When in the midst of the government shutdown President Obama decided to summon leading conservative journalists to an off-the-record White House meeting, he gathered the usual suspects: Fox News contributor and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, Washington Examiner columnist Byron York, and Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. And sitting directly to the president's right in the Roosevelt Room for the 90-minute exchange was a 27-year-old Bucks County native, Robert Costa.
Costa is Washington editor of the National Review and a contributor to CNBC. But just 10 years ago, he was a suburban public school class president and architect of one our area's most celebrated rights of passage: the Pennsbury prom.
"So many proms today become these almost antiseptic affairs in a hotel ballroom and just kind of bland and boring and corporate, but Pennsbury has it in the gym, and this school has been around since the '60s," Costa explained to me recently. "A lot of people joke it looks like a prison, but it's our prison, and in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the whole community comes together and puts up posters and puts up decorations and makes the whole school transform."
So rich is the tradition that Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Bamberger used the event as the backdrop for his 2004 American Graffiti-esque work of nonfiction: Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School. And Costa, who as junior class president was charged with coordinating the senior prom, was one of Bamberger's favorite subjects.
Wonderland is replete with Costa tales of ambition, ranging from his pursuit of John Mayer to perform at the prom to corralling a parking space at school despite his lack of both car and license. Ten years ago, Bamberger wrote of Costa that he was "well-connected and unusually sharp. . . . He always seemed a step ahead of everybody else." Today, they're saying the same thing on Capitol Hill.
"Bob was a force of nature then, and remains so. But you'd never know it, so unassuming is he," Bamberger told me last week. "Bob is everything I think a reporter should be, most notably a good listener. I don't think of him as a 'conservative journalist.' I think of him as a good reporter. One who could wind up doing anything."
Costa, a music aficionado, began his journalism career writing reviews of local concerts for the Bucks County Courier Times. By day, he would read daily announcements over the PA system and appear on student-run television (PHS-TV). By night, he would attend shows in the Philadelphia area. When his attempts at landing Mayer for the 2003 prom didn't pan out, he "settled" for Mayer's then-opening act, Maroon 5. The Los Angeles band was just on the cusp of national stardom.
Post-Pennsbury, Costa attended Notre Dame, where he ran the school TV station and wrote for the campus newspaper. He then landed a fellowship at the Wall Street Journal editorial page before leaving for Cambridge, where he obtained a master's degree studying Winston Churchill.
After Cambridge, it was the National Review, where he has worked for the last four years. In high school, he might have been voted least likely to end up working for a leading conservative outlet.
In Wonderland, Bamberger recounts how Costa traveled to Ed Rendell's inauguration in Harrisburg amid a busload of Revolutionary War reenactors, whereupon he buttonholed the new governor and offered his own blessing: "Make us proud, Ed." But his real hero, wrote Bamberger, was President Bill Clinton, whom Costa traveled to Trenton to meet the day after the prom, using his PHS-TV press credential for admittance.
"Mr. President, I'm Bob Costa from Pennsbury High," he said, adding, "I'm a young Democrat." To which the president replied, "That's what you should be."
Costa told me recently the prospect of his classmates going off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan affected his views.
"That experience unsettled me," he said, "and for a few years, my politics drifted to the left."
Costa credits Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), for whom he interned when Fitzpatrick was a county commissioner, with his interest in conservatism and registration as a Republican.
"These days, I'm a reporter first and last, and keep my opinions to myself," Costa says. "I don't have an agenda. Temperamentally and personally, sure, I'm conservative. But that's not what drives me. I love covering politics and talking politics, and I'm happy to leave the editorializing to the columnists and bloggers."
When Obama was sworn in for his second term in January, Costa was in the front row, sporting a National Review credential. Nearby? None other than John Mayer, on the arm of Katy Perry. Costa was quick to reintroduce himself to the music superstar as "Bob Costa, Pennsbury High."
See, though Costa's efforts to land Mayer at Pennsbury in his junior year hadn't panned out, he did persuade Mayer to play at his senior prom the following year.
Which explains Mayer's response at the inauguration: "I'm not surprised to see you here."
Neither, I'm sure, is anyone from Pennsbury High, Class of 2004.