NBC snagged author Teddy White for election analysis in August 1979. BBC Radio got Soviet expert Helmut Sonnenfeldt last spring. Not too long after, so did French Television Channel 1. This was a coup over French Television Channel 2, which wanted Sonnenfeldt but wound up with former New York mayor John Lindsay.
"I don't really know what happened," said one director crisply from French Television Channel 2 yesterday. "But we might," she added, referring to Sonnenfeldt, "get someone who's much more important." Very crisp here.
Tonight's election newscasters -- from the networks to the Europeans to Fuji Telecasting -- have rounded up long lists of guest commentators who are supported to add authority and useful analysis to the election coverage. But a commentator, particularly a talkative one, also helps fill hours of air time in a marathon Election Night that could creep well into the morning.
So everybody wants one. Only problem is, there don't seem to be enough to go around. Competition for sought-after commentators is stiff, and the others don't like to work or leave Election-Night parties. Plenty of them prefer to stay home. Like columnist Art Buchwald, who turned down some cable stations as well as public television in New York.
"I think I'll stay in bed," he explained.
Which means the commentator hunt has to start early. The networks do, going after the big stars with big money. ABC has lined up columnists Tom Wicker and George Will as well as Robert MacNeil of the "MacNeil-Lehrer Report." CBS has analysts Bill Moyers and James Kilpatrick. NBC has White, who has worked for all three networks but came to NBC this year because, he said, "you answer the first guy who asks you."
Then, too, there's the glamor of being at the seeming center of the electronic political world.
"There's no place to cover an election from these days," added White. "If you're with the candidate, all you do is watch television. But if you're at the NBC election headquarters, you can know more than any one person. So in return for being privy to their secrets -- I'll be glad to comment for them." He gets paid, too. A lot.
The lure of minor-league broadcasters isn't quite so delicious. Fuji Telecasting Co., although broadcasting to millions, doesn't broadcast to Americans or even neighbors who can watch you and tell you the next day how terrific you looked. Fuji doesn't pay anything, either.
Still, former undersecretary of state George Ball agreed to appear there several weeks ago. David Rockefeller and Akira Irie, a historian from the University of Chicago, were the other choices. Nobody at Fuji will say if Ball was choice number one, two or three.
"Canada AM," which is more or less that country's version of "The Today Show," started its commentator hunt about three weeks ago. "Grabbing right and left," is how story editor Jeff Keene put it. "We had George Will, but he had to cancel. We would have liked Art Buchwald . . . or Jeff Greenfield, but he's going to be in New York."
So here's who they wound up with in the last few pre-election mornings: Columnist Joe Kraft, Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, Hugh Sidey of Time, Frank Mankiewicz of National Public Radio.
NPR had to do some fast phone-calling itself, netting political consultant Bob Squier to do Election-Night commentatary with regular John Sears, late of Reagan campaign. The morning after, NPR producer Frank Fitzmaurice promises live phone interviews from Ben Hooks of the NAACP, Eleanor Smeal of NOW, New York City Mayor Ed Koch, feminist Gloria Steinem and former UN ambassador Andrew Young.
"We really haven't had that much trouble," said Fitzmaurice. "Because it's radio, we're able to get people on the phone between appointments. And then, we're across the street from CBS, so we can steal their guests."