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Underground Man

On the morning of June 7, 2008, Matt Drudge showed up at the National Building Museum in Washington, where Hillary Clinton was scheduled to give her concession speech. At the entrance, Drudge found his host, Tracy Sefl, a Clinton campaign staffer who, the day before, had offered to meet Drudge at the event. Throughout the campaign, Sefl had served as the Clintons' preferred back channel to communicate with the mercurial operator of the Drudge Report. Both sides benefited from the arrangement: The Clinton camp could push favorable items into the news cycle, and Drudge would receive the inevitable traffic boost that accompanied anything Hillary-related. (As Drudge himself once quipped on his radio show: "I need Hillary Clinton. You don't get it. I need to be part of her world. That's my bank.")

While thousands of Hillary supporters streamed into the hall, Drudge and Sefl stood chatting off to the side and waited for Clinton to take the podium. Soon, word leaked out that Drudge was somewhere in the room, and Sefl's BlackBerry lit up with frantic e-mails from reporters hoping to gain an audience. "Are you really there with him?" one national political reporter wrote. "Will you introduce me? Is it true? Can I come meet you?" e-mailed another.

Their excitement was understandable. A decade after he burst onto the national scene during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Drudge remains one of the most powerful figures in journalism. In the Web 2.0 era--with media outlets unveiling increasingly complex sites that feature multiple avenues for readers to contribute, from comments to Tweets--the Drudge Report doesn't look like much: just an old-fashioned layout consisting mostly of links to articles in other publications, alongside the occasional breaking news story of its own. And yet, because it draws up to 20 million hits per day--and, more importantly, because it is read religiously by Washington's reporters, political operatives, and cable news producers--the site retains a striking ability to dictate what appears in the mainstream press. Indeed, one of journalism's unofficial parlor games these days consists of mining Drudge's site for clues to his proclivities--so that one might figure out how to gain his favor and earn a valuable link.

Drudge owes both his stature and his accompanying fortune--sources believe he makes millions per year off his site--essentially to one thing: his appetite, during the Lewinsky era and afterward, for rummaging further into the lives of public figures than mainstream journalists were willing to go. And that's ironic when you consider the reason that his appearance at the Clinton concession speech created such a frenzy: For the past few years, Matt Drudge has gone almost completely underground.

He may always have been an outsider in Washington, but, early in his career, Drudge at least tolerated the spotlight as he built his franchise. In June 1998, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, he delivered an infamous speech at the National Press Club in which he placed himself in the tradition of John Peter Zenger. In June 2001, shortly after moving to Florida, he agreed to be profiled by the Miami New Times. And, in 2005, I met Drudge at the Bloomberg after-party following the White House Correspondents Dinner. Decked out in his trademark fedora, a scrum of eager reporters surrounding him, he seemed to be lapping up the attention.

But, since then, even while continuing to update his site constantly, Drudge has almost completely disappeared from public life. As far as I can tell, the Clinton event was his only public appearance of the past few years. In September 2007, he gave up his Sunday evening radio show, which had long been his most visible platform. Some of the politicos he once regularly contacted now say he is in touch less frequently. One source relays that, these days, the only media figures he talks to regularly are a select group that includes Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who has helped run the Drudge Report on a part-time basis. (Also working on the site has been Kevin Lucido, who runs the Vienna, Virginia-based ad firm Intermarkets and sells Drudge's advertising.)

For several years, Drudge lived in a condo at the Four Seasons in Miami. In August 2007, the Los Angeles Times published a front-page piece that reported on his residence there. "The luxury condos are located on the upper floors of the 70-story building, the tallest in Florida, and offer a dazzling view of Biscayne Bay through floor-to-ceiling windows," the Times reported. "Live-ins like Drudge have full access to the hotel's amenities, including a 50,000-square-foot spa and sports club, three pools, and daily maid service." Drudge now lives at another property in Miami, according to a friend. "Reporters' means have been questionable," the friend told me. (The Times reporter had a concierge slip a note under his door.)

When he's not in Miami, Drudge spends considerable time traveling--for instance, to Tel Aviv, Geneva, and Las Vegas, according to multiple sources. "He's totally portable," Drudge's friend Lucianne Goldberg told me. "He's like a turtle--he takes it with him." Says the other friend, "He has turned me on to a healthy appreciation for good hotels." Still, the pressures to maintain the site while traveling can be crushing. "It's a really fucked-up life. It's not necessarily fun," this friend explains. "He lives his job. It's with him always. "

What is driving Drudge to seclusion? Those who know him say that part of the reason he has disappeared from public view is that he is so bothered by the media's prurient interest in his personal life. "He wants no part of a lot of this," the friend told me. "He sees it as nonsense. He doesn't have respect for the way people have tried to write about him." Indeed, this April, he e-mailed a quote to New York magazine after the gay publication Out placed him on its list of the country's 50 most powerful gays and lesbians. (Out claimed that he "love[s] Chaka Khan, 'The Young and the Restless,' and sex with men," and that "his agenda is often anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-tolerance.")

"False. False. False. I do not love sex with men," he told New York's Chris Rovzar. "My site is not anti-gay. I present both sides of the anti-choice-life issue. I am not anti-tolerant! Except against big-government freaks. I liked Chaka in the eighties, and have not watched 'Young and the Restless' in twenty years! But I do watch 'Judge Judy'!"

One source relayed to me that, a couple of years ago, Limbaugh advised Drudge to disappear from public life. (Limbaugh declined to comment.) Perhaps Limbaugh, whose personal life has received a thorough public airing over the years, understood the toll this could take. Perhaps he was trying to protect a fellow conservative from attack by the left. Or maybe he simply grasped something that now appears very obvious: Matt Drudge owes his power in part to the air of mystery that surrounds him.

"I don't know what the fuck is going on with him," one exasperated magazine editor, who had been in contact with Drudge frequently, told me. "Maybe I've talked to him once in the past six months. Even with e-mails, I don't get a response from the dude. We used to go back and forth [on Instant Messenger]. The last phone call I got, which was months ago, I said, 'What is going on with the whole Howard Hughes thing?' He started laughing. He said something like, 'I don't need to go out there and talk.'" And it's true: He doesn't.

Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.