What a difference one midterm reversal of political fortunes in Congress can make.
For the first time in the six years that TelevisionWeek has compiled a list of the best and worst of the political, elected and government figures who are the meat and potatoes of the Sunday political-interview programs, the Democrats are in the drivers’ seats in Congress, the White House shows signs of having become a lame-duck bunker and the 2008 presidential campaign started the morning after the 2006 elections and shows no signs of becoming more manageable any time soon.
These changes and more are reflected in the results of this year’s survey. It comes with the annual explanation that it is a very earnest but equally unscientific poll of those who book, produce and moderate the Sunday newsmaker shows—so called because those same people each Monday morning tote up the number of headlines about and mentions of what the
shows’ guests did or didn’t say on Sunday. And anonymity is granted in return for honesty and deep dish.
Most of the names on the list this year are familiar—unless one counts the “third-tier” presidential candidates who get no kind words from any of the political junkies in newsmaker-show circles, where NBC’s “Meet the Press With Tim Russert” is the perennial No. 1 program. ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” has turned the corner in its campaign to slip past CBS’s “Face the Nation With Bob Schieffer” into second place. Rounding out the field are “Fox News Sunday,” moderated by Chris Wallace, and CNN’s “Late Edition” with Wolf Blitzer.
However, political stars rise with practice or accessibility and fall with familiarity or a reluctance to engage in the democratic give-and-take in the newsmaker studios. Thus Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, once well-regarded as a Bush spokesperson, is now dismissed as “the queen of talking points” for an administration whose unpopular war in Iraq sometimes seems like the least of its problems. Sen. John McCain is no longer overexposed for the right reasons. The newness has worn off Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has a lower profile in this survey than he has had in the past. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., on the other hand, still ranks high on the list of high-maintenance and seldom-available guests.
Most frustrating for those whose mandate is to book the best and most powerful guests to talk about the hottest topics each Sunday: That task is getting increasingly difficult when a top-line representative from the White House is needed.
Said one newsmaker show veteran, who knows that no matter how unpopular or leery of political interview shows a president may be, the president is always considered the “biggest get. He still holds the keys. I would want to ask him, What is Plan B [for Iraq]? What do we do now? I think he still clings to the belief that there is a way out of this. But the bottom has fallen out of this administration. It seems like everything they touch just goes to hell. They couldn’t have very good morale. He’s in denial. I think they’ve just closed the bunker.”
The most popular member of the Bush administration, ironically, is Fox News pundit-turned-White House spokesman Tony Snow.
“He doesn’t make any bones about the fact that he’s not there to serve the press. He’s there to represent the White House. He conducts briefings in the most civil way. When he doesn’t have the answer, he doesn’t have an answer,” said the newsmaker veteran. “The way he has handled his cancer has made people admire him.”