Journalist Garrett Graff seemingly left no stone unturned before this spring’s release of his sensationally titled book on doomsday preparation, “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die.”
“Calling upon, for the first time, thousands of pages of recently declassified plans and White House documents, ‘Raven Rock’ — which takes its name from the Pentagon’s sprawling secret 650-acre bunker complex in the Pennsylvania mountains — is equal parts a presidential, military, and cultural history,” its publicity promises. “It is a definitive tour of the hidden architecture of America’s shadow government — one that will simultaneously surprise readers with the level of detail that went into planning for Armageddon, yet shock them with how poorly the plans would have actually worked.”
Then the author’s book blitz received a jolt of its own when FBI Director James Comey was fired last month and Robert Mueller was named special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Suddenly reporters only wanted to talk about the nation’s top law enforcement agency — the subject of Graff’s 2011 hardcover “The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War.”
“I’ve been doing wall-to-wall interviews,” the Vermonter says today, “about my last book.”
The best-laid plans may often go awry, but Graff knows only too well how to move forward after the fallout.
The 35-year-old author grew up planning to follow the career path of his father, longtime Associated Press Montpelier bureau chief Christopher Graff. Studying at Harvard University, the aspiring writer appeared headed in the right direction when he served as executive editor of the school’s Crimson newspaper.
Then again, the younger Graff confessed in a subsequent essay, he applied to Harvard only after his high school principal encouraged him “and I decided it would be easier to do so than listen to him badger me.” Graduating in 2003, he decided to make news rather than report it, taking a post with Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Graff worked as the campaign’s deputy national press secretary and helped create its precedent-setting website. Then came the unwelcome “Dean Scream” after a third-place Iowa showing. That was followed by headlines about Graff’s father after the AP correspondent inexplicably was forced out of his job, “stunning the state’s journalists and politicians,” The New York Times said in its report.
It was the first time — but not the last — the younger Graff would have to regroup.
‘This unique unintended skillset’
“It was a million years ago in the scheme of the internet — the year Gmail and Facebook were introduced,” he recalls, “but the web team ended the campaign with this unique unintended skillset and we moved to Washington en masse and started our own consulting firm.”
Graff went on to found the news website FishbowlDC and soon became the first blogger to receive credentials to cover the White House.
“Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and specialist in blogging, said Mr. Graff’s odyssey was significant,” the Times said of the news, because he was “expanding the definition of what constitutes the press, just as radio and television once pushed those boundaries.”
But Graff wasn’t content to simply blog. He spun his Dean experience into a book, “The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House,” that prestigious New York publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux released in 2007.
“The astonishingly young Mr. Graff (who was born in 1981) proves in these pages that he is a cogent writer,” Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani opined, “willing to tackle large-scale issues and problems.”
At the same time, Graff met fellow journalist Harry Jaffe, a former Rutland Herald reporter and press secretary to Vermont U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who introduced him to colleagues at Washingtonian magazine. The blogger soon freelanced for the publication before joining its staff and, at age 28, succeeding its veteran leader.
“When I promoted Garrett to editor in 2009 in the depths of the recession many thought he was too young to take on the challenge and that I was crazy for taking such a risk,” Washingtonian publisher Catherine Merrill Williams wrote in a staff memo. “Garrett’s first-class intellect and leadership abilities quickly proved the critics wrong.”
Graff rose even faster through the ranks when he moved to Politico Magazine. Hired as a staff writer in the summer of 2014, he was promoted to the post of editor six months later.
“I’ve been enormously lucky,” he says of his career, “but it’s all unplanned and unintentional.”
Again, however, Graff has experienced his share of fallout. NBC had just bought the rights to his current book when he decided to leave Politico in 2015 and return to his native state.
“I’ve loved my year as @POLITICOMag editor & am grateful for the chance to help build the mag,” he tweeted to his 12,000 Twitter followers, “but Vermont is calling me home.”
Weeks later, Graff announced he was considering a run for lieutenant governor, only to learn such candidates are legally required to have lived in the state the previous four years.
‘All very much back in the news’
In response, Graff noted one of his ancestors was a Green Mountain Boy alongside Ethan Allen, while he himself was a longtime registered Montpelier voter and driver’s license holder. Writing a public commentary titled “Defining What It Means to Be a Vermonter,” the journalist whose Twitter handle is @vermontgmg went on to tell lawmakers that he considered the state his “mental home.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to have a successful career in Washington, D.C., over the last decade,” he said, “but it is precisely the experiences I’ve had outside the state and the knowledge of the wider world that I have gained during that time that made me think I might have ideas that would help me make a difference here in that state I love and help pave the way for other young Vermonters to see a future here for them.”
That’s when the internet — the very marvel letting him return to his roots to live and work — sparked up with snark.
“The best part about #mymentalhome,” one social media user posted, “is that the #Vt taxes are pretty reasonable & I don’t have to shovel as much snow.”
Graff dropped thoughts of a bid, but the caustic quality of some of the comments still stings.
“I was surprised by the reaction,” he says. “My wife is from Massachusetts, and it was always our intention and important to us to come back to New England.”
And, specifically, to a state that persistently laments the loss of its youth to the rest of the world.
After hopscotching from his Burlington home to “Raven Rock” readings in Boston, Dallas, Denver, St. Louis and Washington, Graff is set to appear Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier.
Then he’ll start a new book about what happened on Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001, (it’s already optioned for a movie) and magazine pieces such as his recent Politico story on “What Donald Trump Needs to Know About Bob Mueller and Jim Comey.”
“There’s a weird confluence of events where the three things I have written about for a really long time — the FBI, Russian intelligence and nuclear issues — are all very much back in the news,” he says.
Graff didn’t land at a wire service like his father, but working with the written word and occasional theatrics, his career has a strong family resemblance. His mother is the Vermont writer, editor and historian Nancy Price Graff, and his grandfather was the late New York Herald Tribune drama critic Bert McCord.
Ask Graff if he has future political plans, and he stresses, “I am focused on journalism projects.” He also is one of five mayoral-appointed commissioners on the Burlington Housing Authority board — the ground rung of a beckoning government ladder.
The end of this story may be just the beginning.