll be sorely disappointed if that's what they want me for. It's not going to happen. So if that's why they hired me, they ought to fire me." (More likely that sentiment is mutual: a well-informed Globe source says Ellis has been "told to be careful" in how he writes about his cousin.)

For Ellis, and for the Globe, it is an unusual situation. When Ellis writes about topics other than politics, he helps to revitalize a stale op-ed page -- whether he's defending the soaring stock price of America Online, reporting on the possibility of a genetically engineered treatment for hypertension, or proposing that the United States buy Siberia from the bankrupt Russian government. Along with Joan Vennochi, recently transferred from the business section, Ellis represents a new breed of opinion columnist, the kind who reports on a wide array of subjects rather than merely comments on the news of the day. Yet Ellis's biggest trouble spot is the area where one might suppose he'd be strongest: politics, and especially presidential politics, the family business.

"It will be a prime test of his ability to maneuver on tender turf," says Tom Winship. "I find it rather uncomfortable, and I suspect he will as well. But that's his problem. I suppose it could be a problem for the paper. But let's not be premature about it."

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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