Memo To: Website browsers and fans
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Top Twenty Political Journalists -- October update
These are the 20 political journalists, columnists or commentators who I personally got the most out of during recent weeks of the presidential campaign. There is a mixture here of print reporters and television personalities of one kind or another. The common strand that connects them is the quality of questions they ask of political personalities or political situations. Because there are so many sources of political news these days, via ink or electronics, we especially appreciate those few who either dig beyond conventional inquiry or present insights that only can come with age and experience. Remember what I said in September: This list can change at any time.
1. Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times, CNN: In a class by himself. The best political reporter of our time. His Saturday CNN show, with his old partner Rowlie Evans, produces great interviews week-after-week, with superior questions that elicit the most from their subjects. They drew out Sen. Sam Nunn on Clinton’s blunders in Iraq, 9/14; egged Newt Gingrich into being defensive about GOP rumbles that he should announce his retirement for the good of the Party, 9/21; produced a great interview with Syria’s Hafez al-Assad on the general mess in the Middle East, 9/28. They got Jack Kemp on 10/12 to acknowledge he lost his debate with Albert Gore on debating points, and got RNC Chairman Haley Barbour, 10/19, to take a swipe at Kemp for not being the ticket’s pit bull. Novak’s 10/3 column was the best of the season in reporting the failure of the Dole media team to exploit the GOP’s advantage on economic growth and taxes.
2. R.W. Apple, Jr., The New York Times: David Broder of The Washington Post is the dean of the Washington press corps and usually does good stuff in presidential election years. He’s been stale this year, completely outshone by Johnny Apple, who has been churning out one superb piece after another. His news analysis on how Clinton didn’t have a leg to stand on in his bombing of Iraq was awesome -- and framed practically all the Iraq reporting that followed. A Sunday piece on Dole’s 15% tax cut not getting off the ground was also on the money, Apple saying Dole would do better if he promised to rip out the current system “root and branch.”
3. Jim Lehrer, PBS "NewsHour:" Lehrer is a national treasure, as we were reminded when he was selected to moderate the presidential debates this year. His interviews are immensely satisfying because he has so much background on most topics, from decades of practice, that he will sometimes be able to pleasantly ask the same question three or four times until we can see his subject finally have to tell us with body language that he or she has been pinned to the wall. We learn to watch for the slightest arching of an eyebrow when it is obvious Lehrer believes his subject ain’t telling the truth. Such was the case with his interview of Defense Secretary William Perry, who told us that Clinton had to bomb Iraq in order to prevent Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait again, which was palpable nonsense. His first question to Bob Dole in the first debate, inviting him to comment on the President’s character, cut to the chase, and will be remembered as a highlight of the debate when the answer to it is long forgotten. The single best interview of Bob Dole in 1996 may have been Lehrer’s on April 17.
4. Michael Kelly, The New Yorker: Kelly has only been on our scope for the last five or six years, at the NYTimes and now TNY, but he clearly has a brilliant future in political journalism. Like Maureen Dowd, he produces vivid pictures of his subjects and has the rare talent of allowing his material and story to take him where it wants to go -- where most of his contemporaries work from a preconceived theme. He is generous to his political subjects too, which is nice to see. In the 9/30 issue, he follows the veep candidates around on the campaign trail and we enjoy them as much as he does. He has had by far the best profiles of Newt Gingrich in the past two years, the most recent, 10/7, “Newt’s Rage -- Should Bob Dole Listen to It?” almost scary in his accurate identification of Gingrich’s pathological hatred of the President. At this campaign’s end, he leaves to become editor of The New Republic.
5. Cokie Roberts, ABC "This Week with David Brinkley:" ABC officialdom is debating how to proceed after the semi-retirement of Brinkley, the grand old man of electronic political journalism. The big boys should forget the idea of having Coke co-host this program with Sam Donaldson. It should be Cokie’s alone. She is easily the brightest light on the distaff side of political journalism, the dominant intellect on this Sunday show. Cokie has been evolving by inches, but suddenly this year she has broken out of the predictable “woman’s viewpoint” in competition with the predictable Sam Donaldson and George Will, the repositories of the Beltway’s male conventional wisdom, left and right. Somehow, in early middle age, Cokie has taken to thinking through many issues with an independent streak of common sense. The unpredictability keeps the boys on their toes and gives the show the sparkle that has been fading with Brinkley’s graceful decline. On the 10/20 show, she chose the word “perfidious” to describe those Republicans who have been bailing out on Bob Dole with several weeks left in the campaign. She looked straight at George Will, the leader of the pack, who seemed to shrink into his suit.
6. John McLaughlin, NBC "McLaughlin Group:" The show isn’t as informative as it was when it first got started, when Robert Novak participated, but McLaughlin himself is a more balanced journalist than most of those trained to the profession. He is superb at forcing his panel of reporters to rub up against his questions to produce informative sparks. Trained as a Jesuit, he follows a line of logic, and can’t be budged from it even if he departs from the Beltway conventional wisdom. Two years ago he was the rare fellow who ridiculed the racist tract, The Bell Curve by Charles Murray. After the Iraqi bombing, he expressed shock that his regular panelists showed no interest in following the rule of law, happy enough to use our might for “an obviously good cause.” His predictions are often the most audacious, as when he threw out the line, 10/20, that come next April, the Pope will be saying mass in Havana.
7. Tony Snow, Fox "Sunday Morning," Detroit News: A former speechwriter for George Bush and the editorial page editor of the Washington Times, Snow’s tv personality is extremely easy to take -- a hard thing at 9 a.m. Sunday when he is refereeing political combatants. He is effective because he seems genuinely interested in all points of view, treating with dignity people who nobody is supposed to respect. His interview with Don Rumsfeld, Dole campaign chair, on 9/15 was surgically perfect, dragging material out of a cautious Rumsfeld that made him look good. He gave his entire hour to Kemp on 10/20, which Kemp needs to expand on his ideas. When Snow pointed out that Louis Farrakhan was now saying neither party is worthy of the support of the black community, Kemp came back saying this was a sign of progress, as Farrakhan two weeks earlier had said the Democrats were the lesser of two evils. Snow is kind of a young David Brinkley, whose easy way assures all his guests that he thinks they are good people, whatever they think about politics and policy.
8. Tim Russert, NBC "Meet the Press:" A liberal Democrat who came out of the Cuomo administration in New York, Russert could easily have gotten trapped in the conventional I-feel-your-pain liberal mindset that has devoured Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel. Instead, he has somehow found the classic "Meet the Press" formula of the late Lawrence Spivak. He comes well prepared with questions that test his guests prepared pablum to the limits, whatever their political flavor. If they can handle his quite reasonable hurdles, his guests look awfully good.
9. Brian Lamb, C-SPAN: Another national treasure. Lamb gets more out of his guests than any other interviewer in the business, with the possible exception of David Frost, whom we see all too rarely. The thought of having to get through a national political campaign without Lamb’s buffet of C-SPAN programming is too awful to contemplate. Instead of trying to corner a guest with a surprise question, Lamb asks him to discuss those areas he is most comfortable talking about. His interviews never make news, but we often learn more about our political leaders and opinion makers than we do with the bang-bang network grillings.
10. Mark Shields, PBS, Washington Post: A Boston Irish pol turned columnist and tv commentator, on CNN’s "Capital Gang" and the PBS "NewsHour," Shields is not much help when his Democratic team is far behind, but he always knows why it is winning. In the last several weeks, he has been swabbing the decks in head-to-head commentaries with Paul Gigot, his counterpart on the "NewsHour." This has a lot to do with experience, Shields having been around through several presidential cycles.
11. Maureen Dowd, The New York Times: Maureen is the best political photographer in the print media. She takes word snapshots of the political scene with not a trace of partisanship. The candid camera does not lie, and when she is at her best her column becomes the talk of the town. Her picture of Bob Dole found him a cross between George Bush and Boris Karloff. In a marvelous column on Clinton, “Honey, I Shrunk the President,” she accurately sizes up his teeny-weenie, itsy-bitsy plans for his second term. One in three of her columns is either over- or under-exposed, but that is to be expected. Over a track of time, she is essential.
12. Jack Germond, "McLaughlin Group," Baltimore Sun: Germond, the portly, grizzled horseplayer who began his political reporting in the Eisenhower years, is always at his best in years divisible by four. He knows that most of what passes as political intelligence is baloney, and he is always available to provide a reality check. His liberal bias is more a bias against politicians who cast stones, having sinned themselves. Having seen it all, he can detect the honest pol in the crowd. Generally a Clinton defender against the holier-than-thou, he still could say on a recent show that Bob Dole is so well liked by his peers that if there were a secret ballot in the Senate, he would win by 75-to-25 versus Clinton.
13. Mary McGrory, The Washington Post: Mother McGrory has always been worth a look, back to her marathon bouts with Richard Nixon. In most presidential seasons, she has been fairly predictable, following the official Democratic line. This year she rebelled, with a series of withering blasts at these new Clinton Democrats, who are unlike those she has loved in the past. She hated the bathos of the Democratic Convention, 9/1, in which one broken body after another was hauled up for viewing: “The real symbol of this empty exercise was the sodden Kleenex. This convention is one of the best reasons yet advanced for putting [the Democrats] out of their misery.” On 9/3, she rips the Democrats for doing a bigger balloon drop than the GOP, a metaphor for her gnawing suspicion that to gain power, her Democrats are becoming Republicans, leaving Dole and Kemp no choice but to seek the votes of the unwashed masses. Her 10/20 column on Clinton’s defeat of Dole in the second debate showed her further torture: “At every stop, Clinton reels off his accomplishments in office. But, obviously, his greatest coup as a candidate has been to con the country -- and Dole -- into thinking that just about any criticism of Clinton’s presidential performance is dirty pool.”
14. Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times: The Foreign Affairs columnist for the Times, Friedman is the best-connected journalist in the nation to the power establishment that ultimately determines the nation’s foreign policy. Several years as the Tel Aviv bureau chief for the NYT provided the foundation for his superb continuing analytical work in all parts of the world. He seemed to have learned better than most that “good” and “evil” are elusive labels in figuring out the interplay of forces between nation states. His recent columns on Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East peace process have been extraordinary in their wisdom. In foreign economic policy, alas, he allows a few old Keynesian hacks in Washington and New York do all his thinking for him. His column 9/25 on why Clinton deserves credit for bailing out Mexico is hackneyed.
15. Ronald Brownstein, Los Angeles Times: Brownstein also shines in presidential years, having developed useful reporting and writing techniques in his years as political correspondent for the National Journal, which attempts to be scrupulously non-partisan and usually succeeds. He has a better feel for what makes Republicans tick than the average scribe born in the other party, which gives his dispatches and talk show appearances a crispness we appreciate. He also keeps a loftier vantage point in observing the coalitions that make up the two-party structure of American politics, which gives him an edge there. Brownstein was the first to report on the Kemp “flip-flops” on the California immigration and civil rights initiatives, realizing how deeply these shifts would affect Kemp’s effectiveness on the ticket.
16. James K. Glassman, The Washington Post, CNN "Sunday Capital Gang:" Glassman’s perpetual cheerfulness is most unusual for a veteran of the Washington press corps. It may be that he has traveled over most Beltway perspectives, liberal and conservative, and realizes that most pols aren’t as bad as they say about each other. Unusual for a political commentator, he has also taken the trouble to learn the ins and outs of the financial markets, has become an unapologetic supporter of supply-side economics, and is not afraid to take on the juggernaut of the Jewish political establishment, as he is Jewish himself. His summer column blasting liberal Democrats for giving $1 million in tax dollars to Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust Museum was a rare treat. In the face of Bob Dole’s difficulties in the polls, Glassman still makes the case that come November 5, Dole and Kemp will win.
17. Howard Fineman, Newsweek, CNN "Sunday Capital Gang: "The magazine’s chief political correspondent seems to have enough clout to have his dispatches survive the homogenization process that renders useless so much of the newsweekly output for political junkies. Fineman was well ahead of the pack in 1995 in taking Steve Forbes’s candidacy seriously. He also knows better than to count chickens before they hatch, which keeps him on his toes in looking for flaws and openings in one political campaign or another. He is still too much the wiseguy in his talk show appearances, but as he gets older, he has been getting better. His 10/14 dispatch, “Is it Over?” captured the lethargy of the first debate, Dole making his points “fitfully,” and “Clinton more or less mailed in his own performance, answering Dole’s debating points dutifully, and with only rare hints of passion.” Then, crisply: “The nation has no great love for Clinton, but has yet to see any compelling reason to replace him with Dole.”
18. James M. Perry, The Wall Street Journal: Perry was the chief political correspondent for the old Dow Jones National Observer when I joined the paper in 1965. Always considered one of the finest wordsmiths in the field of political scribblers, Perry now writes with a freshness and vitality that has overtaken the cynicism we saw in his work several years back. His 9/17 report from the field on the New Jersey Senate race between Democratic Rep. Bob Torricelli and Republican Rep. Dick Zimmer was vintage Perry. His report Monday, 9/23 on the GOP independent funding of Senate candidates covered ground we would get from few others. While Republicans despaired of Dole’s chances, Perry reached back for a story of “Great Comebacks of Past,” 10/18: “Surges require...a deep, underlying sense of unease that finally crystallizes and produces a surprising upset at the end.” A reporter who gives up on a race like this one stops asking questions.
19. Paul Gigot, PBS "NewsHour," Wall Street Journal: Gigot plays the mildly partisan Republican to Mark Shields, the liberal Democrat, on the "NewsHour." Like Shields, his analysis is at its best when the GOP is in a dominant position, and he falters when his troops do. His Friday column in the Journal is a must read for all serious political people, and we can be sure Bill and Hillary check it out first thing. In the period since Newt Gingrich really began falling apart, Gigot’s work has been faltering too, not quite ringing true most weeks. On 9/20, for example, he mostly blamed the voters for Clinton’s strength in the polls. But his raw talent and the power positions he occupies keep him close to the action.
20 . Bob Schieffer, CBS "Face the Nation:" Limited to a half-hour slot on Sunday against competition that offers an hour each, Shieffer hangs in there with indefatigable earnestness in his interviews. It’s an important show, but Schieffer is not quite as evocative as Tim Russert or Tony Snow, easier to take than Sam Donaldson and George Will. In the New York, Washington markets, he goes head-to-head with NBC and ABC at 10:30 a.m., when at 10 he would only run up against CNN’s "Evans&Novak," which is a repeat of their Saturday afternoon show. The only time I will ever tune in to CBS news is for Schieffer, which is why it would be nice to have him unimpeded.