Do you hold political views that reliably identify you as a Republican or a Democrat?
Are you willing to interrupt your busy day or early evening at the drop of a hat to accept a limousine ride to a television studio?
Do you enjoy having makeup spackled onto your face with a trowel?
Then, do I have a job for you in this holiday season!
It doesn’t require independent thinking. In fact, independent thinkers need not apply. And it doesn’t necessarily pay money. But it will give you the opportunity to bore millions of Americans (well, maybe a couple hundred thousand) with your party’s current orthodoxy.
Right now the speed-dialing fingers of the bookers at The Situation Room, Scarborough Country, The Big Story (with albino werewolf John Gibson), Hannity & Colmes, Anderson Cooper 360°, Fox Special Report With Brit Hume, CNN Live Sunday, The O’Reilly Factor, CNN Daybreak, and other shows are in need of fresh faces to field the political questions unearthed by the day’s news.
You say that you’re a nobody? That you can’t imagine the bright lights of TV news talk ever wanting to shine on little ol’ you? Buck up! The demand for TV pundits outstrips supply. And you’re no less well-known than David Gilliard, Jenny Backus, Kirsten Powers, Terry Holt, Tara Setmayer, Julian Epstein, Steve Murphy, Robert Zimmerman, Rick Davis, Mary Anne Marsh, Brad Blakeman, Genevieve Wood, Steve McMahon, Michael Brown, Bill Pascrell, Jamal Simmons, Charles Hargrave, Jim McCarthy, Doug Hattaway, Todd Webster, Jack Burkman, or Flavia Colgan, all of whom have appeared on cable TV in the last six months billed as either Republican or Democratic “strategists,” usually paired off against their ideological opposite.
The holiday season is your best time to break into the racket because few of the big strategists—Paul Begala, Ed Rollins, Ed Rogers, Donna Brazile, Joe Trippi, Bob Beckel, James Carville, Bay Buchanan—are willing to take the Town Car trip over the holidays. They’re on the Eastern Shore or in Vail, especially the ones who receive pay for their barking, such as Begala. * Many of the hosts and bookers like to vacation, too, so you’ll likely be dealing with caretakers. They don’t care how the show turns out because few folks in TVland are watching anyway.
What do you have to do to qualify for the title of strategist? Nothing! Like journalists, political strategists aren’t credentialed. If you can get somebody to call you a Democratic strategist, you are one! Just make sure not to take offense if you happen to be a Republican.
Actually, there’s a little more to it than that. It helps to have served in Congress or worked on a campaign or a congressional staff; to have done PR or consultancy work for a candidate or office holder; or to possess flowing blond hair. If you’ve written a partisan book or are employed by a political magazine, you’re off to a good start. Good-looking is preferable to ugly. Younger to older, unless you can do that agonized-Clark-Clifford-wise-man thing. Also, feel free to pad your résumé. This gig marries politics to TV, so nobody expects you to be honest.
Another way to get your foot in the door is to introduce yourself to somebody who already appears on the shows. Tell them to recommend you the next time The Big Story calls and they can’t do it. If the booker is desperate—and they usually are—they’ll accept any warm body.
The toughest part of the job is developing the ability to reduce everything in the news to the party’s latest talking points. Make sure to get yourself on your party’s e-mail lists or otherwise learn the correct line. The booker will test your skills at assembling a one-sentence, easily digested sound-bite in the pre-interview. Treat the pre-interview as an audition for a part in a continuing TV drama, because it is. “Clinton was worse on this than Bush” or its opposite is a perfectly acceptable answer to almost any question. Don’t try expressing an original thought on TV or otherwise upstaging the host, or he’ll never invite you back. Remember, it’s his show and you’re just the replaceable talent.
And no matter what you do, don’t answer pre-interview questions with the preface, “It’s very complicated.” TV isn’t the place for complicated discussions of politics. Save your learned dissertation for that 500-word newspaper op-ed you’re hoping to place in USA Today.
“We’ve got to break here, thank you very much for joining us, Jack Shafer.” Yeah, right. E-mail me at email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)