Power

The strange life of Peter Daou

Why do powerful people pay him to do things?
Power

The strange life of Peter Daou

Why do powerful people pay him to do things?

The political consultant Peter Daou is quite possibly the weirdest man alive. Strange, then, that the apex of his career came with the disastrous launch of the dullest website imaginable. Daou’s brainchild, called Verrit, was revealed to the public on Sunday through a rare Hillary Clinton tweet. “I'm excited to sign up for @Verrit, a media platform for the 65.8 million! Will you join me and sign up too?” Clinton asked. The response was mainly one of bewilderment. There’s nothing to sign up for on Verrit, other than their email newsletter — it’s not a “platform” in any real sense, but a repository of pro-Democrat quotes and soundbites, each of which comes with an “authentication code,” which users are expected to write down and check against the Verrit database in order to avoid consuming fake news. Within a few hours of launching, the site was down — according to Daou, it was not overtaxed by a massive influx of traffic, as amateurish websites often are, but the victim of a “denial-of-service attack.” Daou’s credibility was strained further by two days’ worth of frenzied tweetstorms about how Verrit was “DRIVING THE HATERS BALLISTIC” by being confusing and apparently devoid of purpose. The Verrit debacle was the first taste of Daou for many, and a good entry point; it gets much, much more strange from there.

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Daou is a case study in the conditions that tend to plague ambitious, irrelevant men who do not know when it’s their time to step aside — in short, he’s everything wrong with liberals today. Some of the many disorders of which Daou has exhibited symptoms include Failing Upward Syndrome, in which a man keeps getting bigger jobs even though he’s unqualified and incompetent (Daou started as an online communications adviser for John Kerry campaign in 2003, three years later he joined Hillary Clinton’s campaign as “internet director” and has benefitted from her loyalty ever since); Hugo Schwyzer Syndrome, in which a man who loudly claims to be a feminist to increase his bonafides with women ends up hogging the spotlight and being, in general, a smarmy freak (in 2015, Daou and fellow Clinton hanger-on Tom Watson launched a social media strategy called “Hillary Men,” intended to “provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics”); and Opposite Imposter Syndrome, in which a man takes credit for something he had not even the slightest bit to do with (in 2010, Daou claimed to have co-founded the Huffington Post, an assertion Arianna Huffington called “laughable.” Huffington and Daou settled out of court in 2014). Perhaps the one thing for which Daou can take credit is torpedoing the Blue Nation Review, the fiercely pro-Clinton propaganda outlet once called the “Breitbart of the left,” into the ground — Daou was hired to run it in 2016, only to mysteriously disappear from its roster after Clinton’s humiliating defeat.

Daou claimed to have co-founded the Huffington Post, an assertion Arianna Huffington called “laughable.”

So who is Peter Daou, where did he come from, and how did he get here? Daou was born in Lebanon to Arthur Daou, a Lebanese businessman, and Suzanna Mann, an American expat from a Jewish family in New York City. Suzanna’s younger sister, married name Erica Jong, achieved worldwide fame in 1973 after the publication of her first book, Fear of Flying, a graphic semi-autobiographical account of a young woman’s sexual escapades. To a reader in 2017, Fear of Flying might appear unbearably trite, given that its protagonist is a 29-year-old aspiring writer in New York who goes on a gleefully-overshared journey of self-discovery, but it was revolutionary at the time. Many of Jong’s “semi-autobiographical” anecdotes bore certain similarities to Daou’s home life. In 2008, Suzanna Daou called Fear of Flying “an exposé of [her] life when [she] was living in Lebanon.” She was referring to a chapter (rather unfortunately) titled “Arabs & Other Animals,” in which the book’s protagonist, a poet named Isadora Wing and the character purported to be Jong, visits her sister and her husband in Beirut. Her sister, “Randy,” (Suzanna) is married to a Lebanese man, “Pierre,” (Peter Daou’s dad) and together they have six children.

Pierre was arguing with Randy, saying that only Americans had the crazy notion of taking a bath every day, that it wasn’t natural (his favorite word), and that it dried up all your wonderful skin oils. Randy yelled back that she didn’t want her son to stink to high hell like his illustrious father, and she pointed out that she wasn’t fooled by his dirty habits. “What the hell dirty habits do you mean?” “I mean I know perfectly well that when I say I won’t sleep with you unless you take a shower, you go into the bathroom and turn on the water and just sit there smoking a cigarette on the goddamned toilet seat.

Pierre’s refusal to shower is relatively mundane compared to what followed:

I don’t think this is such a good idea,” I said weakly. Pierre’s hands were under my nightgown, stroking my thighs. I wasn’t as unaroused as I wanted to pretend.

It continues from there. Suzanna Daou, for her part, “forgave” Jong in 2008: “I forgive her for everything, except writing that my husband crawled into her bed, which he didn’t, and asked her to perform fellatio, which he didn’t,” she said, according to the New Yorker. In response, Jong said that “every intelligent family has an insane member.” Yikes.

We talked about Peter Daou and Verrit on our daily podcast, The Outline World Dispatch. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Daou has never been ashamed of Fear of Flying in the way his mother has, even though it contains lurid accounts of his aunt’s douching process and portrays his father as a greasy nymphomaniac. To the contrary, he seemed to embrace the book. In 1992, Peter and his then-wife Vanessa formed The Daou, a dance-pop group that scored a minor hit with the single “Surrender Yourself.” To follow it up, Peter and Vanessa opted to record a concept album about Fear of Flying in 1994. Yes, really. The album, billed as solo Vanessa Daou and produced by Peter, was titled Zipless. Lead single “Near the Black Forest,” which takes its title from a chapter of Fear of Flying, is about as sexual as you could get in 1994 without triggering an obscenity trial. The video opens with a hand undoing a zipper, and then it reveals Vanessa caressing her hips and breasts atop a platform in a steamy, possibly gay nightclub — in character, as Peter’s aunt. Just to reiterate, Daou and his wife wrote and recorded an album about his aunt’s sex memoirs in which a character based on his dad pressures her into a blow job. Sit back, crank up the sweet sounds of Daou, and just try to take it all in.

Prior to Daou’s career as a jazz pianist, he was a “Christian militia conscript in Lebanon fighting Hezbollah/Syrians,” per his Twitter. This is an odd backstory for a committed progressive, to say the least. Christian militias during the Lebanese Civil War were decidedly far-right, and they became notorious for a number of heinous war crimes. (There is no indication that Daou personally took part in these.) Daou says he was conscripted at the age of 15, a fact which makes his story far more sympathetic, but he often brings it up in the context of proving his masculinity: “Having grown up and served in the Lebanese Forces militia, I suspect most #guncontrol opponents haven't had to use one,” he tweeted in 2015. That same year, he cited his service in the paramilitary: “#Hillary-haters who attack me online obsessed with juvenile conceptions of "manhood." When I mention my Lebanese militia years they go quiet.” On another occasion: “I served in the Lebanese Forces militia in Beirut facing the very terrorists GOP get all blustery about.” The soldier-turned-pacifist narrative is popular in progressive circles, but it doesn’t work if you continually brag about how badass you are to intimidate critics. (It also doesn’t work if you’re doing it in service of a warhawk politician who shares enemies with the Lebanese Forces.)

Even if you disregard the sex jams about his aunt and his proud service in a right-wing militia, Daou still doesn’t seem to be of much use to the world. Verrit will almost surely shutter before the end of 2017, and other Clinton operatives appear to be wary of him. An email thread about the “Hillary Men” currently archived at Wikileaks suggests internal tensions: “One thing to be aware of, if you aren't already, is that Peter worked on '08 and apparently burned a lot of bridges — I don't know the whole story, but digital folks from that campaign do not speak highly of him,” strategist Teddy Goff wrote. “Yeah — they are a little off,” replied former White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri. A little off indeed.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer for The Outline.