Monday's Washington Post carried a huge three-page article on its former employee, Jose Antonio Vargas, an illegal alien and amnesty activist. The headline was "HIDE, THEN SEEK: Amid Obama's executive actions, immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas tirelessly pursues change -- even as he hopes to reunite with his mother." The headline inside was "From journalism to activism: A life on the run."
It took reporter Marc Fisher 38 paragraphs to arrive at Vargas lying to the Post to get a job – their search for young reporters that would help them meet diversity targets (in this case, Asian and openly gay) apparently made them an easy mark.
He built his supercharged escalator to success with energy, smarts, creativity, deceit and outright lies. Beginning in high school, Vargas hid his immigration status from each of his employers as he rose through his profession, winning over editors who were hungry for young talent.
"We were behind the curve on all things digital and along came Jose," says Peter Perl, a Washington Post editor who was in charge of hiring when Vargas was a summer intern in 2003. Vargas quickly established himself as an innovative, energetic reporter.
He was hired into a full-time position and became "the voice of youth in the newsroom," Perl says. "He's charming and charismatic."
But within a year of arriving at The Post, Vargas, shaking and evidently troubled, approached Perl and asked him to walk over to Lafayette Park. On a bench there, Vargas told the editor what he had not told anyone at his previous jobs, what no one at The Post had detected - that, according to the law, he didn't belong there.
"He was unburdening himself to a father figure," Perl says. "He didn't ask for anything."
For seven years, Perl who has since retired from The Post, told Vargas's secret to no one but his wife. (In 2011, when Vargas came clean, Perl was reprimanded, but he has no regrets about keeping silent to protect Vargas's career.)
Vargas illegally arrived in America from the Philippines at age 12 in 1993. Fisher also explained that the Post felt Vargas didn't really come clean when he attempted to write a showy article outing himself as an illegal alien, but he sugared it up with classical music and yearning for his mother:
In December 2010, the Senate voted down the Dream Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally as children. Vargas went out for a long walk to the Brooklyn Bridge, listening to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 - by turns delicate, melodramatic, overbearing. By the time he got back to his apartment, he says he knew he would end the lies. He hadn't seen his mother in 16 years.
"It must seem strange that somebody who seems so social and friendly could keep secrets for so long," Vargas told me. "I don't know how the hell I managed it. The moment you tell someone, you feel guilty, because you're endangering them. I was a coward. A ticking time bomb. Either someone was going to out me, or I would out myself, or I would have to shut the f--- up for the rest of my life."
He set out to write a first-person piece for his old employer, this newspaper, in which he would come out as an illegal immigrant. The Post assigned a team of editors to check the story rigorously; a story about lies had to be airtight.
In the end, The Post's editor at the time, Marcus Brauchli, decided not to publish the story. Vargas offered it to the New York Times, which put it on the cover of its Sunday magazine. Brauchli says he has nothing to add to his original explanation, which said: "We made a judgment not to run the piece."
Vargas says he thinks The Post bailed out because he had a second illegally obtained driver's license that he hadn't mentioned in his first draft. But he says he was committed to telling all [!?] and gladly added any fact the editors wanted.
Some fellow journalists read the Times story and felt as if they'd been made unwitting parties to a lie.
"I was duped," wrote Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, where Vargas had worked at the start of his career. "Jose lied to me and everyone else he worked for, and that's not kosher."
The Post's ombudsman then, Patrick Pexton, wrote that Vargas had a reputation in the newsroom "for being tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless self-promoter whom many colleagues didn't trust." Pexton concluded that Vargas had now "crossed the line from journalist to advocate."
These quotes are the closest thing to criticism in the article. Fisher ran sugary quotes from his subject:
"I traffic in empathy," Vargas says. "I try to be vulnerable with people so they can be vulnerable back. I've always been searching for empathy in other people. It's when I feel most not alone."
But this passage may have been the weirdest, after the Post described the Vargas publicity stunt where he went to southern Texas to get arrested during the "unaccompanied minors" crisis:
Even if the president's initiative stands and the threat of deportation is lifted for some, the politics of immigration remain volatile and Vargas's future is still uncertain, all of which leaves him eager to keep confronting the system. "I want to be as creatively disruptive as possible," he says. "I want to be radically transparent in a way that isn't showboating."
He is writing a memoir and recently announced a deal with MTV to direct a documentary on what it means to be young and white in America.