D.C. talking heads: knowing the score

Mar 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When was it, last night or last weekend? You were watching “Meet the Press” or “The O’Reilly Factor” or “Nightline,” and there was that damn blowhard guest again. “Am I the only one who notices that?” you think to yourself.
On the other hand, maybe it’s that rare pundit who actually has a profound insight. Again, you say to yourself, “Am I the only one who notices that this guy really knows what he’s talking about?”
Well, we know the feeling. So today we’re naming names.
It’s Electronic Media’s first-ever survey of Washington’s media inner circle naming the best and worst talk show guests. We spoke to more than a dozen TV news professionals who book, produce, host and follow the Washington-centric TV shows that do the most to define the country’s political talking points.
The ground rules: (1) EM had to protect the identities of those surveyed, and (2) our sources had to dish truthfully about who they think are the best and worst guests, who are the VIP bookings and the quote chimps.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. “When he comes, news will be made,” more than one respondent said of Mr. Rumsfeld, who walks not at all softly and carries a big stick and whose TV star seems incapable of doing anything but rising. (He played straight man to host David Letterman’s mother, Dorothy, during one of her Winter Olympics reports for “Late Show.”) The reviews on Mr. Cheney, the president’s No. 2 man of mystery, say that “he comes to play and he speaks clearly, directly and succinctly,” and that “he’s more eloquent than Rumsfeld.”
Also nominated: Secretary of State Colin Powell (“A truth teller,” “Everybody loves him”), Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy (“A presence,” “He doesn’t go out often, but when he does he makes news”), Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain (“He gets pickup even if he doesn’t make news,” “If you book him, he’ll hit the mark,” “It’s nice to see some anger”).
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. So no-voltage that “His own friends shake their heads,” say mediacrats. Even his best attempts at making news-announcing on a Sunday newsmaker show that he was divesting his stock in Alcoa, where he had been chairman and secured his reputation for having a sharp business mind-get lost in the dull shuffle. “No amount of coaching is going to help.”
Also nominated: Conservative William Bennett (increasingly uninteresting because the self-appointed morality watchdog “won’t give an inch”) and his partner in Empower America morality lectures, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman (“Has come to believe his own press”), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers (“Makes no waves”), world leaders (and anyone else who “doesn’t understand American television”), Secretary of State Colin Powell and New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton (both “Seem sexy and charismatic” until after the interview is over and the “mismatch between star power and actual sizzle” sinks in).
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. Once burned-despite oh-so-carefully choosing his words when David Brinkley questioned him shortly after he was appointed in 1987-twice as shy as the other TV hermits (Sens. Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd and Jesse Helms) in a town that is anything but camera-shy.
Also nominated: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, who will be questioned by “This Week’s” Sam Donaldson at the NAB convention in April; and FBI leaders.
Alan Dershowitz. A member of the team that defended O.J. Simpson and who more recently defended torture as an option in the post-9/11 world, relentlessly “pitches and pushes” himself on a never-ending repository of issues.
Also nominated: New York’s senior Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, who recently invited The New York Times into the dorm-style domicile he and three other members of Congress share in Washington. “The joke in Washington is that the most dangerous place to be is in between Schumer and a television camera,” said one D.C. network veteran; Sen. McCain (“Part of that is our fault,” “He has so many issues,” “He comes when we ask him to”); George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley (“An environmental lawyer who has managed to be booked as an expert on every field known to man,” “There you’ve got a real media whore”); South Dakota Democratic senator and presumed presidential hopeful Tom Daschle (“So smooth he can defeat interest,” “But he is the Senate majority leader”); pundit John Fund, until recently an editorialist at The Wall Street Journal and now a staple of the New York Post’s take-no-prisoners Page 6 gossips (“He was overexposed but isn’t likely to be anymore”); presidential historian Michael Beschloss (“Doesn’t do anything wrong, but just so overexposed”); former federal prosecutor Cynthia Alksne, (“Overexposed and underequipped”); and House-aide-turned-pundit Julian Epstein (“He’s everywhere”).
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. One veteran of the D.C. booking contests defends Mr. Jackson as a man who “stands up for stories no other politician will,” but he otherwise gets the near-unanimous vote for “most shameless” of all media wags (“He will come at the drop of a hint”) and is chosen among those most likely to overcommit themselves (“Been known to cancel only minutes before the show”), to attempt to “choreograph and stage manage” and to try to “intrude” on almost any issue.
Also nominated: Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr (“If he can think of a reason to get on, he calls,” “His people flack him regularly,” “With a tough fight against a popular Republican [Rep. John Linder] on his hands, he’s calling less and campaigning more”); Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (“She’s late about 90 percent of the time, or cancels”); Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; New Jersey Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine, who has been looking for a national issue that doesn’t relate to self-financed campaigns but who probably hasn’t found it in a national ban of hand-held cellphones; Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter and Richard Shelby (the latter “the new Scoop Jackson … when Jackson used to leave, he left his home number and his schedule with the shows”); former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo (“Often out there speaking on subjects of which she doesn’t really know much,” “You can call her at 10 at night and book her”); Judicial Watch Chairman Larry Klayman (“Ubiquitous”); Newsweek’s main man in Washington Howard Fineman (A good guest, but there’s the old joke, “If Howard Fineman’s here, who’s on TV?”); conservative columnist and media critic Cal Thomas (known in some circles for badgering Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes to give him a show and for badgering producers just to give him a few minutes on a show); and “people who come from the think tanks.”
First lady-turned-New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Even as her staff pitches her, they set limits, say those who have had the experience. She’s partial to “Gee-that’s-nice issues” and “On the issues she knows well, she will monopolize the discussion.” Not unexpected, given her unique status, “A booking comes with security sweeps and dogs” and other rituals.
Also nominated: Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., (His staff “makes everything seem like it’s a hard chore to arrange”); U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke (while he can be very insightful, he’s also “very particular about who he will or won’t appear with”); Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (requires “separate facilities, high security, everything”); and Coretta Scott King (the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. requires a car and a green room buffet and comes with “a crowd of walking-around personnel who have ravenous appetites.”
Sen. Joseph Biden. He’s prone to being “professorial” but “he’s been out there a lot becau
se of the war and because he is running for president.” But “he can’t get it said.”
Also nominated: Alan Keyes, the unorthodox Republican presidential candidate in 2000, the esoterically professorial speaker and now host of the MSNBC show that bears his name and the end-of-discussion bromide that “Alan Keyes Is Making Sense,” who “has to be on anyone’s list of blowhards”; the politically inclined television preachers; Brits (most notably Christopher Hitchens).
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. The Democratic congressman and perennial presidential hopeful (“If he starts doing interviews, he’s probably going to run”) is “nice but programmed,” “bland.”
Also nominated: North Carolina Democratic Sen. and 2004 presidential sweepstakes entry John Edwards (“Already into campaign mode, so he doesn’t give you anything”); Director of the Office of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (“A huge disappointment”).
Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Frist. The Senate’s lone doctor, whose highest profile has been on issues related to stem cell research, is “so smart your jaw drops.”
Also nominated: U.S. News & World Report editor at large David Gergen, whose strategic skills have earned him administration positions on both sides of the political divide (under Republican Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton) but whose very longevity on the Washington scene also can render him “a little stale”; U.S. News & World Report columnist and “McLaughlin Group” member Michael Barone (“Wild as can be, but one of the smartest pundits in Washington”); New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman.
The “usual suspects” crowd. That includes Julian Epstein and Cynthia Alksne.
Also nominated: South Carolina Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings (“You basically need an interpreter”).
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. The arch conservative who has been looking for a steady TV gig since being culled from “This Week” in 1999 (George Will is considered more popular with the public and the Bush White House) is “more windup than pitch” and tends to leave his best sound bites on the bookers’ pre-interview notepads and in the green room.
Also nominated: Sens. Hatch (“Deniability” may explain the tendency to tone things down on air; “He travels in circles but eventually crashlands”) and Louisiana Democratic Sen. John Breaux (“Pretty good in the green room”).
Jesse Jackson. See references above and hear sigh of relief accompanying this pronouncement.
Also nominated: Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, whose populist bellow is seldom heard outside his home state, where the press corps is his favorite punching bag.