By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008
Minutes before he was to appear on "Hardball," Todd Harris was handed a wire report quoting John McCain as saying that eliminating America's dependence on foreign oil would spare the country from fighting another Middle East war.
It was early May and Harris, who had just finished a stint as the spokesman for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign, called the McCain team for guidance. "They hadn't released any statement yet," he says, "but they gave me the meat of what it was going to say."
When pressed by host Chris Matthews, Harris -- who worked for McCain eight years ago -- argued that the Republican candidate was merely suggesting that energy independence would boost national security at home. He was challenged by the other guest, Jennifer Palmieri, who had been an adviser to John Edwards's campaign.
They are among a growing band of operatives who have made the magical transformation from press aide to pundit in the blink of a news cycle. "You get very comfortable speaking on someone else's behalf and thinking like they do," says Harris, reached in a car the other day on the way to, yes, "Hardball." "It is fun deciding for yourself what you think."
Big-name strategists -- James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Robert Shrum, Dick Morris, Karl Rove -- have always been ushered into television studios after leaving the political game. So have recovering officeholders, such as former congressmen Joe Scarborough and Harold Ford, now MSNBC commentators, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who signed with Fox News.
But this season, many previously obscure spokesmen and second-string assistants are becoming A-list cable news guests, providing much of the patter for the 2008 race. It is as though a parade of .250 hitters and backup quarterbacks were joining the likes of Tim McCarver or John Madden in the broadcast booth.
The explosion of political chat shows has put a premium on people who can be identified on screen as a former Democratic or Republican "strategist." And although viewers have a right to be skeptical -- how candid can they be, really? -- the guests do bring an insider's viewpoint forged during life in the trenches.
"It serves as a political methadone of sorts," says Kevin Madden, the former spokesman for Mitt Romney's presidential effort. "You're engaged in 18-hour days working on a campaign, and afterward you have to wean yourself off that high."
Madden has been just about everywhere lately. He held forth on "Larry King Live" on Tuesday and the next night on "Hardball," followed by an appearance an hour later on the Dan Abrams show "Verdict," and a Friday spot on "The Situation Room."
"Overnight you go from being an advocate to an analyst," Madden says. "You're no longer out there hitting the three main points you want to leave viewers with about Governor Romney. The worst segments are when you're faced with a Democrat who hasn't worked in a campaign and is just looking to bark talking points into a camera. I'm not burdened to stick to the party line."
It doesn't hurt that Madden attracts comments about his matinee-idol looks. "I'm married and have two boys," he says. "My wife wants to make sure I mention that more often."
Mike Murphy, the veteran GOP message guru who worked for McCain in 2000, signed with NBC this month immediately after his talks about joining the senator's campaign collapsed. Murphy has been outspoken in saying the McCain operation has spent too much time on the attack, raising the question of whether he is using his new perch to take potshots.
"I don't think I'm Miss Congeniality with the campaign, but it's an awful campaign," Murphy says. "I'm not afraid to say it on television, because it's the truth. I was critical of the campaign before they decided I was poison."
Is the part-time Hollywood scriptwriter through with campaigns? "It's kind of like being a hired killer; I guess I can go back to it," he says.
Murphy, who will appear largely on "Today" and "Meet the Press," spent three hours last week on Scarborough's MSNBC program. "I love McCain," he said on the morning show. "But we're trying to play it straight. I'm an analyst now." He paused for effect: "I'm here for the money."
Several newly minted pundits face the loyalty question in commenting on politicians who previously employed them. "I feel a real obligation to do right by John McCain because I have a huge level of respect and admiration for him," Harris says. "But that doesn't mean I can't speak honestly about the ups and downs of his campaign."
The dilemma is very different for Howard Wolfson, the former Hillary Clinton spokesman, who spent 18 months battling Barack Obama before joining Fox News as a commentator. "It is difficult -- I'm not going to pretend otherwise," he says. "The outcome was disappointing and remains disappointing. It's odd, at least initially, speaking positively about Senator Obama. But I'm comfortable doing it."
The usually intense Wolfson feels he can finally lighten up. "When you represent Hillary Clinton, you know every word is going to be parsed to the nth degree," he says. "Now I don't have to be quite as careful."
None of them have given up their day jobs at public affairs firms with corporate clients. Murphy and Harris work for D.C. Navigators, Madden and Wolfson for Glover Park Group. Palmieri is at the Center for American Progress, which has a full-time TV booker to raise the group's profile.
Palmieri got little television time while working for Edwards, who was overshadowed by Obama and Clinton in the Democratic primary, but now finds herself in demand. "There are parts of it that are liberating -- being one of the people who sits on their butt in Washington and says what everyone's doing wrong," Palmieri says.
But she, too, worries about hurting the home team: "You're cognizant about not saying anything that's unhelpful to candidates on the left. You're certainly free to say whatever you like, but there are still consequences."
For some, the TV gig may just be a pit stop. What happens, for instance, if McCain taps Romney as his running mate and Madden is asked to return as a spokesman?
"That is a hypothetical I will not answer until the McCain campaign answers it," Madden says stiffly. He realizes he has reverted to robo-spokesman mode.
"I go right back into it very easily," he admits.Where the Elite Meet
In a survey of Washington movers and shakers, nearly half of Republicans and more than a third of Democrats say they don't watch the Sunday talk shows that are based here. A quarter of Democrats and a fifth of Republicans tune in every week.
The poll of 400 "opinion elites," for the PR firm Edelman, found newspapers the most important information source, read by more than seven in 10 respondents. Eighty-one percent of the Democrats and 68 percent of the Republicans say they take home delivery of The Washington Post. The disparity is proportionally wider for the New York Times (19 percent of Democrats, 8 percent of Republicans) and reversed for the Washington Times (21 percent of Republicans, 5 percent of Democrats).
The most popular radio station for Democrats: WAMU, the National Public Radio outlet. The top Republican choice is WMAL, home of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.