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Becoming Jeff Gannon

James Guckert's transformation from mild-mannered office manager to White House go-to guy was quick but unpredictable.
 
 
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When James Dale Guckert gave notice to his employers at Karmak, a West Chester, Pa. large-vehicle body shop, at the end of 2001, no one found any drama in the event. After nearly three years as manager of Karmak's small office, JD wanted to move on; he was going to find work in Washington, D.C., he told his boss. He didn't say what kind of work, and there seemed no particular reason to ask; he'd been an office manager before Karmak; he would probably be one again.

Barely a year later, in January 2003, Jeff Gannon is seen on video attending a State Department press briefing. He authored opinion pieces published on a number of conservative web sites, and his byline was set to appear on Bobby Eberle's GOPUSA News, whose parent organization would, just a month later, list him as a director. He was a hustler, an aggressive networker, a figure in the D.C. Free Republic community. From out of nowhere -- no history in journalism, no apparent interest in it -- Jeff Gannon was a right-wing up-and-comer.

When J. D. Guckert exited the confines of the western Philadelphia suburbs where he had lived most of his adult life, to emerge rechristened as Jeff Gannon of the D.C. press corps, he did more than just adopt a pseudonym. He acquired an identity and a sense of purpose. From one perspective, he was playing out the classic narrative of American reinvention: a big new self in a big new place, the old, failed self sloughed off and forgotten. From another perspective, he was tracing a darker but no less familiar American arc: that of the man of no fixed character, the enlistee without an army, ready to shape himself to the needs of whatever cause might promise to give his own life shape.

Through the fog of Guckert's various personas -- JD, Bulldog, The Conservative Guy, "Jeff Gannon," some overlapping, some contradictory -- the process of his enlistment in the right-wing noise machine is teasingly difficult to make out. We can trace his life up to the brink of the change, and we can watch him emerge a few months later on the other side, but motives and occasions -- how the machine found him, or he it -- are still dim. Where did JD acquire ambition and political commitment? How was he funded during the year of his transition? (How, for that matter, is he being funded now?) We have a lot to learn about becoming Gannon: but in a relatively short time we have passed (to paraphrase a prominent American philosopher) from a landscape of unknowns to one of known unknowns. Here are the shapes we can see today.

JD in the valley

To all appearances, JD Guckert had found a home. West Chester, Pa. straddles two worlds: on the westernmost edge of Philadelphia's suburban belt, it boasts a sizeable university and the studios of home-shopping giant QVC; on the threshold of the Brandywine Valley, it breathes the air of a historic territory of the American Revolution, still largely rural, a significant tourist destination. JD moved here in 1975, from his childhood home in northwestern Pennsylvania's Conneaut Lake, to attend West Chester College (now West Chester University), and once in the area he stuck. The roots he put down may not have been deep, but they certainly seemed lasting.

Graduating in 1980 with a social sciences degree and a Pennsylvania teaching certificate, JD began an aimless, two-decade course through a succession of decent but small-time jobs, a course that seems to have moved him no farther afield than the regional center of Wilmington, DE, at the southern end of the Brandywine Valley, where he soon settled in to live. He worked as a landscaper; he claimed to have taught high school for a time. Most of his working life was spent managing operations in a couple of liquor distributorships in the region.

Recollections of JD are uniformly positive, but colorless: he is polite, affable, well-spoken, a good employee. He was out enough, at least on one side of his life, to play for a bar-sponsored team in a gay Philadelphia softball league; he was closeted enough, on another, to be seen occasionally bringing a girl with him to office parties. He was quiet, though not apparently close-mouthed or secretive, and did not discuss his personal life with his fellow workers.

In a mission statement published on Guckert's Conservative Guy web site in 2002, he tells us that:

"[W]hen I meet people, and the conversation turns to politics, as it always seems to with me, some of them sheepishly confess that they are Republicans or that they agree with the opinions I have just spoken."

But no one who has talked to us so far can remember a political opinion expressed by JD, nor for that matter any statement of religious belief. "I can't recall any mention of [his] being very involved with conservative or Republican political groups," says a younger fraternity brother, who "found it a bit strange" later on to see his friend "shilling" in the White House briefing room. In fact, his fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon -- "my guys," he calls them on his infamous AOL profile page -- seems to have been, along with the Boy Scouts, one of the few public causes to evoke passion in JD. When his old Mu Alpha chapter resurrected itself in 1996, seven years after losing its charter, JD took a lead role, donating money and serving as an alumni advisor and a member of the chapter's board.

But by that point, JD's outlook on life in the Valley may have begun to sour. In late 1997 he came to work for Viva Vino, an Eddytown, Pa. wine importer, telling his new boss Levino Razzi that he had sold off a small distributing business of his own. Razzi had the impression that the business had imploded and that JD was at loose ends. He already had a substantial tax judgement against him, issued in Delaware the previous year, and in 1999 he would be named in a lawsuit (with a company called Diamond State Distributors) over a two-year old automobile accident. When he left Viva Vino that same year for the job at Karmak, he told Levino Razzi that he was tired of doing office work and wanted a change: the change was that he was doing office work, but now for an old friend from his landscaping days who had gone farther than he, and was successfully running his own start-up business.

Was JD, who turned forty in 1997, beginning to feel hemmed in? What makes the idea seem plausible is the intersection of JD's history with the career of his gay escort persona, Bulldog.

Bulldog on the web

"He was always interested in getting a fraternity web site up for us," says JD's Mu Alpha brother, "mostly for recruitment purposes. I think he helped with the initial development of the site that he linked from his AOL profile page." But his TKE buddies would have been shocked had they known where that enthusiasm for recruitment via the web derived from, and where it was taking Guckert.

At the same time as he was encouraging the TKEs to develop a site, Guckert was in the middle of launching a career as a porn webmaster. His own web development skills were rudimentary at best, so (as first reported by John Aravosis of AmericaBLOG) Guckert hired an independent designer to create a set of pages for the internet domain he had registered. Published to the web in late October of 1999, USMCPT.com (U.S. Marine Corps/Part-Time, as Guckert explained to his designer) was billed as "a HOT Male Escort site owned by Bulldog."

Unlike quiet, affable JD, Bulldog advertised himself here, as he would in a series of escort profiles over the next two years, as an "aggressive, verbal, dominant top," "a real man's man." He was the tough Marine JD liked to imagine himself as, but appears never to have been. And he was an entrepreneur, though an only marginally more successful one than JD himself. Without the expertise or the capital to build his own membership site, Bulldog had to generate revenue by linking from his free pages to a sponsor site, malecorps.com, a site that would pay for the traffic and sales its affiliates directed to it. But with little on USMCPT.com except a gallery of some 40 dim photos of Bulldog (or of Bulldog's body parts), the site was unlikely to have attracted many visitors.

The self-advertisements Bulldog published to numerous escort sites, free single-page listings on directories such as executivemaleescorts.com, maleescortsdirect.com, and guys4rent.com, are unlikely to have been used directly for hookups. Their primary purpose, as with Bulldog's own site, was to generate fees by enticing users to become members of the sponsor site. His very first such listing, in which he appears as "Lou," was published on a Philadelphia escort site just two weeks or so after USMCPT.com went live. But his profiles were competing for attention with those of a lot of other men, and the listings we can retrieve show only a handful of client reviews. Not even an 8" cut, high and tight Marine (who passed for his early thirties) stood out much in these settings.

Did Bulldog add to his web income, such as it was, by turning tricks? It seems impossible to say. He published an escort-specific e-mail address, but might never have used it; he was reviewed by clients (four times that we know of), but could have faked the reviews himself, or had them faked, to keep his profiles fresh and generate traffic. One of his reviews refers to him as "Jeff": a glimpse of the handle that would make Guckert famous. Would Bulldog have been so careless with his pseudonyms if he were writing the review? But at the time, in July of 2000, the name "Jeff" may have been just another name, almost two years away yet from its ultimate political repurposing.

Real escort or fictional, though, Bulldog exists in a wider sphere of activity than JD had ever managed to. His earlier profiles center him on Philadelphia, but he quickly became established in the D.C. area. In his reviews, he consorts with worldly men -- businessmen, senior military officers, men who travel with him, who appreciate his skills and his intelligence.

When JD pulled up stakes at the beginning of 2002, Bulldog went with him, at least for a time. His profiles, some of which were live on the web until recently, seem to have stopped being updated after May of that year. His last client review, though, posted Nov. 12, comes weirdly late in the game. Perhaps significantly, that review describes Bulldog as "a very well-rounded man who is interested in talking about everything from the Orioles to politics." It seems almost like a coded message, a kind of sly wink. Because politics, now, was on the agenda: and Jeff Gannon, the D.C. insider of Bulldog's dreams, had that very day published his first editorial.

The Birthing of Jeff Gannon

Jan. 18, 2003, a day of nationwide Iraq war protests, was clear and cold in Washington hovering just above the freezing point. The tens, even hundreds of thousands who rallied on the Mall and marched to the Capitol needed whatever warmth they could husband. So did the relative handful of counter-protesters organized by an apparently one-off group called MOVE-OUT (Marines and Other Veterans Engaging Outrageous Un-American Traitors) and by the D.C. chapter of the national Free Republic organization. For those 50 or so pro-war right-wingers, who managed to attract almost as many attending press, warmth was conveniently available in the form of a sympathizer's apartment located close to their rally point at 8th and I Streets. Joel Kernodle of MOVE-OUT made sure to mention it in his after-event thank-yous:

I would like to thank the Marines who went there with me, the folks at FreeRepublic and especially Kristinn Taylor and Raoul [Deming], U.S. Navy Capt. Frank Davis who gave us a place to call home while we were there, [and] Jeff Gannon "The Conservative Guy" who has a web site and writes and speaks to conservative issues, who let us use his place just off the march route for an on-site headquarters.

JD Guckert had left his two-bedroom duplex in Wilmington just a year earlier, and he had left "his guys," the TKEs, under a small cloud of mystery. It was a deliberate effect. "The only time [JD] had ever actually mentioned working for a living," the Mu Alpha brother who spoke to us said, "was when he moved to D.C., and even then all that he mentioned was that he needed security clearance and that he would be working as a 'contract negotiator' for a DoD subcontractor." Though likely no more real than JD's Marine play-acting, in one respect the hush-hush fantasy rings true: having arrived in D.C., James Guckert vanished. His appearance in the background of the Free Republic rally (along with his attendance at another D.C. Freeper event, a Sean Hannity book-signing) marks one of the only times in an entire year when the man who had been JD is visible in any location outside of cyberspace.

Everything solid in JD's life -- his residence, his place of work, his circle of friends -- melts into air. We can surmise the actual date of his move only from its probable trace in the internet records: on Jan. 25, 2002, the domain "theconservativeguy.com" was created. (The registration, to a "J. Daniels" of Bedrock Corp., referenced a Delaware address, a mail drop just down the road from JD's old duplex.) It would be at least another four months of silence before a web site appeared at the new domain, and the Conservative Guy announced his existence.

What was happening in those blank, incubatory months? (An almost identical period of latency, oddly, separates the registration of "jeffgannon.com" in mid-June from the first appearance of Jeff Gannon's byline on the web in November.) With its crude layout, minimal graphic design and limited, untimely content, the Conservative Guy web site itself hardly demanded so much lead time. Perhaps the work had gone into crafting the identity. The Conservative Guy has a sales pitch: you're a conservative without knowing it, and he can prove it to you. ("Take the survey!") His bio is generic, scrubbed of personal detail, and reads less like biography than a description of a target demographic:

I am an average type guy. In the course of my life I have been a preppie, a yuppie, blue-collar, green-collar and white-collar. I've served in the military, graduated from college, taught in the public school system, was a truck driver, a management consultant, a union member, a fitness instructor and an entrepreneur. ... I am not a conservative by birth as you might assume. My conservatism has evolved through my life experiences. I come from a very average white rural working-class family. My parents and brother are lifelong Democrats with a tradition of labor union membership. Growing up, there were many rough spots, but we never had to go on welfare. My parents' marriage had its ups and downs, but they stayed together -- kept us all together. Mom always made sure we went to school and to church ...

Just where Guckert learned the art of conservative positioning we have yet to determine. The Jeff Gannon bio at Talon News (since scrubbed) lists as his sole professional credential attendance at the Leadership Institute's School of Broadcast Journalism, though without giving dates. The Leadership Institute, whose mission is "to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative public policy leaders," has been in existence since 1979, when it was founded by longtime Republican Party operative Morton C. Blackwell. The institute claims to have trained more than 40,000 students in its quarter-century history, putting it at the center of a large network of right-wing activists, politicians, journalists and intellectuals. The Broadcast School, so-called, is merely a weekend seminar with a $50 registration fee: but the Institute sponsors any number of training programs, by no means all of them listed on its site, and provides a variety of fellowships and paid, residential internships to its aspiring conservative leaders.

Right-wing activist organizations are, of course, frequently interlinked. But the connections between the Leadership Institute, Free Republic (and its web radio project, Free Republic Network, created by millionaire Domino's Pizza franchisee Bob Johnson), and GOPUSA/Talon News are especially rich and suggestive. In August 2002, for instance, the Leadership Institute offered media training at Friva, the Free Republic in Las Vegas conference. A number of Talon News personalities made regular appearances on Radio Free Republic webcasts; it seems likely that the Leadership Institute offered a pipeline into the Free Republic Network, which itself was meant as a waystation to acceptance in more mainstream media. Jeff Gannon, for that matter, is known to have co-hosted a Radio Free Republic webcast with Chuck Muth, a Republican political consultant and one of the Leadership Institute's most prominent and active educators. And Muth's connections may offer us a path directly to whoever in the White House signed off on Gannon.

Whatever was being prepared, whatever favors called, whatever signoffs given, by the end of 2002 the transition was complete. Beginning Nov. 12, a small flurry of web op-ed pieces, on the recent mid-term elections and the Trent Lott controversy, announces Jeff Gannon to the conservative world. Some of the pieces are cross-posted elsewhere under the Conservative Guy's byline, but he is essentially a husk now, a split coccoon. Very nearly the last content to be added to his web site -- added, ironically, to one of its oldest pages, a desultory small diary tracking liberal bias in The New York Times -- is a paragraph on the Jan. 18 MOVE-OUT protest. It looks, in retrospect, like the Conservative Guy's obituary.

Within six weeks of the rally, on Feb. 28, 2003, a GOPUSA correspondent rises to ask Ari Fleischer his first confirmed question. He is in the White House, in the center of power. No more Conservative Guy, no more Bulldog, no more JD: he is Jeff Gannon, now and for always. To the man so recently James Guckert, a go-nowhere office manager of uncertain identity, it must have seemed like a clean, clear break. It must have seemed like destiny.

Additional research: Tex MacRae, blogslut.