He moves across the lobby of Washington’s Metropolitan Club with the assurance of a man in his own environment. This is the habitat of party elders, Republican and Democratic. This is their comfort zone– safe, secure, orderly and predictable. This is where graybeards lunch, scheme and reminisce. It is as someone once called it: a hotbed of social rest.
Here on the well-worn Persian carpets, men and women of achievement in many fields, not the least politics, talk over unexceptional food, always with an eye for another grandee who deserves a wave across the dining room.
The man who just entered the lobby is a Republican through and through. He has done a lot for the party; has advised at the highest levels, since the Reagan presidency; and has been rewarded with a major ambassadorship. He will know a lot of people in the dining room on any day and even more will know him.
To dine at the Metropolitan Club is to step back to a time when eminent graybeards—yes, they were almost exclusively men and almost all lawyers–worked behind the scenes to help presidents and their parties. Names like Barbour, Clifford and Cutler come to mind.
Now lobbyists now whisper in influential ears, and the doyens of the Metropolitan Club are not in demand. Like the Georgetown dinner party, some things are now in the past.
There is no time for profound consideration, no time to weigh the data and no time to exercise institutional memory. Omar Khayyam’s moving finger writes very fast now; so to deal with new situations and crises, politicians fall back on old ideology. “Is it progressive?” ask Democrats. “What is the free-market solution?” ask Republicans.
Blame the warp-speed news cycle, and its overemphasis on politics over programs; the quick response over data and rumination. The relentless news machine wants speedy answers, everything in an instant.
A few blocks from the Metropolitan Club, the bloggers and twitterers in the White House press briefing room parse and comment upon the words of press secretary Robert Gibbs just as fast as he speaks. This is a de facto system where the trap is constantly sprung for the gaffe not the substance. If no gaffe is likely to occur, induce one.
Step forward Lynn Sweet of The Chicago Sun-Times with her race-heavy question about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. This happened at the end of the last presidential press conference, when the chosen reporter usually goes for something light or fun. Not Ms. Sweet.
A few seconds at the end of that press conference eclipsed President Barack Obama’s earnest but dull defense of his health care reform proposals; eclipsed the previous 55 minutes. Obama was in a place he did not want to be, and he would stay there for weeks. No time to ask some party elder how best to handle the situation.
If Democratic grandees are sidelined in the new news-driven politics, then Republican statesmen, like the man at the Metropolitan, have been sent into exile. They can write an occasional op-ed and argue at think-tank seminars. But for now, the party has been hijacked by its broadcast wing. Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin have become the censors of the party. They intimidate its elected officials and will brook nothing they hear from their own wise counselors.
This is the year of the political talk show. Never have so many had so much to say about so little. No wonder CNN snapped up Tony Snow, when he left his job as White House press secretary. David Gregory, the uncontested successor to ABC’s Sam Donaldson as press corps lightening rod, is missing from NBC’s booth at the White House. He is doing a talk show for MSNBC–just one more talk show host in long lineup that includes Bill O’Reilly, Hannity & Colmes, Keith Olbermann, Dan Abrahms, Wolf Blitzer, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs and Campbell Brown. Even C-SPAN does politics.
But if you do not get cable, do not worry. You can still get your fix of talking hosts on over-the-air broadcasting. Beginning on Friday night, there is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” It is the national anthem before the main event. The first-string players take the field on Sunday morning. On my dial the lineup is “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace,” “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press with Tim Russert” and “Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer.”
Two programs, “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation,” have been around since the days of radio. But all political broadcasting today owes much to a half-hour show that thundered to life 25 years ago. I speak of “The McLaughlin Group” and its extraordinary host, John McLaughlin.
McLaughlin invigorated the television talk show. He made the host a participant and encouraged contention, even shouting, among the guests.
It is hard now to remember how static the talk shows were. The host was a magisterial figure, who pretended he had no interest in the discussion. I was a panelist on “Meet The Press,” when Bill Monroe moderated it. There was a single guest who was interviewed by a panel of reporters. You could get in two questions, and that was it. It was a structure more satisfactory in concept than in practice. Once, when I was on the panel, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a guest. I knew Jackson well and while we were in makeup, he said, “I want you to take me to the mat, and ask me the hard questions.” Of course he knew, and I was to learn, that the format did not include hard questions.
McLaughlin’s show is now in some decline, overshadowed by the resources and sheer volume of the competition. It has moved to another channel in Washington; and its rating are falling, according to The Weekly Standard. The show is a little tired, and McLaughlin’s conservatism a little idiosyncratic.
I have to confess that McLaughlin has been important to my career. I started a television talk show called “White House Chronicle,” which airs on some PBS and many public access channels, mostly because I got tired of waiting on the short list to be a guest on “The McLaughlin Group.”
At a White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner, McLaughlin came over and told me how much he enjoyed my show. I told him how much he was responsible for it. This seemed to make him very happy.
Meanwhile, back on the dial, it is all politics, all the time. Or, more accurately, it is more people saying more about the tiniest perturbation in the week’s presidential campaign news. The question is whether the public interest in politics will continue after this extraordinary election year–and with it, the 24-7 political talk.