Candy Crowley, veteran CNN reporter, takes on competitive Sunday morning slot

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; C01

There's no secret about what works on cable news these days.

Flashy graphics and raised voices burst through the screen to jostle into our agitated, unfocused, Twitterized minds.

Anchors are loud, beautiful and opinionated. They are celebrities, meticulously drawn on-air characters who may or may not bear a resemblance to their off-camera selves. Anderson the Great. Glenn of Conspiracyvilles. Rachel, Puckish and Left.

They can present news, sure, but they're really here to provoke. Viewers should be fired up as much as informed. Guests will be either aggrandized or antagonized, based on party alignment and time slot. No segment can run more than a few quippy minutes, and everyone's blood pressure must rise.

And as the host of its Sunday morning talk show, a marquee program in a hyper-competitive hour, CNN picked Candy Crowley -- who embodies absolutely none of that formula.

She is 61 and not gorgeous. She trades on layered, nuanced conversations expressly devoid of personal bias. Her dusty voice never lifts above a lecturer's tone, and if she walked into any given beyond-the-Beltway restaurant, she might not be asked for an autograph. This is a woman who has been a vegetarian for 15 years and kneels to meditate twice a day, every day. In an era of unrelenting interruptions, she's a self-deprecating anchor who hates to interrupt.

Crowley is beloved inside the halls of CNN and roundly respected in official Washington, a veteran political reporter who works hard and knows her stuff. Friends and colleagues describe her as brilliant and hilarious. But as the host of "State of the Union," she's a gamble.

It's not just that the network's executives are betting she can do the job; they're taking long odds we'll sit still long enough to watch. And if early ratings are any indicator, we might not.

'She reads everything'

Candy Crowley has been in our living rooms for more than a quarter-century now, first as an NBC reporter and since 1987 as a CNN correspondent. Until this year, she was relegated to the supporting cast, a perennial smart lady some well-lit anchor would conjure via satellite to explain Washington. She'd talk, he'd nod. Then the cameras would turn away; he'd move on to a hurricane watch or pop-star update, and she'd blink back to political Neverland.

There was no reason to ponder whether or not she really lived there -- which, in fact, she did. It wasn't for us to count the dozen-plus presidential campaigns she covered, the hundreds of congressional news conferences, or innumerable scandals and stump speeches. If we'd stopped to think about it, we might have guessed that she was never just a newsreader like some of the others, but we didn't stop to think about it.

"She's like the CliffsNotes for all the other reporters," says Alexandra Pelosi, who covered two presidential races alongside Crowley. "They talk about those things that nobody reads -- nobody reads bills. But Candy does. She reads all of that stuff. She reads everything. On the bus, everyone would just go to her and ask her, 'Candy, so what's this bill about?' "

Still, Crowley wasn't a star, and for decades no one seemed much interested in elevating her into one. So she is startled to find herself at the helm of a Sunday talk show, peaking in her career during her seventh decade of life.

A year ago, she wouldn't have dared to wish for it. "Or even thought of it," she adds. "People always used to say to me, 'Don't you want your own show? That'd be so cool if you had your own show.' I said, 'You know, it's not gonna happen. So -- no.' "

Mind you, this is the woman who hung a sign above her desk -- in lettering usually reserved for homespun sayings like "Home Is Where the Heart Is" -- that reads: "The Only Difference Between This Place and the Titanic Is That the Titanic Had a Band."

Optimism is not her forte.

When media blogs lit up with speculation that the "State of the Union" job would be Crowley's after John King announced he was leaving the show to take over a prime-time slot in January, what she wondered was: "Who makes this [expletive] up?" If people asked, she'd point out that there was a moment when Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed destined to become Barack Obama's running mate. " 'And then we found out they didn't even vet her! I just want to remind you of that,' " she remembers saying.

Plan A

In the past couple of years, Crowley had been more seriously considering an exit strategy than an anchor desk. "It's get on the bus, get off the bus. Get on the plane, get off the plane. Get in the hotel room, get out. Eventually, I was like, 'I don't want to do this anymore,' " she says. "I thought, 'What do I do after this?' "

But she should've known not to over-think it. That's the one piece of advice she always offers young people: "Don't plan too hard, because something much better might be out there."

Crowley didn't plot out any of what her career has become. Which is not to say that she didn't have a plan. She did: As she graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in 1970, "I was wildly in love with this guy," she says. "I thought I would marry him, move to California, have five kids, iron his shirts and write the Great American Novel."

She recalls those dreams from a stool in the recently remodeled kitchen of her Bethesda rambler. The house is a showcase of family antiques, Asian art and memorabilia collected along her journeys with the press pool. Crowley, in chunky rings and a linen jacket, sits facing away from a lushly landscaped back yard, where two young men are doing maintenance on her lap pool. She was up before dawn for a 7 a.m. newscast but is still ebullient at noon.

As her friends are quick to gush, the newswoman is enormously likable -- warm, chatty and without pretension. She laughs heartily at her own jokes, throwing her head back and slapping the counter. In every situation she seems to lead with her humor -- a sharp wit that produces, as CNN President Jon Klein puts it, "some of the funniest e-mail chains you'd ever want to get hooked into."

When things went sour with the college boyfriend, Crowley, the daughter of a St. Louis furniture salesman and a homemaker, moved to Washington with a friend. Neither could "figure out what we could do with a bachelor of arts degree," but eventually Crowley was hired to help put out a newsletter at a chemicals trade association.

She also began freelancing for the National Education Association magazine, and at 22 she married a TV producer. He mentioned an opening with the channel's sister radio station and, thinking that journalism "would be fun," Crowley signed on to work a split shift producing traffic and crime reports during morning and evening drive times.

After a stint with another station, Crowley was hired by AP Radio Network as a general assignment reporter. But within a few years she became a mother to two young boys, and when her husband got a job in Iowa, she became a stay-at-home mom for six years. "I'm not sure you always appreciate those times when you're in them, but I look back and say to everybody, 'Take it off -- your career will find you. Trust me, when you go back, it'll find you.' "

By the time her youngest started kindergarten, they'd returned to Washington, and AP rehired her. The radio network eventually assigned Crowley to cover the White House, where she caught the attention of NBC executives.

President Ronald Reagan was preparing to deploy warships and had just finished a speech on America's stature as a peaceful nation when Crowley asked him, "How does a show of force show that we're against force?" The next day she got a call asking if she'd ever thought about doing television.

"I actually hadn't. I envied the TV people, but mostly because they didn't have to carry a lot of crap," she says. "Everything I carried weighed a thousand pounds."

One screen test later, she was hired. But when the station went through cutbacks 2 1/2 years later, Crowley was on the chopping block. By then, she and her husband had divorced, and she remembers being "terrified because I didn't know what I was gonna do next. I needed the money."

She latched on as a steady freelancer for CNN, and within two years was made full-time. Amid the rush of a 24-hour news station, Crowley's work stood out for its thoughtfulness and eloquence.

"She has a very logical mind, so when she's covering a story or an issue, she's able to cut through all this stuff and get to what's at the core of it," says Molly Boyle, a friend and former colleague. "And then, because she's such an incredible writer, she's able to take that and explain it to you in a way that not only makes sense, but is beautiful to hear."

In the early 1990s, Crowley began covering Capitol Hill, "a puzzle palace of politics," and after five years she was promoted to a national political correspondent.

There were long days, cross-country assignments and two boys she was raising largely alone because their father had moved out of state. For years, she would feel like she was going to throw up every day around 3 p.m., "because that's when they come home from school and call you." She'd pray that no late-breaking assignment land in her lap, keeping her from dinner, homework and hanging out.

Of course the boys, Webster and Jonathan, now 31 and 30 and a neurosurgeon and rock musician, respectively, remember little of that. They remember that takeout dinners were just fine and that their mom made it to every football game, once insisting that CNN provide a car to chauffeur her to the stadium on a layover between campaign events. She refused to be away from her sons for longer than five days at a stretch, but when the youngest left for college, Crowley realized she could take the "Mom, I need money" calls from any hotel room in America.

She was on the campaign trail for months at a time after that, covering Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, John Kerry and Obama. Along the way, she made fans out of competitors and sources.

"I think everyone enjoyed her. She has that great laugh and is just a lot of fun," says Karen Hughes, former political adviser to George W. Bush. "And some of the interviews I've done with her are some of the best interviews that I can remember doing. She's probing and difficult and tough . . . but there's not the air of confrontation that you get from some interviewers."

But by the end of 2008, after almost 18 months on the road, Crowley was exhausted. Campaign life doesn't lend itself to healthy living or serenity. She promised herself she'd spend all of 2009 dedicated to making changes: working out with a trainer, eating more nutritiously. "I just wanted to be a better person. I wanted to feel better," she says. "And if at the end of the year I just hated it, then I'd go do whatever I want."

A doctor friend suggested she also take up meditation, so for four mornings she trained with a Transcendental Meditation teacher in Rockville. The practice stuck and she continues to sit for 20 minutes every morning and every night. "It's a hard thing to describe, but I find that my thought is clearer," she says. "I still get mad. I still get upset. But I let it go more quickly."

She began thinking about what would come next -- "which I thought might be out." She wondered if it was time to attempt that Great American Novel.

'A disarming approach'

When "State of the Union" came open in January, Crowley felt sure she didn't have a real shot, but a friend convinced her that "if you don't ask them for it, they're never going to know you want it."

And just as Crowley returned from a trip to New Zealand with her boys, Jon Klein called her to his office to offer her the job.

Crowley's thick Rolodex and deep political knowledge made her a contender, Klein says, but it was a Christmas Day interview with Janet Napolitano that cinched the deal. When an al-Qaeda operative boarded a Detroit-bound plane with explosives in his underwear, Crowley carried the live coverage, landing an interview with the Homeland Security secretary, who declared that "the system worked." It became a catchphrase for criticism of the Obama administration.

"I think Candy's got a disarming approach," Klein says. "She's never looking to snooker anybody. She's just talking to you. And I think that because she is so real in the conversations, the people she's interviewing become very real, too, and that led directly to the news that was made that day."

After the "State of the Union" announcement was made, a cheer went up in the CNN newsroom, and Crowley was deluged with notes congratulating her on being the first woman to anchor a Sunday morning public affairs show since Cokie Roberts co-hosted "This Week" with Sam Donaldson. Now Christiane Amanpour joins Crowley, hosting the ABC News program.

It has taken a while for Crowley to adapt to the rhythms of a live weekly show -- setting her alarm for 3 a.m. every Sunday and learning to tactfully interrupt politicians, rather than abbreviate their soliloquies in the cutting room, as she'd done for decades.

CNN hired veteran producer Tom Bettag to remake the show for Crowley, softening the set and cameras angles to create the impression of intimacy. Bettag, who worked extensively with Ted Koppel and Dan Rather, places Crowley "in the same class as those two people."

"What she brings is a real humanity," he says. "She's got that mix of, 'You would absolutely believe her and go to her in a crisis, but you would also enjoy having dinner with her.' "

But there is still a question of whether we're willing to spend an hour with our attention fixed on the kind of substantive discussions she conducts -- even if they're with big-name guests such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell, who have all appeared on the show in recent months.

Robert Thompson, a communications professor at Syracuse University, thinks there could be a certain advantage in Crowley differentiating herself from the "adversarial and aggressive talk and opinion" we've come to expect from so much cable news. For a Sunday morning show targeted at political junkies, he says, viewers still "expect a more serious kind of presentation."

Since her debut in February, though, the program's ratings have dropped -- the July numbers were down 22 percent compared to the previous year. All of the Sunday morning talk shows have seen their viewerships decline, so a slow political news cycle may have contributed, but CNN's numbers slipped more than its competitors.

Klein says the network remains committed -- "we're convinced that there is an avid audience out there hungry for surprising insights expressed well," he wrote in an e-mail.

It will take months to reveal whether Crowley's show can find its footing and build a bigger audience.

But for this moment, at least, its anchor is having a ball.

"I sometimes look around that studio in the middle of commercials and think, 'Really?' " she says. "I can't quite believe I'm doing this, but it's a kick."

Every once in a while a Garth Brooks song -- the one about how some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers -- plays in Crowley's mind. There was no California and no five kids. But there was so much else, including this, a show in which she finally plays the lead.

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