Joseph Williams was a White House correspondent for Politico until racial comments about Mitt Romney and a retweet of a lewd joke about Ann Romney got him the boot. He might have had a shot at a new media job until he pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife. Years later, the reporter tells The Atlantic of his plummet into retail.
“In a matter of months, I was broke, depressed, and living on food stamps,” he writes in The Atlantic of his journey post-assault plea. Williams makes clear he got his well-paying job at Politico with good storytelling, extracting the drama out of every painful, menial detail his boss, “Stretch,” made him responsible for as a cashier at a sporting goods store. While Williams was never homeless, he never made enough money to rent an apartment on his own after he divorced his wife and “ended up living out of a suitcase in a guest bedroom of an extraordinarily generous family I barely knew.”
Williams credits both Breitbart News’s “Big Media” [sic] and FishbowlDC for his station in life at the sporting goods store. After stating on MSNBC during the 2012 election that the Romneys are “white folks who are very much relaxed in their own company,” Breitbart News unearthed a series of biased tweets against the Romneys, including one that made a lewd penis joke at the expense of Ann Romney. That breed of humor was not uncommon at the time from political outlets branding themselves as less serious – Buzzfeed edited the Romneys into a fake Viagra ad – but Politico deemed the cumulative effects of his racial comments and the inappropriate humor too much to keep him around. At the time, Williams responded to his firing with some comments about Shirley Sherrod and James O’Keefe.
In his Atlantic piece, he continues to credit this website with his demise. “Others on the right, like Andrew Breitbart’s Big Media, mined my personal Twitter account and unearthed a crude Romney joke I’d carelessly retweeted a month before,” he writes. However, even he notes that he was receiving responses upon sending out his resumé to potential employers after the firing – Politico head John Harris had some nice words to say upon their parting that must have gone a long way.
Williams touches the subject of the guilty plea he entered for assaulting his wife as part of the story, but finds FishbowlDC responsible for casting him out of new media and into retail for years: “in the wake of the Politico scandal, Fishbowl DC obtained the court documents and published a piece,” he writes. Because his probation service and separation from his wife after what he pled to be a violent episode were now public, he became a toxic commodity. “Finding a new job went from hard to impossible,” he writes. “Some news outlets that had initially wanted my resume told me they’d changed their plans. Others simply dropped me without saying anything.”
Williams spent six months looking for work before finding a job at a sporting goods store “requiring me to play Cinderella on the closing shift” and do everything from taking out the garbage to cleaning the toilets. For someone who felt exiled from the Washington elite, the job came with a “required disregard for one’s own self-esteem” and almost constant shoplifting checks that Williams found “Orwellian.” Williams portrays the job as so dehumanizing that he found his thinking had devolved into a cultish desire for praise from the manager and a disassociation from his former life. As a man above 50, the physical rigor of the job also reminded him incessantly of how little he felt he belonged in that world, with young, uneducated workers correcting his menial tasks.
Williams tells his story now that he has returned into the D.C. inside circle, working communications for a non-profit and reconnecting with The Atlantic. He tells it well, and it serves as a stark reminder that not all individuals struggling the way Williams did for the past two years do so after pleading guilty to a crime – many never get the chance to have any other job.
The story is part of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, an organization that works to produce and promote stories of individuals struggling to make ends meet in the Obama economy.