What happens in the greenroom . . .

Washington, this city of grand monuments and sweeping corner offices, shrinks to human scale in the greenroom.

It’s tight in there, backstage in the little lounges at the big shows, waiting to go on air with Wolf or George or Chris, noshing on the munchies, sizing up the competition, kicking back on the couch.

Karl Rove’s sure to arrive at any moment. Or Donna Brazile or Paul Begala.

There are Dems and Republicans, stars and wannabes. All of official Washington is squeezed together into these greenrooms -- the spaces that Republican strategist Terry Holt calls “the demilitarized zone of politics” -- then funneled out to the rest of the world via the 24-hour news cycle. Backstage, it’s insiders face-to-face with insiders in a rolling, seven-day-a-week extension of the Washington cocktail party.


Here in the Washington greenrooms of networks like CNN and Fox, ABC and NBC, unfiltered proximity affords priceless opportunities to exchange business cards, hatch unlikely partnerships, collect some intel, spark romances.

There’s Steve McMahon, once a spokesman for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, saying that he gets along “great” with conservative Laura Ingraham . . . off the air. There are the kids of Republican mega-lobbyist Ed Rogers, racing around with McMahon’s little ones in the “Hardball With Chris Matthews” greenroom. Since becoming greenroom pals, by the way, the kids trick-or-treat together.

Oh, and there’s always a high likelihood of delicious random encounters.

There’s Rogers, a self-described “right-wing coot,” holed up in a greenroom with that lefty Ralph Nader.


“He was mortified to learn that I had 23 televisions in my house,” says Rogers, who was so unfazed that he has added a couple of television screens since then. “He told me that was beyond the pale. That I should pay an extra tax.”

The regulars know the greenroom drill, its rites and peculiar etiquette. Rule No. 1 -- and it trumps all others: What happens in the greenroom stays in the greenroom.

It would be bad form, for instance, to bust someone on air for contradicting a statement they made in the greenroom.

But those on-air niceties don’t necessarily mean that political warfare isn’t being waged. This is, after all, a town with two dominant teams, the Republicans and the Democrats. And each is playing to win.


McMahon sometimes tries a little pregame reconnaissance, seeing if his opponents will bite when he asks: “What are you going to say?”

If that doesn’t work, he might playfully try to unnerve them.

“I’ll say, ‘You’ve got nuthin’, man,’ ” he says. “It’s like the taunting before a football game or a boxing match.”

Tammy Haddad, former executive producer of “Larry King Live” and “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” calls the greenroom psych-outs “pre-warfare warfare.”


Rogers and McMahon can spot a rookie the moment the door swings open. They’re the ones with piles of papers, notecards and briefing books “as if they are about to take a law school exam,” McMahon says.

That’s when Rogers likes to swoop in.

“I intimidate them,” he admits, without a hint of remorse.

He’ll tell the greenhorns: “You know you have to share your notes, that’s the rule.”


“Two-thirds of the time, they don’t know if I’m kidding,” says Rogers, cracking himself up now.

Of course, they usually end up laughing about it, speeding the development of what Rogers calls “the phenomenon of the greenroom friendship.”

He became buddies with the champion fundraiser and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe through a series of greenroom encounters. McAuliffe attends the baptisms of Rogers’ children; Rogers says he abides by a political cease-fire, promising not to openly oppose McAuliffe in his expected run for Virginia governor.

“I will never go against Terry McAuliffe,” Rogers says.


These across-the-aisle greenroom friendships can become lucrative propositions. Greenrooms connected Rogers with Democratic strategist Morris Reid. They’d first met during television appearances in the late 1980s.

Dozens of greenroom encounters later, they met up again earlier this year at an MSNBC greenroom and a deal began to form. Within days, they’d popped down to the Inn at Little Washington to continue the conversation. On Nov. 4, Rogers says, his big firm, BGR Holdings, bought Reed’s smaller firm, “making him a rich man,” as Rogers puts it.

That’s not to say it’s always easy. Holt remembers trying without success to make chitchat with Stephanie Cutter before a CNN “Inside Politics” appearance during the run-up to the 2004 election, when he was serving as a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney ticket.

Cutter, an Obama transition spokeswoman who was then working for Sen. John F. Kerry’s campaign, is known as a formidable foe, an intense advocate who can obliterate an unprepared opponent. Holt wanted to soften her up in the greenroom before going on air.


“She wouldn’t speak to me. She was on the BlackBerry. Wouldn’t look at me,” says Holt, who appears on television 150 times or more in busy political years. “I wanted to be friends.”

He failed that day, but after the election -- and more greenroom sit-downs -- the political combatants became business allies. Before Cutter joined the Obama team, Holt says, they paired up for a couple of projects, including offering “he said, she said” advice to a social networking site that wanted to improve its Washington connections.


Roig-Franzia writes for the Washington Post