By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
Everybody wants some of Marshall Wittmann's wisdom. People keep calling, asking him to explain the mysteries of Washington.
USA Today wants to know the state of Dick Cheney's status. The Albany Times Union wants to know if the administration is getting serious about the deficit. The Washington Post wants to know if Republicans are happy that Democrats are calling for withdrawal from Iraq.
"His overall image as the graybeard and wise man of this administration is gone," Wittmann tells USA Today.
"Republicans are as serious about fiscal responsibility as Paris Hilton is about modesty," he tells the Times Union.
"For Republicans, this is manna from Heaven," he tells The Post.
Wittmann, 52, is a pundit, a Washington sage. As they say in the news biz, he gives good quote. It's a rare talent and it makes him very popular with reporters but not so popular with other quotemeisters, who see his name everywhere and experience a form of angst that is unique to Washington -- "quote envy." Which happens to be a term coined by Marshall Wittmann.
"The fact that he coined the phrase 'quote envy' shows why he gives people quote envy -- they could never come up with that phrase," says Kate O'Beirne, Washington editor of the National Review and a pretty fair quotemeister herself.
She's right. Wittmann is a quote machine, a sound-bite jukebox. The American Journalism Review ranked him right up there with the legendary Norm Ornstein, Tom Mann and Larry Sabato -- guys who would be in the Quotemeister Hall of Fame if there were such a place, and maybe there should be.
But Wittmann isn't like those guys. They all have PhDs in political science. They're academics and professional analysts -- Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute, Mann at the Brookings Institution, Sabato at the University of Virginia. But Wittmann is an activist. He came up the hard way. He's been a Trotskyite, a union organizer, a lobbyist, a government bureaucrat, a think tank cogitator, an aide to Sen. John McCain and -- despite the fact that he's Jewish -- the official spokesman for the Christian Coalition.
Which raises a perplexing question: Why the hell would anybody listen to the political thoughts of a guy knuckleheaded enough to get mixed up in movements formed by both Leon Trotsky and Pat Robertson?A Wittmann Sampler
It's a long story and Wittmann doesn't mind telling it at length, complete with comic digressions. He likes to talk and one of his favorite subjects is Marshall Wittmann.
"To psychoanalyze myself," he says, grinning, "clearly I have an extra contrarian gene."
He's sitting in his office at the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist Democratic group that is the latest of his myriad employers. There are no pictures on the walls, but the bookshelf holds a plush toy of Wittmann's favorite dead politician, Teddy Roosevelt, wearing a campaign button for Wittmann's favorite live politician, John McCain.
"I was very precocious," he says. "I got involved in politics at a very early age -- when I was 10."
That was back in Waco, Tex., where his father was a shopkeeper and his mother a homemaker. Before he got out of grade school, he was stuffing envelopes for the campaigns of Texas Democratic heroes Ralph Yarborough and Lyndon Johnson. In high school in 1968, Wittmann worked for antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, then drifted into radical politics.
"I fell in with a group of Trotskyites -- the Sparticist League," he says, smiling. "We were the revolutionary Marxist caucus of the Worker-Student Alliance."
Waco was not a hotbed of radicalism, so Wittmann had to travel to Austin to attend antiwar demonstrations. He didn't have a license, so his dad would drive him the 200 miles round trip.
After graduating from high school in 1971, he went to New York University, where he joined a leftist Jewish group called the Radical Zionist Alliance. In 1973, he transferred to the University of Michigan, where he volunteered for the United Farm Workers union, picketing stores that sold non-union lettuce. In 1975, after earning a degree in elementary education, he worked for the Farm Workers full time.
"The job paid $5 a week, plus room and board," he says.
That lasted a year, then he returned to Ann Arbor, working as a messenger in the university hospital, where he was a union shop steward during a three-week strike.
In 1980, he moved to Washington with his wife, Karen, a clinical psychologist, and began working as a lobbyist for the National Treasury Employees Union. In 1984, he became a lobbyist for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
Meanwhile, the aging lefty was becoming a neoconservative. "I believed that liberalism had become too weak on foreign policy," he says, "and I felt the welfare system had to be reformed."
In 1986, he switched his registration and began working in two Maryland Republican campaigns -- Linda Chavez for the Senate and Connie Morella for Congress.
On Sept. 11, 1986 -- the day after Morella won the Republican primary -- Wittmann was quoted in The Washington Post: "We couldn't have a better candidate," he said.
It wasn't much of a quote, really. Nobody who read it would have guessed that it was the first of thousands of quotes in the career of a future Hall of Famer. But who remembers Nolan Ryan's first strikeout or Michael Jordan's first basket?The Pithy Pinnacle
In 1988, Marshall Wittmann founded "Jews for George" and sure enough George H.W. Bush was elected president.
In 1989, Wittmann was rewarded with a job as deputy assistant secretary of Health and Human Services. The ex-Trotskyite neocon was now a government official, learning valuable lessons on how to survive in the bureaucracy.
"The key is to always walk with a piece of paper in your hand," he says, "and always walk fast, even if you're just going to the bathroom. Walk fast, carry a piece of paper and look harried. And when people ask what you're doing, say, ' Arrrgh! I've got so much going on! I'm over whelmed !' That way, people won't ask you to do things."
His job was to serve as liaison between HHS and social conservatives who were lobbying the department to tighten restrictions on abortion. Perhaps by osmosis, Wittmann had become antiabortion himself, and he found the job "worthwhile and interesting."
But Bush lost in 1992 and Wittmann was out of a job. By then, he had a young son and his wife was pregnant with their daughter. He was desperate to find work and when he heard that Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition was hiring, he thought, " Hmmm, a Jew goes to the Christian Coalition, that might be interesting."
He was savvy enough to figure that the Christian Coalition might want to hire a Jew just to show it wasn't bigoted. He wrote to Ralph Reed, the group's executive director, and asked for a job. Reed took him to lunch at Bullfeathers and hired him.
"I said, 'Great!' " Wittmann recalls. "And then I thought, 'Oh, God, now I have to tell my wife.' "
She wasn't thrilled. Neither were the other members of their liberal Jewish families.
"She never told people I worked for the Christian Coalition. She told them I was a political consultant," Wittmann says. "It became a big issue with the family. Nobody felt too comfortable with it."
But the job was fascinating and it put Wittmann in the middle of the Republican revolution that seized control of Congress in 1995. He also got to attend a lot of Christian church services.
"I kinda liked the speaking in tongues," he says. "I've always wanted to do that in a meeting some day."
In 1995, Wittmann was hired by the conservative Heritage Foundation, where his genius for quotemeistering burst into flower. He worked as one of Heritage's liaisons with Congress, and reporters started calling him for analysis of what was happening on the Hill.
"Most journalists don't live in a conservative milieu, so they needed a guide," Wittmann says. "So they'd come to me as . . . the Margaret Mead of conservatives."
"He has this knack," says Michael Franc, who was Wittmann's boss at Heritage. "He speaks in pictures, vivid pictures."
Franc remembers the exact moment that Wittmann achieved liftoff as a quotemeister. "Congress was melting down in some way and Marshall said, 'It's Bosnia without the peacekeepers,' and that was picked up everywhere. And he went on some nightly news show and after that, it fed on itself and reporters kept calling him."
That was in 1998, when Wittmann was mentioned 143 times in the news media, according to Nexis, the computer database, which is the Elias Sports Bureau of quotemeister stats. In 1999, his Nexis total shot up to 402. In 2000, it soared to 710.
Wittmann had hit the big time. But some folks at Heritage were not happy about that.
"There was some quote envy," he says. "Some people were jealous."
"I wouldn't describe it as quote envy," says Franc.
"There was definitely quote envy," says a former Heritage staffer who does not want to be shunned by former co-workers. "At a place like Heritage, people -- they're like senators, they wake up in the morning and they want to see their names in the paper. . . . They'd get quoted in the Wilkes-Barre whatever-it's-called and Marshall would be in the New York Times. He was in the big leagues and they were playing A-ball."
In 2000, Wittmann found himself in a political battle with his Heritage colleagues. They were all Republicans, of course, but Wittmann supported McCain for president and most of Heritage backed George W. Bush.
Things got ugly, he says, so he jumped ship, taking a job at the Hudson Institute, another conservative think tank.
Did Hudson hire him because of his quotemeistering ability?
"Absolutely," says Ken Weinstein, the Hudson Institute's CEO. "We hired Marshall because he's a brilliant analyst of politics and someone who knows how to frame, um, ah, lemme -- he's a brilliant analyst of politics, number one, and number two, he has an ability to frame his analysis in a pithy -- ah, ah, allow me -- he has an extraordinary ability to say bluntly, ah, ah, what others think but can't bring themselves to say."
Which shows why Hudson needed a good quotemeister.
It worked, too: Wittmann -- and his Hudson connection -- were cited an astonishing 861 times in the media in 2001, according to Nexis.
During one week that May -- when Sen. Jim Jeffords quit the Republican Party, turning control of the Senate over to Democrats -- Wittmann achieved a spectacular feat of quotemeistering. His wisdom appeared almost everywhere, from the Financial Times ("not only is the president's honeymoon over, he now has a divorce on his hands") to the Seattle Times ("the question becomes why and the answer is hubris") to the New York Times ("Democrats taking over the committees in the Senate is the equivalent of the Bolsheviks taking over from the czar").
In a three-day period, Wittmann was quoted in news outlets 46 times -- an amazing average of 15.333 quotes per day !!! If he were a ballplayer, fans would have suspected he was on steroids.'Slime and Defend'
And then he threw it all away.
Like Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax, Wittmann quit the game at the height of his powers.
In September 2002 -- a year when he was quoted 640 times, according to Nexis -- Wittmann quit quotemeistering to take a job as press secretary to McCain, a job that required that he no longer be quoted by name.
McCain is the only pol on Earth who could have unplugged the Wittmann quote machine. Wittmann is absolutely gaga over McCain. "My great belief is that John McCain is the living embodiment of Teddy Roosevelt," he says.
He also says this: "I would crawl over a field of broken glass for him."
McCain likes Wittmann, too, although he doesn't get quite so gooey about it: "I admire his talent and his skill and I enjoy his company very much."
When Wittmann started working for McCain, people joked that he'd go crazy if he wasn't quoted. But that didn't happen. Wittmann maintained his sanity by being quoted anonymously -- on background, as they say in the news biz -- with his comments attributed to a "Republican Senate staffer" or a "Republican aide"
"I love background," he says, smiling. "Background is hilarious. A lot of journalists liked to call me on background because then they could have a Republican staffer saying heterodox things."
At a time when most Republicans were staying resolutely on-message, reporters were eager to find party dissidents. Wittmann fit the bill. He was increasingly angry at what he saw as his party's "unlimited thirst for power." And he wasn't shy about saying that -- as long as it was attributed to "a Republican aide."
In the fall of 2003, Wittmann talked to a New York Times reporter about the White House's role in the Valerie Plame scandal: "It's slime and defend," he said.
The Times printed the quote, attributing it to "one Republican aide." The next day, Wittmann's phrase -- "slime and defend" -- became the headline of Paul Krugman's column in the Times. The day after that, Sen. John Kerry quoted the phrase while denouncing Bush.
"This is classic Washington," Wittmann says, smiling. "Now when I read the newspapers, I know how these things happen. I wish everybody could have this experience."
Wittmann says he doesn't know if McCain realized who the dissident "Republican aide" was.
McCain says he did. "I would pick up the paper and read a quote and I'd know it was Marshall," he says. "The quote had Marshall written all over it -- a certain sarcasm but no meanness to it." But, the senator adds: "We had a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy in the office. I didn't ask and he didn't tell."Vegetarians Next?
In the fall of 2004, Wittmann quit the Republican Party, changed his registration to Independent, endorsed Kerry for president and took a job at the Democratic Leadership Council.
"Marshall is one of the most effective critics of the Bush administration," says Bruce Reed, the DLC's president, who hired Wittmann. "We thought a guy with that mind should be on our side and not the other side. And he's an awful lot of fun to have around."
Ensconced at the DLC, Wittmann makes speeches, writes articles for the DLC's Blueprint magazine and lets off steam in his blog, http://www.bullmooseblog.com .
In this newest political incarnation, Wittmann is a pro-labor social conservative who supports the war in Iraq, while lambasting the Republicans as "an entrenched, corrupt establishment that is not guided by any sort of principles but rather just holding on to the perks of power by any means necessary."
Surprisingly, his old Republican comrades don't seem to hold any grudges.
"We're keeping a seat warm for him," says O'Beirne.
"Marshall reacts against the stifling orthodoxies he confronts, so he goes over to the other side," says William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "On the other side, he finds the same idiotic orthodoxies, so he reacts against that."
"His politics have changed, but he's never lost his sense of idealism," says McCain, who can't resist adding a gentle dig at his friend: "I expect him to be employed by the vegetarians next. The vegetarians and the libertarians are the only groups he hasn't worked for yet."
Meanwhile, reporters keep calling, looking for zippy quotes on the issues of the day. Unmuzzled in his new job, Wittmann's Nexis total for 2005 surged to 444.
And now a reporter calls to ask a nagging question about Wittmann's career as a quotemeister: Why would anybody want to hear the views of a guy foolish enough to get mixed up with both the Sparticist League and the Christian Coalition?
"It's because I have a unique insight," he says. "Very few people have been on the inside of both the left and the right. And I'm not a complete critic or a complete admirer of either side. I'm a blend of both."
Maybe he's right. After all, he keeps getting hired.
And his phone keeps ringing.