She has opinions, so many opinions, delivered straight into the hungry eye of the television camera.
Here is Heather Nauert talking about school shootings on PBS’s “To the Contrary.” And there she is yakking about politics on “Politically Incorrect.” And on Fox News Channel, she’s lambasting “the heinous tax system in this country.”
The presidential election, Elian Gonzalez, gun control, foreign policy --she weighs in on all of it. One night, the producers at Fox News asked her to pass judgment on the latest Dixie Chicks video. No problem!
Which makes you wonder: Who the heck is Heather Nauert? Why, other than looking like the younger sister of another Heather (Locklear), is she on TV at all? From what well of life-shaping experiences do our anointed dispensers of video wisdom draw their opinions?
Fox keeps telling its viewers that she’s a “GOP Consultant” or a “GOP Strategist,” which invests Nauert with just the right wonkiness and insider cachet. Except that she says she’s never worked for the Republican Party (”they need a label, I guess,” she says.) Other times she’s a “Fox News Contributor,” which means, rather circularly, that she appears on Fox News. Sometimes, she’s both GOP Consultant and Fox News Contributor.
Only 30, Nauert has run the alphabet gamut of TV punditry over the past few years: MSNBC, BBC, CNBC, PBS, ABC. She has a regular gig on the Fox News Channel, teleported via satellite to comment on an astonishing variety of political and public-policy issues. Sometimes--especially now, the political season--she’ll pop up three or four times a week. The Fox people think she’s going places, although it’s anybody’s guess where. One clue: Last year she read for a co-starring role in a movie opposite Robert De Niro (she didn’t get it). She’s got a William Morris agent, the same guy who represents Regis Philbin.
“I told her, ‘God made you beautiful. Now you’ve got to make yourself smart,’ “ says Tony Snow, the host of “Fox News Sunday,” who has coached Nauert in the pundit’s arts. “TV can be a blond wasteland. There are a lot of gorgeous people with only one thing to say who vanish from the scene.”
Nauert sees herself as filling a gap in the pundit firmament. “It’s more interesting to see a young person talking about issues than a big old fat white guy,” she says.
She adds, “If you’re young and you can’t back it up with smarts, then people are going to say, ‘Who cares what you have to say?’ . . . My belief is, honey, let me show you what I can do. Go for it, girl.”
Heather Nauert is the first to admit that her path to punditry wasn’t the usual one. She didn’t work her way up the journalistic rungs from “Sioux City to Cedar Rapids to Milwaukee,” as she puts it. Nor is she a former administration hack, or one of those gray, grandiloquent professors retailing sound bites buttressed by the ivied credentials of Harvard or Georgetown.
“From the time I was 16, I knew I wanted to do something on TV,” she says. “I’ve been lucky opportunities have presented themselves.”
The scion of a prominent Chicago area family, Nauert wasn’t even out of Arizona State University in 1992 when she landed her first regular TV gig in Washington. As a summer intern here (”I’d heard that so much of the action was on the East Coast”), she won a spot hosting a country music video program called “Young Country” on Channel 50. It was an education: Nauert (her nom de TV then was Heather Forrester) interviewed Willie Nelson and George Jones, and learned her way around a TV camera.
And it led . . . nowhere. Nauert stayed in Washington and finished school at Mount Vernon College, then went to work for a coalition of small businesses and insurance companies, including one owned by her father, Peter W. Nauert. She was a lobbyist and sometime talking head, selling the insurance industry’s line in the budding health care debate. It was her first introduction to politics and Capitol Hill. She liked it, but, she says, “I still knew I wanted to get back into TV.”
Her next chance came in 1995. Answering an open call, Nauert earned a spot on “Youngbloods,” a political talk show featuring dueling panels of twenty-something conservatives and liberals on National Empowerment TV, a local conservative cable network.
“I thought she was well rounded and could speak to a variety of issues passionately,” says Brian Jones, NET’s then-general manager and now communications director of the Republican National Convention. “She wasn’t so strident that she turned people away. A lot of people on TV are just yellers and screamers. She’s able to hold a conversation.”
And not exactly hard on the eyes? “Oh, yeah,” laughs Jones, “but you brought that up, not me.”
Nauert spent a year on “Youngbloods.” By day, she was working as the Washington communications and legislative director for her family’s company, Pioneer Financial Services, a job she held until the firm was sold in 1997 for $450 million.
In the meantime, she tried other avenues into TV. But except for a brief stint as a business news reporter for a U.S. Chamber of Commerce program in 1996, Nauert’s TV career had gone flat. By early 1998, she was doing consulting work for trade associations and corporations, still waiting for her big break.
Then it happened.
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal created full employment for pundits of all stripes, but in particular it gave wide visibility to a subset of young, female conservatives--Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Barbara Olson, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. And Heather Nauert. With cable networks filling the air with talk about sex and sexual harassment, the “pundettes,” as they came to be known, filled a market need: a telegenic group of women who were predictably anti-Clinton. And in their own way, they were breakthrough figures.
“There’s been a general prejudice in TV for a long time about women pundits,” observes Bonnie Erbe, host of “To the Contrary.” “Women have been seen as smart enough to cover the news, but there have been very few women . . . considered smart enough to formulate opinions about the news. . . . That’s not fair and it’s not right.”
The networks had a strong marketing rationale for putting attractive young pundits in the hot seat, too. News audiences tend to be older--usually 50 and up--and predominantly male. With so much competition among the all-news stations, the challenge is to lure younger viewers, a group highly prized by advertisers.
“When I first saw her, I thought Heather was our demographic, that she could bring in younger people,” says Bill Shine, executive producer of Fox News’s prime-time programs. “When you have [a pundit] who is young, and knows what they’re talking about, they exude more energy. Older women and men tend to . . . sit back and relax. If you’ve got a debate show, you want that energy.”
During the scandal, Nauert urged President Clinton to “tell the truth.” She criticized the prosecution of Linda Tripp in Maryland. She defended Kenneth Starr’s investigation.
In other words, a cautious, predictable line from a “GOP Strategist.” But that’s Nauert. Her TV utterances tend to be sober, conventional--and, by the mudslinging standards of talk TV, a little bland.
Asked by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly last month to make the case for George W. Bush’s presidency, for example, Nauert offered this: “The general philosophy that Governor Bush has is that America is great because of its people, because of America’s innovation, because of our generosity, because of our . . . entrepreneurial spirit. Al Gore believes that America is great simply because of the government. . . . I think what’s important is that we need a vision. A leader needs a vision. A leader needs to be able to appoint very qualified people to his or her Cabinet.”
“Who?” pressed O’Reilly.
Nauert stumbled, “There’s one gal. I forget her name. She’s an African American gal, and she’s involved . . .”
O’Reilly: “Condoleeza Rice.”
Nauert: “Exactly, and she does foreign policy. She is sharp. . . . And so I think with people like that and through having had the experience and knowing people through his father’s administration that he can help bring some of those people into his core group.”
In any case, Nauert made enough of a positive impression early in the Lewinsky affair that other producers noticed. TV begat more TV. Fox News offered her a contract. The following week, “Inside Edition” came calling, dangling a job as a Washington consultant and commentator. Then William Morris agent Jim Griffin spotted her and persuaded her to become his client.
“It was strange,” Nauert says now. “Here I was, this kid from the Midwest. I was thrilled, overwhelmed and really surprised.”
Griffin advised her to take the Fox gig. Fox liked her enough that it tried her out as a reporter on the Fox broadcast network last year. Despite limited experience as a journalist, Nauert produced two reports for “Fox Files,” the now-defunct prime-time magazine. The first was on wasteful government programs; the other was about “dumb” federal and state laws. To investigate a statute requiring employers to give U.S. citizens hiring priority, Nauert pretended to be a stripper answering a newspaper ad for “exotic foreign dancers.”
For now, Nauert knows she needs to fill out her resume for “the next step” in her career. “Coming to TV the way I did, I missed some things,” she says. “I want to do it the right way. I need a stronger foundation to stay in the business and build a career out of it.” She’s planning on keeping her Fox job, but this fall she’s moving to New York and enrolling in Columbia University’s graduate journalism school (she’s also getting married).
In the meantime, she can dream. Her ideal TV job, she says, would be “something combining politics and smart stuff. Something more fun. Something that could show you’re human, too. Reporters are so serious that I have a hard time connecting with them.”
Something maybe like, say, hosting the “Today” show?
Nauert is coy, but her smile suggests that would be just . . . beautiful.