I spent the weekend in New Hampshire visiting my son at summer camp. One of the pastimes in the boys’ cabin, I learned, was an ongoing competition to see who could be the first to commit the entire libretto of Hamilton to memory. Hearing them practice, over and over, gave me my own pastime on the long trip back to New York tonight.
So here, inspired by the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and rapped to the tune of “Alexander Hamilton,” is a little ditty to welcome us to convention week: “Hillary and Timothy.”
Take it away, company…
HILLARY AND TIMOTHY
How does a crooked, corrupt, corporate sellout, and a
Wellesleyan, dropped in the middle of the deep South
To Arkansas for marriage, power, and work as an attorney
Arrive at Philly after beating up on Bernie?
The globe-trotting SecState flew to Russia as a starter
Took a ‘reset button,’ but the work was much harder
Was emailing less smarter from a server in her parlor
Then, at sixty-seven, campaigning like Jimmy Carter
And every year while women were bustin’ through glass ceilings
The press told the lady to show us more of her feelings
Aides concocted recipes to make her more appealing
Clinton, Fox News cried, was only expert at concealing
The Scooby Van came, made a road trip to the plains
Won the nomination, had a running mate to name
I offered my advice: a smart guy, ready-but-not-too-vane
The fella she plucked for fame: a Virginian named Tim Kaine
I tweeted out my thoughts, I said, man, “ISIS is drooling.”
Pocahontas left at the altar, who’s this girl fooling?
Pence is more prepared, he’ll give them a Hoosier schooling, and
Come January, who’s gonna be ruling?
CLINTON AND KAINE: Hillary and Timothy Our names are Hillary and Timothy Seventy million votes we’ve gotta get State by state, state by state
When dad left D.C., my folks came to New York, debt-ridden
Mom won a senate seat, left pop in Chappaqua sittin’
She served the nation, he launched a foundation
Hill rose to power while Bill sought out donations
She acted like a freshman, knew her place, downplayed her fame
Huddled quietly with her aides up on Whitehaven Lane
Fought for first responders when the towers came down
They thought it was her time, at last, when two thousand eight came around
TRUMP: I thought there was nothin’ to the job But I was less astute The Apprentice was my chosen route Owned Miss America; looked great in a suit
Kept taxes to myself; daddy was a landlord
China’s always screwing us; it’s okay to waterboard
Wrote a book with someone else, don’t care to read more
When my net worth is questioned, I get pretty sore
Fred stayed in Queens, but I headed to Manhattan
In New York I could be a new man
In sixteen you can elect a woman State by state
In sixteen you can elect a woman State by state
In sixteen you can elect a woman
CLINTON AND KAINE:
State by state
Hillary and Timothy Hillary and Timothy
You’ve waited years for your turn to come Waited years for your turn to come
You’ve done every job now
And you’ve taken your own sweet time Taken your own sweet time
Oh, Hillary and Timothy Hillary and Timothy
There’s no time left to burn No time left to burn
You might have stayed on the fence Might have stayed on the fence
Fights with Sanders were too tense Fights with Sanders were too tense
Now it’s just you and Trump and Pence Now it’s just you and Trump and Pence
I’m on the escalator now State by state
See if you can spot me
Descending from the tower,
An orange-haired nominee State by state
Makin’ America Great Again
Takin’ on our enemies
CHARLES SCHUMER/AL FRANKEN We served with them
Me? I poll for them
AMY CHOZICK: Me? I report on them
BILL CLINTON/ANNIE HOLTON:
We? We married them
And me? I’m the damn fool who tweeted them
Seventy million votes they’ve gotta get,
State by state!
I’ve watched the revival of America’s favorite political stage show every four years since 1988. After twenty-eight years of podium performances, will Philadelphia become the venue for a fabled finale?
I’m gearing up, at age 50, to attend my eighth consecutive Democratic Convention. Once a kid packing his bags for Atlanta, this time I’ll have my own kids in tow for a short trip from New York to Philadelphia. They’ll see a spectacle, starting with opening gavel on July 25, like I saw in 1988.
A more celebrated convention dinosaur who betters my streak is 69-year old Bill Clinton, who I have watched — once in a cringe-worthy performance, but otherwise masterful — at each party gathering during my adult years. As Clinton takes his next turn at the podium, the words he chooses, and the manner in which he delivers them, may never be so fraught with promise, or peril. Will he upstage his wife? Can he dismantle her opponent?
Maybe he’ll do both.
The first time I saw Clinton at a convention was his worst. I was a twenty-three year old political neophyte in the nosebleed seats at the Omni in Atlanta on July 20, 1988. Somewhere below my vantage point, in the broadcast booth of NBC News, Tom Brokaw interjected during that night’s featured speakers’ remarks. “You’re listening to the lengthy nomination speech of Governor William Clinton of Arkansas,” Brokaw told viewers. “He’s now seriously in overtime. He’s only about halfway through his prepared text and he should have been done about five minutes ago because he was scheduled to go only twenty.”
In fact, Clinton was only allotted fifteen minutes to put Mike Dukakis’s name in nomination. In an extreme case study in damage control, Clinton made his way across the country from Georgia to Burbank, California to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson to make amends. When the governor was introduced on set and plopped down next to Carson, the host pulled out a jumbo hourglass from beneath his desk. The audience guffawed as the steady stream of sand served as a timekeeper for Clinton’s segment, a visual deterrent to filibuster. The stunt worked, for Carson and Clinton. Johnny, with good-natured humor, validated Bill before his huge national audience, and the show hit its planned commercial break.
Four years later in New York, in 1992, Clinton was himself the closing act. He took the stage right after Linda Bloodworth-Thomason debuted her gauzy bio-film, “The Man from Hope,” a gushing paean to small town values embraced by delegates in the hall and viewers at home. The evening ended as hopefully as it began, with Fleetwood-Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” offering a crescendo for the convention and an anthem for the eight years that followed.
By the time the confetti fell in Madison Square Garden, I had already left Manhattan, hitting the road to ready a West Virginia stop in the steel town of Weirton, a midway point on the triumphant nine-state Clinton-Gore bus tour — choreographed by Hollywood producer Mort Engelberg — that set a new standard for crowd-galvanizing convention encores.
There was method in our meandering: the stultifying early days of the party gathering bored the media. To keep their attention, we staged a big event each day en route, timed perfectly to broadcast live to the delegates. I found myself scrunched in the buffer right below Clinton’s podium during those rallies, cueing him whenever Chicago tuned in.
The only wart marring our production was the revelation, at trip’s end, that Clinton’s strategist, Dick Morris, had been outed for holing up at the Jefferson Hotel with a $200-per-hour prostitute named Sherry Rowlands. Morris tendered his resignation before he left the Windy City.
In the three conventions that followed — Los Angeles in 2000, Boston in 2004 and Denver in 2008 — Clinton returned to a supporting role, but never for a moment left the stage.
In L.A., where by then I was working for an internet startup covering the goings-on as a columnist, Al Gore sought to distance himself from his scandal-tinged boss. The vice president laid his family values on thick, slathering his then-wife, Tipper, with an extended open-mouthed smooch on national television, the kiss staged within feet of the live lenses.
For his part, on August 18, Clinton staged what had to be the most extended entrance in convention history as part of his White House swan song. Cameras tracked his deliberate, ninety-second march through the bowels of the Staples Center to a rapturous crowd waving placards reading “Thank You President Clinton.” Peter Jennings quipped that the walk had “a rather strange look about it,” but inside the arena, the unparalleled promenade sent the expectant delegates into a frenzy.
In Boston, my hometown, I watched the Democratic nominee, a decorated Vietnam veteran, attempt to unwrap himself from unwelcome branding applied by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” with an awkward opening line, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” Kerry’s fleeting moment in the sun, shared with North Carolina senator John Edwards, was eclipsed by two Democratic eras.
In Denver, Clinton adopted a new role for himself at conventions, as “Explainer-in-Chief.” The primary campaign between his wife and Obama, he joked on Wednesday night, “generated so much heat, it increased global warming.”
To cool things off, a grand outdoor stage set was erected at Invesco Field at Mile High, the home of the Broncos, for the nominee’s Thursday night acceptance speech. The idea was to pack the place with 84,000 people, a crowd exceeding even John F. Kennedy’s crowning moment at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960. But during the day, a photo of the columned proscenium, with design motifs borrowing from L.A., Soldier Field in Chicago, and the White House Rose Garden, moved on the Drudge Report, unleashing a chorus of ridicule from right wing media. Headlines mirrored that that of the Daily Mail, which proclaimed, “Obama God! Democrats build a temple for Barack.”
As the host of my SiriusXM’s radio show, “Polioptics: The Theater of Politics,” I flew to Charlotte for the 2012 convention and keep my streak alive. The threat of rain, and perhaps a display of stagecraft temperance, drove the Democrats to move President Obama’s speech from an outdoor setting at Bank of America Stadium to the cozier confines of Time Warner Cable Arena. There, the Explainer-in-Chief stole the show once more.
Clinton spoke for forty-five minutes, his voice hoarse from decades of overuse. But the delegates, a generation removed from those who clamored for him to wrap it up in 1988, still hung on every word. “We believe ‘we’re all in this together,’” he told them, “is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’” When it was over, the first man to join the speaker on stage was his onetime nemesis, Barack Obama, who enveloped Clinton in a warm embrace for the cameras — but no kiss, alas. The hug tied two Democratic dynasties together, its next chapter to be written later this month in Philadelphia.
The heir in line for the throne is Hillary Clinton, a pivotal player in each of the conventions I’ve witnessed leading up to Philadelphia, but not until now cast in the leading role. Her two top supporting actors — the husband she stood behind and the president she dutifully served, each bringing her sorrow and setback, but each supporting her with political opportunity, and both a bona fide convention superstar — must execute a delicate dance through rhetoric, body language and choreography to yield her the spotlight at last.
Hillary, vastly experienced in all facets of federal government, breaks the mold in more ways than gender. Her husband was forty-five at the 1992 convention. George W. Bush was fifty-four when Republicans nominated him in Philadelphia in 2000. Barack Obama was forty-seven when he ascended to his Greek temple in 2008.
But in this pattern-breaking spectacle of 2016, there is neither script nor precedent to follow from the conventions through Election Day. A commander of policy by study, and yet an introvert by nature, Hillary Clinton faces a similarly-aged but asymmetrical opponent. If preparation for the fall debates is the qualifying factor for victory, she will have the advantage. If the voters are swayed by the size and zeal of the crowds during autumn rallies, she could find herself on the losing end of the stick to Donald Trump. Unlike Dole, McCain or Romney, this year’s GOP nominee is man whose long-nurtured celebrity and genuine on-stage charisma has brought him farther than anyone, except maybe himself, thought possible.
A year of prologue is now history. Our ability to directly compare and contrast these two aspirants for the Oval Office begins in Cleveland and Philly. The last time that the delegates of major national parties met, one gathering was marked by unity, two men hugging it out after years of rivalry, the other was marked by Clint Eastwood debating with an empty chair. These stage shows matter. This year, oddly, they matter more than ever. I can’t wait to pack my bags.
Donald Trump has teased viewers that he will reveal his vice presidential nominee at the Republican Convention, which begins on July 18 in Cleveland. Coming from a reality show star who respects the viewership value of building suspense for live television broadcasts, this sure-fire recipe for ratings is faithful to his media-savvy brand. Traditionally, after all, there’s little to keep a viewer tuned into the gavel-to-gavel goings on when there’s now so much choice elsewhere on cable and the unknowns are all known.
But don’t set your DVRs just yet.
In fact, if history is any guide, Trump will announce his pick on July 11, exactly 6.75 days before the gavel comes down on Cleveland. Later in the month, Secretary Clinton, assuming she will be the nominee, will reveal her pick for vice president on July 17, exactly 7.8 days before the festivities begin in Philadelphia begin.
How are we so certain of the dates of which we speak?
The average VPOG for Republicans over this 28-year time horizon 6.75 days; for the Democrats, it’s 7.8 days. Granted, extenuating circumstances of Olympics scheduling tend to play havoc with the timing of domestic political events, and two outliers in 2004 and 2012 skew the numbers, but averages are averages.
So, you can take Donald Trump’s word, or be guided by the certainty of history, dammit! Let’s review the VPOG history during the Age of Optics, where the only precedent for Trump’s plan can be found at dawn:
Republicans: George H.W. Bush announced the selection of Dan Quayle on August 17, after the GOP Convention started in New Orleans on August 15. (VPOG = 0 days) Democrats: Mike Dukakis announced the selection of Lloyd Bentsen on July 12, six days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in Atlanta. (VPOG = 6 days)
Democrats: Bill Clinton announced the selection of Al Gore on July 9, five days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in New York. (VPOG = 5 days)
Republicans: Bob Dole announced the selection of Jack Kemp on August 10, two days prior to the start of the GOP Convention in San Diego. (VPOG = 2 days)
Republicans: George W. Bush announced the selection of Dick Cheney on July 25, six days prior to the start of the GOP Convention in Philadelphia. (VPOG = 6 days) Democrats: Al Gore announced the selection of Joe Lieberman on August 8, six days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. (VPOG = 6 days)
Democrats: John Kerry announced the selection of John Edwards on July 6, 20 days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in Boston. (VPOG = 20 days)
Republicans: John McCain announced the selection of Sarah Palin on August 29, three days prior to the start of the GOP Convention in Saint Paul. (VPOG = 3 days) Democrats: Barack Obama announced the selection of Joe Biden on August 23, two days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in Denver. (VPOG = 2 days)
Republicans: Mitt Romney announced the selection of Paul Ryan on August 11, 16days prior to the start of the GOP Convention in Philadelphia. (VPOG = 16 days)
With the certainty of Nate Silver, I can tell you to set your watches to these numbers, folks. Now that you know exactly when to expect the VP selections for Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, you can plan your VEEP viewing around it.
Those who gathered in the New York Public Library’s Trustees’ Room on May 5 took a with Fortune Editor-at-Large Shawn Tully and me through the past half century of political crises, campaign spectacles, and larger-than-life personas.
Only the first 37 minutes of the hour-long conversation were recorded, unfortunately. The session took place at the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Wachenheim Trustees Room, on Thursday, May 5, 6:30 p.m.
Fortune: “King has written one of the best political books this writer has ever encountered…worthy of John McPhee.”
Library Journal: “King presents one of the liveliest and funniest political books of recent years; it will keep political junkies and campaign professionals guffawing and learning. He has done for advance men and women what Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus did for print journalists almost a half-century ago.”
Kirkus Reviews: “An eye-opening trip behind the political scene demonstrating how showbiz helped money wreck our political landscape. If you enjoy the TV show Veep, you’ll enjoy this book.”
Well, I do enjoy Veep. More reviews should be coming in the weeks ahead, and I trust it will be okay to share an update or two.
In addition, a group of renowned operatives from both sides of the political fence, as well as writers of enormous accomplishment in journalism and entertainment, have weighed in with generous endorsements. They’re listed below in alphabetical order:
Don Baer, Mike Barnicle, Paul Begala, Jay Carney, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry, Mark McKinnon, Brad Meltzer, John Podhoretz, Karl Rove, George Stephanopoulos, Danny Strong, Nicolle Wallace, Beau Willimon
Many friends have asked, “How can I help you build awareness about the book?” There are several ways, all of which come with my enduring gratitude.
Purchase a book. Better yet, purchase a dozen for your friends and family, your book club, or that grad who’ll be working on the campaign this summer. I’ve been told not to be bashful about this request, which I make with some hesitation, but every advance purchase through Amazon,Barnes & Noble or your local bookseller counts as ‘first week sales’ for the various bestseller lists. If nothing else, I promise a good read.
Write a review. When you buy a book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you are free to write your thoughts and assign a rating to the book. These reviews, among peer readers, build momentum for the book through electronic word-of-mouth. I would be eternally grateful for any kind words that you can share about the stories and ideas in OFF SCRIPT.
Spread the word through social networks. The most powerful grass roots catalyst to launch the book will occur through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and similar sites. Please follow me on those sites (I’m @Polioptics on Twitter) and retweet, comment or share news that I post about OFF SCRIPT. More powerful still is if you can offer your own brief blurb, or link to one of the reviews or booksellers to help build awareness. I’ll be sure to “like” or “retweet” anything that references the book.
Help me see what I’ve missed. I’ve ticked through some ways that good-hearted souls can help grow a following for OFF SCRIPT, but I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve overlooked. Is there? If it will sell books, I’m glad to give a talk at a local bookstore or speak to a larger group if you have one. I’m open to any ideas you have about how to take this effort to the next level.
By far the most gratifying aspect of writing a book is the enjoyment people get from reading it. As OFF SCRIPT has advanced from first draft to proof pages to galleys to, now, the final proof pages, I have been honored to have a number of old friends and acquaintances look over the text and provide some commentary for prospective readers when the book goes on sale on April 26.
Presented below, in alphabetical order, is advance praise from Don Baer, Mike Barnicle, Paul Begala, Jay Carney, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry, Mark McKinnon, Brad Meltzer, John Podhoretz, Karl Rove, George Stephanopoulos, Danny Strong, Beau Willimon and Nicolle Wallace. I appreciate beyond words the time and effort that this extraordinarily gifted and creative group of creative people put in to reading the book and providing feedback for me to share.
Pre-order your copy today of OFF SCRIPT: Ad Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide.
* * *
“Josh King knows what he is talking about when it comes to political messages, because he was there, painting with ingenuity many of our most enduring images from the great canvasses of American politics and the U.S. Presidency. In Off Script, Josh gives us an unprecedented and a candid, fun look behind the scenes at the creative processes that have shaped the reputations of some of the most important political figures of our times.”
White House Chief Speechwriter, 1994-95,
and White House Communications Director, 1995-98
* * *
“In the middle of a campaign, right at its core, are the major-league concierges, the people who can pick the right route, find the perfect setting, the best optics and the spot where a candidate can flourish while the press can find its way to a semi-good place to eat and drink. It’s a full time, full focus job that comes complete with hilarity, heartache, worry, weariness and the constant realization that what you do or don’t do can mean a good or a bad day for the candidate. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Josh King opens a window on the world of the tireless advance men and women who make any campaign work.”
“Ever wonder what happens in a presidential campaign when the cameras are off, the doors are closed and no one’s looking? Find out in Off Script, a guide to the messy, ugly and sometimes poignant world of political stagecraft by one of the best practitioners in the business.”
White House Press Secretary
to President Barack Obama, 2011-2014
former Washington bureau chief, Time magazine
* * *
“Discreetly leading the way in every campaign are the advance men and women who literally set the stage. Josh King, a Jedi master of that profession, vividly brings the image makers out of the shadows in Off Script.”
“In Off Script, Josh King takes us on a guided tour of the theater of politics as we rarely see it: from the other side of the proscenium, all the way back stage, and even into the performer’s dressing rooms. For those seeking to decode the power of image in the age of optics in our politics, King’s book is a must-read.”
“Josh King captures a truth in politics–our candidates need stage management on a grand scale to be elected and re-elected. Many gifted advance people have ushered leaders into power, but more importantly many have driven them back into private life. But King’s real insight is that in critical moments it’s up to the candidates to perform on the political stage or simply know enough to not put on the funny hat. A great read for anyone who wonders how the political sausage is made.”
White House Press Secretary
to President Bill Clinton, 1998-2000
* * *
“Josh King is one of the most creative political visual artists of our time. He understands how image, picture, and content come together as one to communicate the messages that America sees and hears as it considers its national leaders. What could be more timely as we embark on a national election to pick our next president?”
White House Press Secretary
to President Bill Clinton, 1995-1998
* * *
“Presidential politics is theater at the highest level. Successful events are huge productions that require master stage craft. Josh King is the Wizard of Oz of presidential advance. In Off Script, King pulls back the curtain to reveal the stories and secrets behind the making and sometimes breaking of presidents.”
“Josh King has written a zippy, snazzy book about the inner workings of American politics and the thankless work performed by idealistic grunts who get no credit when things go well and all the blame when they go badly.”
“Advance men (and women) are the wildest characters in most political campaigns, in my experience generally a mix of well-organized and half-crazy. In a rollicking ride though the last nearly three decades of presidential campaigns, Josh King chronicles some of the low – and high – moments created by, inflicted upon, or suffered through by the political wizards of stagecraft and appearance, presidential campaign advance teams. Quite a read!”
“Josh King has been at the top of the campaign game for more than 20 years — and Off Script takes us behind the scenes to show what works, what doesn’t and why. A must read for anyone who works on — or just loves — the Presidential trail.”
Chief Anchor of ABC News,
co-host of Good Morning America
and host of This Week
“Off Script is the inside story of what really happened behind the scenes in the most infamous political campaigns in modern history. Josh King uses his unique perspective as a former campaign “advance” man and political observer to pull back the curtain and reveal the truth behind the spectacle. With the voice of a storyteller and the experience of a seasoned political operative, King deftly brings us along for the ride and shows us how and why these moments defined campaigns, toppled candidates and presidents alike, and forever changed the optics of presidential politics.”
“Josh King’s nuanced insights into the world of political optics and spin is a must read for anyone who is interested in what really goes on behind the polished veil. He’s been both in the campaign trenches and seen the political landscape from 35,000 feet. His perspective is fascinating, entertaining and informative.”
Creator, Executive Producer and Showrunner of House of Cards on Netflix
* * *
“Off Script is a deep dive into the juiciest and most fascinating aspects of modern day government and presidential politics. Perfectly written, there’s plenty of page turning drama for everyone from the White House history buff to the Hollywood screenwriter trying to get the smallest of details about White House stage craft exactly right. Josh nails it.”
Eighty-three days before OFF SCRIPT: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide hits the bookshelves, Kirkus Reviews has weighed in with the first review of the book. It’s a keeper!
Here’s part how Kirkus’s review:
Public relations executive King chronicles the rise and fall of what he calls “the Age of Optics, where playing to the camera and creating compelling imagery forces candidates far from their comfort zones.” As a former campaign advance man and director of production for presidential events at the White House, the author knows his material well, and he recounts it with irresistible detail culled from firsthand experience.
At long last, a few years worth of noodling over advance war stories and wresting over the right words to tell them has resulted in OFF-SCRIPT: An Advance Man’s Guide To White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle and Political Suicide, from St. Martin’s Press, due in bookstores on April 26.
For those of you who enjoyed the Polioptics podcast in the past, this book encapsulates the ideas, theories and images that we talked about every week of the show during our 159 episodes and which have shaped my political aesthetic since I joined Paul Simon’s presidential campaign just out of college in 1987.
OFF-SCRIPT picks up where I left off on my 2013 POLITICO Magazine long-form deep dive into Dukakis and the Tank, diving even deeper into the tank and giving similar treatment to the game-changing visuals of each campaign from 1992 through 2012, reserving the final section of the book for an optical analysis of the Obama years and the early months of the current campaign.
My hope is that it’s useful reading for campaign operatives, road warriors, reporters covering the political spectacle and those beyond the beltway amused or aghast by how the sausage is made.
Pre-order your copy now: http://www.amazon.com/Off-Script-Stagecraft-Spectacle-Political/dp/1137280069
This summer of 2014, officially ending today on my son Toby’s 10th birthday, created noise on every front in the Land of Polioptics. The final headline-making siren — after Hillary Clinton’s “dead broke” alarm, her squawk at President Obama for his “don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy and the much remarked “hug out” at Ann Jordan’s birthday party — came over the president’s August 20 golf game, the one following his resolute statement to get the bastards who killed James Foley. Maureen Dowd thought poorly of the move. Bill Burton told us to give the man a break.
The summer ends on Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, the latest triumph of America’s best storyteller since Ulysses Grant told his own. While Barack Obama seemed this summer to exhaust his appetite for the presidency six years in, Roosevelt by 1939 was yet to face, and ace, his greatest test.
With President Obama now making a pivotal turn toward a new national test of will in the Middle East, the juxtaposition of FDR taking on the Axis powers and BHO taking on ISIS (or ISIL, depending on who’s doing the talking) would have made for a series of memorable shows on Polioptics on how the theater of the presidency intersects with the theater of war. Perhaps I would have wrangled Mr. Burns himself into the studio to opine on the contrast. Alas, it is not to be. Polioptics is on hiatus, for how long I do not know. Permit me to explain why.
* * *
The summer was unusually quiet on the POTUS Channel, SiriusXM 124 where, since January 2011, Polioptics was a fixture five or six times each weekend (159 hour-long episodes in all, just under 1,000 hours in all of total programming). After a long summer for me, I’ll use this post to share with regular listeners why the show went dark, offer a few reflections on how it went dark, look back on the wonderful ride I had as its host and, finally, offer hope that it will someday return in readily-accessible format.
As regular listeners know, I worked in the White House from 1993 to 1997 as director of production for presidential events in the Clinton Administration. Before, during and after that job of a lifetime, I’ve made a continual study of how presidents use stagecraft to project their message in public. After I left the White House, I occasionally shared some of that perspective with readers, in the Washington Post, the late Brill’s Contentand Men’s Vogue and, most recently in POLITICO Magazine with “Dukakis and the Tank.”
With a busy day job, I can’t stay sufficiently abreast of the substance to comment smartly on it. But with 15 minutes of viewing the president addressing the nation from the Cross Hall of the Executive Mansion, my eye is well enough trained to see it as a classic moment of political theater, with the president as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers. Listen here to find out why. George W. Bush reemerged in the body of Barack Obama. Fair or not, Ford’s Western archetype always surfaces in times of conflict, whether the antagonists are the Comanche, the Nazis, the Cubans, the Russians, the North Koreans, al Qaeda or ISIL.
Writing and journalism is noble, all right, but tough to make pay. Over three and a half years on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel, that was never my goal. Storytelling was. I loved it, but it had to end. And yet, there is an offspring. One dividend of my Dukakis article, which was born from Polioptics, was that I got a new literary agent, Lauren Sharpe of Kuhn Projects, and sold a book idea to Palgrave Macmillan, which should be in stores early in 2016, just in time for the next election.
As I took stock of many things changing in my life at the beginning of summer 2014 – the commitment to write the book and the time needed to finish it; plus my primary duty to my day job in corporate communications; plus the overriding roles of husband and father to two young kids – it meant something had to give. I tried to keep Polioptics going every way that I could. In the end, SiriusXM pulled the plug. The story of how it got to that point makes for interesting reading for the show’s regular fans.
* * *
In the late spring and summer of 2009, as I was relocating from Hartford, Connecticut to New York City, I found myself with some extra time on my hands on weeknights as my family had not yet made the move to Manhattan. I embarked on a project to create a multi-media presentation on the history of political stagecraft and imagery that I thought, perhaps, could be of interest on college campuses.
I called the lecture “Polioptics: The Power of Presidential Image, from George Washington to Barack Obama.” The word “PoliOptics,” which I coined in scribbles on a legal pad during a long meeting in a conference room of the consulting firm I was working at, was a mash-up of “politics” and “optics,” the latter being the term used so often to critique Washington when it veers into theatrics.
Starting in the fall of that year, I began to give the talk on campuses up and down the East Coast. As the lecture took hold, I thought about sharing it with a wider audience. I converted the basic premise of the lecture to an extended, 25,000-word online essay, “The Story of Polioptics,” which I broke up into ten parts and published on a Website that I called, consistently enough, Poliptics.com. Part 1 of the 10-part series made its debut four years ago, on September 17, 2010.
The Story of Polioptics intersected American history and my own immersion in it, starting from boyhood growing up in Boston, surrounded by the stories, legends and, yes, images found everywhere in the birthplace of the American Revolution and the Kennedy Legacy.
Part 8 was The First 100 Days, And The Next 1000, a study of how the visual style of President Obama contrasted with his predecessors and how new technology, and the evolving news business, was changing the game even more.
Part 9 was Port of Spain, a deep dive into my own experience “coming out of retirement” to serve as the lead advance man for President Obama’s trip to Port of Spain, Trinidad, to participate in the 5th Summit of the Americas.
Part 10 was Homage to Image, a recognition that we in the White House office of communications, from administration to administration, often find ourselves in the propaganda business. While I cop to that, propaganda – consciously spread by and through the media – is fundamentally political theater and not always evil, despite its detour through Nazi Germany. Indeed, propaganda was used powerfully by the allies to win hearts and minds in World War II. Often, like war, it’s just politics by other means.
In all, the Story of Polioptics was intended to serve as a handbook of sorts for young advance men and advance women getting into the game, a more detailed version the advance manual that is often published by the campaigns of both nominees for the White House during the quadrennial cycle. One of the larger audiences for my lecture was at George Washington University, which brought together both young Democrats and Republicans to hear how the stagecraft sausage was made. That event attracted the interest of Adam Belmar, who held the same role in the White House under George W. Bush that I had under Clinton.
Adam and I shared many of the same views about, and reverence for, the institution of the presidency and employed many of the same tricks to promote it. We struck up a friendship, as folks from opposite sides of the political fence will do following their partisan service. In addition to his day job, Adam did some work on shows on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel and suggested, if we could, that we might bring our complementary perspectives to a weekend radio show.
I learned a huge amount about radio in those first few months. Adam was a patient partner, and he had a deep baritone voice that boomed out of the radio. He would host the show from SiriusXM’s studios in Washington, D.C. and I would be in the studio in New York City, but the ISDN line connecting our two locations made it seem to listeners that we were in the same room. We usually taped the show on Thursday afternoons. I would take the subway up from my office in Lower Manhattan and return to work 90 minutes later. On Fridays, our fantastic producer, Katherine Caperton, would clip out any of our blemishes from the taping session and knit the show together, as necessary, for its weekend airing.
White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton, right, with President Bush and Andy Card, his predecessor
It was a blast in the studio in those early days of the show. After a career spent setting up the microphones and producing the events, I enjoyed finally being the performer as well. Adam did a lot of the early booking, bringing GOP stalwarts like Ed Gillespie (Episode 6), White House leaders like Josh Bolton (Episode 28) and legends like Sam Donaldson (Episode 5) into the studio. I was absent on the show with Sam, which spanned a full hour of Adam conjuring the more memorable moments of his career.
My booking duties were daunting at first. I lived in New York City, for one thing, and most of our guests, we thought, would come from Washington. And I had been out of politics for a long time, having left the White House staff in late 1997. Many of my old relationships might have gone stale, and the people I once knew might no longer be interesting. It turns out I was wrong on both fronts. Most everyone appreciates a chance to be in front of a microphone, and anyone who can tell a good story is interesting on radio.
Even in those very early weeks and months, Polioptics had something special going for it. I’ve known Mike Allen of POLITICO, cordially if not well, for a long time. Early on in our Polioptics run, I emailed him about our show and he very kindly listed our guests every Saturday morning, right under the guest lineups for “Meet the Press,” “This Week” and “Face the Nation,” conferring a “Sunday show” status on our little broadcasts in the primary weekly listing, POLITICO Playbook, that Washington was reading. Within a few weeks, I would email our weekend lineup to Texas political consultant Matt Mackowiak, who assembled “The Shows” section for Mike, and Polioptics found itself in a rarefied league.
No wonder booking got easier. What started out seeming like drudgery, hunting down email addresses and phone numbers, turned fun. I renewed relationships with people I hadn’t talked to in a decade or more, and built new ones with the next generation of political professionals and journalists, along with their producers and publicists. After getting a commitment to be on our show, we’d pass the contact on to our producer, Katherine, who would firm up the times and secure our studios.
I’m a perfectionist, and producing the show with a quality that I wanted proved the toughest part. This was especially hard given that the show was, for me, a hobby. I couldn’t devote the time to it that I might have had broadcasting been my vocation. If my name was on the listing every week, however, I was determined that the hour of radio was going to be good. As the host of Polioptics, the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, part of doing the show was forcing myself to read the books, watch the documentaries and dissect the long form articles that we would be featuring on any given episode. Over the three and a half years I did the show, I read more terrific books than at any other time in my life. Respecting an author’s effort by reading their work in full (okay, mostly) became a hallmark of our hour, and the guests seemed to appreciate the 30 or 60 minute deep dive their host took them, and our listeners, on each week.
A beauty of radio – and my beef with television – is that the visual imperative and breakneck pace of TV dumbs everything down. This is not a new or original observation, but it is true. Hosts are too busy to read books and do the required research to ask good questions or have the available airtime to guide their guests on a journey. Broadcast outlets are too competitive and slave to “segments” between commercials to devote enough time to let a story be told in full. And the very nature of looking good on camera is a terrible distraction from focusing in on the subject and allowing it to flower over the airwaves or online.
Somewhere along the way, Adam helped me discover the singular element that gave Polioptics its unique voice, and ultimately made it a lot easier for me to host. On one of our early shows, he introduced an audio clip that helped to introduce a point. I can’t remember what show it was, but the guest jumped on the queue that the clip provided and made his or her point with accentuated passion. From then on, I tried to use between eight and 16 clips per show to punctuate our broadcasts. The extensive use of historic and illustrative audio clips – available by the million on YouTube – proved a boon for hosts, guests and audience of Polioptics, providing mile markers on a journey from Minute 01 to Minute 60 each week.
I liked what we were doing. I liked the way the show sounded. And I liked sharing it with friends. Guests, too, liked to be able to post the shows and distribute them through social media to help publicize their work. This, it turned out, ran contrary to SiriusXM’s business model.
Early on, SiriusXM offered to pay me $200 per show to, in effect, own it, and me. This arrangement would let the company control the Polioptics name and, importantly, keep it native to their satellite radio ecosystem, running only at its scheduled times and disappearing after the week it aired. Who can blame them? Providing content that listeners can’t get anywhere else is what makes them subscribe to the product in the first place. Eventually, SiriusXM would introduce an on-demand service, but I presumed that few in the POLITICO Playbook crowd – our loyal listeners – would be devoting much of their time for consumption of our product in that manner.
I resisted the money for a number of reasons. First, I didn’t want to create a conflict of interest with my day job, the commitment which I always put first. Second, let’s face it, the sums involved were small. Had I accepted the $200 per episode fee from the start, we’re talking about $31,000 in total. Third, importantly, I wanted creative control, the ability to book my own guests and explore my own ideas. And fourth, finally, I wanted anyone to be able to listen to the show at their leisure, on demand.
In the spring of 2012, Adam was presented with his own opportunity to “come out of retirement” and join Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in a role similar to the ones we had both performed at the White House, putting a unique visual stamp on the candidate’s events from coast-to-coast. Going back into an active partisan political campaign meant that Adam could no longer host the show on the POTUS Channel, which cast itself as a non-partisan news station. I was left to go it alone, if I wanted to. I was hesitant, but ultimately decided that I wanted to tell more stories, my way. But first we had to settle the long-simmering matter of how I could continue to post the show as a podcast after it aired on SiriusXM.
After the show was forced off the air for a few weeks in June 2012, the situation was resolved when SiriusXM and I agreed that they would “license” the show from me, and I would be free to do with it what I wanted. The trade-off was that I would be paid nothing for the content. SiriusXM would provide the studio and the production help, through Katherine, but in a barter arrangement I would do the booking, the research, and serve as talent. Not a dime changed hands. There’s something weird about a company that earns $4 billion a year in revenue extracting free labor from talent and broadcasting their intellectual property to 25 million fee-paying listeners without paying for it themselves, but I thought it was a acceptable deal.
* * *
Perhaps I should have been smarter about it, or walked away from the show when Adam went into the Romney campaign. I took a different view. I looked at the POTUS Channel like my kids look at a new playground erected at great cost in the middle of New York City. The kids don’t pay for the playground (taxes do, for which I pay my share), but they get to practice their gymnastics and explore to their heart’s content on the property. The POTUS Channel was my my playground, and I got to explore like never before.
A show that was originally about White House stagecraft became my weekly hearth around which to let fascinating guests cozy up to share their work and tell their stories. As I look back on the 159 episodes, I’m proud of the storytelling we enabled in just about all of them. While it’s difficult to organize all of them in a retrospective — and they remain logged in the right-hand column of the Polioptics Website in alphabetical order by the guest’s first name — they might be broken down in to seven categories. First are significant authors. Second are film makers, TV writers and broadcasting bosses. Third are journalism beat reporters and subject experts. Fourth are long-form magazine editors and writers. Fifth are the collectors, people who make a career out of curating an presenting political history though museum exhibits. Sixth are photojournalists, who occupy a unique place in the Polioptics pantheon. And sixth are public servants, political strategists & campaign operatives, many of whom I had the privilege of working, and becoming friends with at different stops in my career, and some who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time around microphones in our studio.
I had great fun with major authors as they embarked on their book tours. I have a passion for American history. When authors spend years studiously researching and writing about a different time and place, I was eager to share it with listeners. Some of my favorite shows in this category are:
A. Scott Berg (Ep. 120) Scott had just completed Wilson, a massive biography of the 28th President of the United States, and he and I recreated Wilson’s famous tour across the country to sell the American people on the idea of the League of Nations.
Allen Guelzo (Ep. 109) Allen is a professor at Gettysburg College and has an amazing storyteller’s voice. He had just completed Gettysburg, The Last Invasion and we recreated the battle through film clips from Turner’s “Gettysburg” and other films.
Bob Woodward (Ep. 72) There’s not a bigger name in publishing than Bob, and we talked about his unique exchange with Gene Sperling following the release of his latest controversial book, The Price of Politics.
Brad Meltzer (Ep. 135) I’ve known Brad, a best-selling author and TV series host, for a long time, and we got together to talk about teaching history to kids, especially through his new “Ordinary People Change the World” series that began with I am Abraham Lincoln and I am Amelia Earhart. Few people know that Brad worked in the White House with me in the early years of his career and that he was an architect of Americorps, but we got into that on this episode.
Brad Stone (Ep. 123) Brad is a journalist for Bloomberg Businessweek, and we got together to talk about how Amazon dominates the retail business as The Everything Store. Brad’s revealing portrait of Jeff Bezos was brought to life in the episode.
Chris Matthews (ep. 125) No one is more passionate about telling stories than Chris Matthews, and he and I spent a wonderful hour together talking about his old boss, Tip O’Neill and Tip’s relationship with Ronald Reagan in Tip and The Gipper. Chris was one of those shows where I could let him tell stories for most of the whole hour.
Craig Shirley (Ep. 74) Speaking of Reagan, no one has a deeper reservoir of knowledge about 0ur 40th president, and Craig and I dove deep into the Reagan legacy playing off his books Reagan’s Revolution and Rendezvous with Destiny.
David Maraniss (Ep. 62) I’ve loved reading David’s work since his biography of Vince Lombardi and his coverage of Bill Clinton during the Clinton Years, but in this episode, David and I focused on Barack Obama: The Story. David reads his Lombardi book, When Pride Still Mattered, on the audiobook, and I still listen to it from time to time to hear his reverence for his subject come out in his own voice.
Evan Thomas (Ep. 81) Evan was a prior guest on the show, talking about his eBook about the 2012 campaign, but I most enjoyed my talk with him about Dwight Eisenhower, brought to life in Evan’s book Ike’s Bluff. Eisenhower remains an under appreciated president, but hopefully not for long with Evan’s book in American libraries.
Geoff Dyer (ep. 154) Those who know me know how much I love naval history and the U.S. Navy. So when Geoff published Another Great Day At Sea, about his two weeks aboard the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, I had to have him on the show to recount his experience. Geoff’s experience echoed my own aboard the U.S.S. George Washington during the Clinton years.
Jeffrey Frank (Ep. 101) I had just returned from a business trip to Southern California, where I had a free afternoon that I spent at the Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, giving me a new found fascination with the 37th president. Jeffrey was just out with Ike & Dick, about the unique relationship between the WWII hero and his vice president, and we recreated that relationship with a series of obscure audio clips.
Jodi Kantor (Ep. 41) I first met Jodi covering the 2008 campaign for Men’s Vogue and was delighted to catch up with her after publication of The Obamas.
John Heilemann (Ep. 14) John’s been an occasional taker of my money at a regular poker game we attend in New York and I’ve always been a big fan of his writing, well beyond politics. But when he and Mark Halperin published Double Down: Game Change 2012, the sequel to their 2010 bestseller Game Change, we got together to break down all of the key characters and polioptic moments of 2012.
Mark Bowden (Ep. 76) Anyone who loves narrative non-fiction has a soft spot for one of the heroes of the genre, Bowden, the author of Blackhawk Down. I caught up with Mark after he published The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.
Mark Halperin (Ep. 23) I’ve known Mark since he was ABC’s traveling producer following Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and have tracked his amazing career ever since. Mark came on the show twice, once in its early days and again with the publication of Double Down.
Mark Leibovich (Ep. 111) I’ve known Leibo longer than I’ve known anyone, except my mom, dad and brother. He and I grew up a few doors down from each other in Waban, Massachusetts, and we’ve stayed close for the half century or so that followed. With This Town, and now with his column “Your Fellow Americans” in the New York Times Magazine, Mark is one of the biggest names in political journalism today and I am unabashedly proud of my friend.
Michael Beschloss (Ep. 83) If there was a Hall of Fame of presidential historians, Michael would be one of its original inductees. I was particularly taken by how Michael began using Twitter to bring presidential photography back into prominence through his account. He came on our show shortly after he started that effort.
Nancy Gibbs (Ep. 56) Nancy is now the editor of Time Magazine, but right before she took on that job she published The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.
Peter Baker (Ep. 127) Peter Baker covered the Clinton White House while I was there and he was always among the nicest members of the press corps. Peter recently published Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. Peter and I compared Bush’s very difficult 2005 with Obama’s equally difficult 2013, proving that the fifth year of a presidency is best to be avoided.
Richard Haass (Ep. 110) I’ve always enjoyed Richard’s thoughtful centrist commentary, but also respected his service to Republican presidents. We caught up after he published Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.
Richard Wolffe (Ep. 119) Richard was one of the first journalists to get inside Obama’s bubble in 2008, and he joined me in the studio to talk about how things changed, and didn’t, in 2012 with The Message: The Reselling of President Obama.
Robert Merry (Ep. 63) Robert is a prolific author, most recently of Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians
Sam Katz (Ep. 117) Sam used his experience and contacts to give us a harrowing account of Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi.
Stuart Connelly (Ep. 104) Stuart published an incredible account — Behind The Dream: The Making of The Speech That Transformed a Nation — of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s speech, which he shared with Polioptics’ frequent substitute host Matt Bennett.
Todd Purdum (Ep. 145) Todd has always been one of my favorite writers, going back to when he covered the Clinton White House for the New York Times. We had a lot of fun recreating the sights and sounds of another era after publication of his book An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Walter Stahr (Ep. 77) I was captivated by Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” partly for Daniel Day Lewis’s performance as the 16th president, but also for the picture it painted of the men and women around him, including William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869. Walter wrote Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, and we dived deep into one of the leading members of the Team of Rivals during the episode.
The Film Makers, TV Writers & Broadcasting Bosses
If I have no other commitments during an evening, I like nothing more than to pour a glass of bourbon and enjoy a great movie, dramatic television series or non-fiction documentary that mixes video, still photography, music and uncommon commentary. Some of my favorite shows in this category are:
Barak Goodman (Ep. 42) Barak and I got together after the premiere of his documentary film Clinton, for the PBS’s The American Experience series. The American Experience is a national treasure.
Barry Josephson (Ep. 148) Barry, one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, has been a friend of mine for a long time, and I was thrilled when he brought Turn, the story of America’s first spy ring, to AMC.
Beau Willimon (Ep. 103) There’s no one bigger in show-running at the moment than Beau, the creator and executive producer of Netflix’s House of Cards, but Beau got his start, like me, as an advance man, and was on the scene at the moment of “the Dean Scream” in 2004.
Brad Lichtenstein (Ep. 71) Brad and I talked about As Goes Janesville, the story of laid-off workers and leaders in a Wisconsin town once dependent on General Moters now trying to reinvent their lives amid the car-maker’s near-collapse and a civil war over unions.
Danny Strong (Ep. 116) Danny is one of the hottest writers in Hollywood, now working on The Hunger Games series, but he’s a natural for Polioptics as the pen behind Recount, Game Change and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. If I could have any career in show business, it would be one like Danny’s.
David Beaubaire (Ep. 75) David and I were both young colleagues in the White House in the 1990’s, but he’s gone on to great heights in Hollywood as the big studiovexecutive behind a litany of major studio hits including, most recently, Flight, with Denzel Washington.
David Zaslav and David Leavy (Ep. 98) Like my relationship with Beaubaire, Leavy and I go back to those early White House days. Now he works for Discovery chief David Zaslav, and both Davids joined me to talk about Discovery’s documentary All The President’s Men Revisited, continuing our endless fascination with Watergate.
Dawn Ostroff (Ep. 106) Dawn gave me one of my fist breaks in Hollywood, almost, when she green-lit my pilot “West Wing” in 1998 when she was an executive at Lifetime Television. While that show didn’t make it to series, it gave me one of the best professional experiences of my life. Dawn is now breaking into new ground as the president of Conde Nast Entertainment.
Eli Attie (Ep. 72) Eli was one of President Clinton’s speechwriters, but made the successful transition to screenwriter, joining Aaron Sorkin’s writers’ room on The West Wing. Eli then had a long run on House and is now immersed in a number of other projects.
Jerry Weintraub (Ep. 59) Jerry is a Hollywood legend, the producer behind the Oceans Eleven series, among others, but we got together to talk about his deep friendship with President George H.W. Bush and the HBO documentary 41 that Jerry produced.
John Skipper (Ep. 110) John is one of the most influential executives in sports as President, ESPN, Inc. and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks. We got together at the Aspen Ideas Festival to talk about the coverage of live sports today and how ESPN markets itself through its distinctive series of Sports Center commercials.
Josh Sapan (Ep. 128) Josh, the president and CEO of AMC Networks, is a renaissance man, author of The Big Picture: America in Panorama. He joined me in the studio to talk about the political underpinnings of AMC series such as The Walking Dead, Mad Men and Hell on Wheels.
Lynn Novick (Ep. 28) Lynn is the longtime producing partner of Ken Burns, and we talked after the debut of Prohibition on PBS.
Michael Kirk (Ep. 151) Michael created one of the most riveting documentaries in recent memory, United States of Secrets on PBS, about how the government come to spy on millions of Americans.
Mike Pesca (Ep. 149) I have got to know Mike, one of the foremost authorities on sports and culture, over the past few years, before he launched his great podcast, The Gist, on Slate. Mike joined me for a conversation about Donald Sterling and his comments that brought his ownership of the L.A. Clippers to an abrupt end.
Peter Schnall (Ep. 22) Peter has been behind many of the greatest documentaries on PBS and other outlets. In advance of the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, he debuted George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview, recounting the harrowing moments on Air Force One on that historic day.
R.J. Cutler (Ep. 92) R. J. was behind the iconic documentary The War Room, which chronicled the team at headquarters during Governor Bill Clinton’s rise to the presidency. We got together to talk about his film, The World According to Dick Cheney, a conversation with one of the world’s most controversial and powerful political figures.
Sebastian Junger (Ep. 47) Like Mark Bowden, Sebastian has been a writing hero of mine since I first read The Perfect Storm. Sebastian has been a fearless war correspondent, and brought back a heroic and heartbreaking story in Restrepo, his year with the men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
Stephen Ives (Ep. 134) Stephen, another of the elite top of American documentary filmmakers, joined me to talk about his 1964 for PBS, the story the year the Beatles came to America, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, and three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi.
Steve Fainaru (Ep. 122) Steve joined me to talk about his work for ESPN and his documentary for PBS, League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.
The Beat Experts
I have deep respect for the beat reporters, columnists, commentators, editors and producers of TV and cable networks, major newspapers and online outlets who know their subjects cold and deliver story after story that give us a new take on issues that attract broad interest. Some of my favorite shows in this category are:
Amy Chozick (Ep. 142) Amy has the fascinating beat of covering the potential early Democratic entrants to the 2016 presidential race for the New York Times, including Hillary Clinton.
Ann Compton (Ep. 25) Ann, one of my favorite correspondents in the White House Press Corps, just retired after covering every president since Gerald Ford. Ann famously persuaded Ari Fleischer and Andy Card to let her and her crew accompany President George W. Bush on Air Force One his unscheduled multi-stop day on September 11, 2001.
Antoine Sanfuentes (Ep. 38) Antoine was a constant presence on White House trips as an NBC producer during the Clinton years and then became the Washington Bureau Chief of NBC News after the passing of Tim Russert.
Ashley Parker (Ep. 134) Ashley has been a frequent guest since first following the Romney campaign for the New York Times during the early months of the 2012 campaign. We had a memorable conversation about her coverage of President Obama during his 2013-2014 Christmas vacation in Hawaii.
Ben Smith (Ep. 106) Ben is largely responsible for the transformative journalistic enterprise known as Buzzfeed.
Ben White (Ep. 121) Ben writes the must-read “Morning Money” column for POLITICO that has become part and parcel of the morning for everyone who works on, or near — physically or metaphorically — Wall Street.
Bill Nichols (Ep. 85) Bill, one of the top editors now at POLITICO, is one of my oldest friends from the White House Press Corps. He covered Clinton and then the State Department for USA Today.
Bob Wheelock (Ep. 88) Bob is working to make Al Jazeera America a major force in news coverage in North America.
Brian Stelter (Ep. 100) Brian is the phenom who exploded out of college as the creator of TV Newser, then had a great run at the New York Times and is now the host of Reliable Sources for CNN, an addition to covering the media business. He has written the definitive book on the modern morning news wars.
Chuck Todd (Ep. 131) I feel privileged to have known Chuck, the new host of Meet The Press, since his days as editor of The Hotline. Chuck was a frequent guest on Polioptics, calling in from Jerusalem when he was traveling with President Obama in the Middle East. Chuck also has a show on SiriusXM that, for a time, adjoined Polioptics on the weekend schedule.
David Shipley (Ep, 138) David runs Bloomberg View and, before that, oversaw the editorial page and op/ed section of the New York Times. I got to know David when he was a speechwriter for President Clinton.
Jake Tapper (Ep. 58) Jake is, of course, the host of the The Lead on CNN and had a long run at ABC News before that. I got to know him in the early years, when he was covering Washington for the City Paper and doing political cartoons in his spare time.
Jessica Yellin (Ep. 107) Jessica joined us after a particularly grueling European trip of President Obama for CNN. Long before she was one of the most visible White House correspondents, she worked in the White House press office during the Clinton years.
Joe Pompeo (Ep. 140) Joe covers the media business for Capital New York. We talked about Conde Nast’s move into the new One World Trade and how the media business is migrating from midtown to downtown locales.
John Harris (Ep. 19) John is one of the founders of POLITICO and covered Clinton for the Washington Post, which is where I got to know him.
John King (Ep. 136) Most people know John from his platform at CNN, but we first came in contact when he was a crack political reporter for the AP and shared our mutual Boston roots.
Jon Karl (Ep. 13) Jon is another one of those former poker players in our standing DC game, but has gone on to greatness at ABC News.
Jonathan Martin (Ep. 71) Jonathan is one of the original young guns at POLITICO who has since become a national political correspondent for the New York Times. He wrote the definitive article on Mitch McConnell for the Times Magazine.
Kate Zernike (Ep. 150) Kate, a national political correspondent for the New York Times, joined regular guest host Jeff Smith to talk about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Matt Cooper (Ep. 67) Matt is a journalism legend with a rapier comic wit and killer impression of Bill Clinton.
Michael Shear (Ep. 159) Michael, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, joined regular guest host Matt Bennett in the final SiriusXM episode of Polioptics. The episode came at a watershed moment as President Obama was being criticized for bypassing the Mexican border on a fundraising trip to Austin, Texas.
Mike Allen (Ep. 15) Mike is the living legend behind POLITICO Playbook and has been an wonderful friend to Polioptics over the years. He joined us after accompanying Defense Secretary Robert Gates on his final trip around the world in government service.
Mike Barnicle (Ep. 30) I grew up in Boston reading Mike’s columns for the Boston Globe and he remains one of my idols in journalism.
Molly Ball (ep. 124) Molly covers politics for The Atlantic and she joined regular guest host Matt Bennett for a great conversation about the 2012 race.
Nancy Benac (Ep. 96) Nancy has been a stalwart correspondent for the Associated Press and we had an animated conversation about the narrowing access given to reporters by the White House press office.
Nick Confessore (Ep. 139) Nick joined regular guest host Jeff Smith for a conversation about the progeny of Citizens United and the role of money in politics today.
Peter Hamby (Ep. 118) Peter is an inheritor of the mantle of Hunter S. Thompson and is the modern authority of what has become of “The Boys on the Bus,” which he detailed in a conversation with regular guest host Jeff Smith.
Phil Alongi (Ep. 69) Phil was the long-time special events producer for NBC News and now runs his own production business, often called on to oversee the television productions of major party conventions as well as other broadcast specials.
Reid Cherlin (Ep.130) Reid was an Assistant White House Press Secretary under President Obama and now writes some of the most penetrating pieces at the intersection of how the White House controls the message and how reporters try to break through the walls that the White House puts up. He joined regular guest host Matt Bennett for a conversation on the topic.
Robert Costa (Ep. 122) Robert first made his mark covering politics for the National Review and is now a national political reporter for the Washington Post.
Roger Simon (Ep. 33) I’ll never be able to adequately thank Roger, a legend in political journalism, for highlighting my role in the White House at the start of his 1996 campaign book, Showtime. I always love reading his iconic July 4 column that he republishes every year. He joined us after publishing a revealing interview with then-White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley.
Ron Brownstein (Ep. 112) I caught up with Ron at the Aspen Ideas Festival for an amazing tour, as only he can document, through the demographic trends that shape American politics today.
Ron Fournier (Ep. 123) Ron, who I met when he covered Clinton for the AP, is one of the most perceptive critics of how successive White House staffs try to manage and manipulate coverage of the presidency. We are all better informed now that Ron has added no-holds-barred commentary to his reporting.
Sandra Sobieraj (Ep. 67) I also met Sandra when she was covering the White House for AP, but long ago she made the jump to People Magazine, and I caught up to her after she scored the first interview with Mitt Romney and his new running mate Paul Ryan.
Sarah Lyall (Ep. 19) When I was in London on a business trip, the news of the hacking scandal was just breaking, and Sarah gave listeners a tutorial about the players involved informed by her many years as the New York Times‘ correspondent across the pond.
Scot Lehigh (Ep. 13) On my first political advance trip in 1987, Scot was covering the early candidates in New Hampshire for the Boston Globe. Now a Globe columnist, we talked in the early months of the 2012 campaign about how the Granite State was reacting to candidates’ entreaties.
The Long-Form Editors & Writers
As a rabid consumer of long-form magazine articles, I pass many flights and evenings away from family reading the beautifully-written, tightly-edited and scrupulously fact-checked pieces that are finding new outlets in online publications such as POLITICO Magazine and Slate. Some of my favorite shows in this category are:
Joe Hagan (ep. 140) Joe and I talked about his “as told to” piece about Alec Baldwin for New York magazine. Joe’s piece was poignant for me because I had been a big fan of Baldwin’s “Hear’s The Thing” podcast that ended when Alec largely retreated from public view, which Joe documented so well.
There’s nothing like a wonderfully arrayed museum or a passionate collector of arcana that brings history to life. I devoted a show to this topic whenever the opportunity presented itself. Some of my favorite shows in this category are:
Alexander Lamis (Ep. 62) Alexander is a principal at Robert A.M. Stern Architects and is a driving force behind the new Museum of the American Revolution, currently under construction in Philadelphia.
Dan Meader (Ep. 89) Dan was the auctioneer behind the unparalleled collection of Kennedy presidential memorabilia belonging to Dave Powers, one of President Kennedy’s top aides. I had one of my first political experiences in first grade, when Powers came to my class at Angier Elementary School to talk about his experience with JFK.
A rendering of the Museum of the American Revolution
Mark Langdale (Ep. 99) Mark served as president of the George W. Bush Foundation and helped to build the George W. Bush Presidential Center. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica during President Bush’s term in office.
Among the things about political stagecraft that I am most passionate are the work of photojournalists who capture news through a lens. The stores of these journalists are endless, but their perspective is rarely sought beyond what comes out of their digital memory sticks. I always had an open chair for a photographer on Polioptics. Some of my favorite shows in this category are:
Bob McNeely (Ep. 131) Bob and I shared tens of thousands of miles together on Air Force One when I was director of production and he was the Official White House Photographer.
Charlie Dharapak (Ep. 57) Charlie is one of the hardest working lensmen in the pool and was in the right place at the right time when Michelle Obama decided to go shopping at Target.
David Kennerly (Ep. 8) David is a living legend who chronicled the War in Vietnam and came home to become Official White House Photographer for President Gerald Ford, creating a friendship with Jerry and Betty that lasted the rest of their lives.
Diana Walker (Ep. 36) Diana is one of the nicest people in news and is responsible for a vast archive of cover photos for Time magazine, from Steve Jobs to Hillary Clinton.
Doug Mills (Ep. 138) There’s no one in journalism whose work and eye I appreciate more than Doug, and I’ve been following his innovations in photography for twenty years.
Pete Souza (Ep. 50) Pete is the Official White House Photographer for President Obama. The transformation of the role of the White House Photo Office under Pete is one of the most misunderstood stories of the coverage of the Obama years.
Ralph Alswang (Ep. 155) Ralph served as an official photographer for President Clinton and has remained a close friend ever since our days together in the White House.
The Public Servants, Political Strategists & Campaign Operatives
We always loved to welcome government officials and, more often, ex-government servants who felt comfortable about bringing us behind the scenes. A staple of Polioptics is that I could book guests and friends who operated at a lower level than the usual Sunday show official and, as a result, provide a different kind of angle about life in public service.
That was my experience, and the experience of my many friends who were gracious enough to come on the show. We all start at entry level in politics — driving cars, writing speeches or crunching numbers on polls, and sometimes we achieve a level of accomplishment and notoriety far beyond those humble beginnings. But if these seasoned operatives came on Polioptics, it was usually because Adam or I worked with them directly in one campaign or another. Some of my favorite shows in this category are:
Adam Rosman (Ep. 77) Adam is my best friend since age 10 and served as Deputy Staff Secretary for President Clinton.
Angus King (Ep. 64) Senator King is also the former Governor of Maine and dad to my friends Angus and Duncan. He joined us during his tour across Maine on the back of his Harley Davidson.
Chris Lehane (Ep. 35) Chris was the “master of disaster” who helped manage the message during the Lewinsky scandal then served as spokesman for Vice President Gore before hanging up his shingle in San Francisco.
Craig Minassian (Ep. 65) Craig’s career has brought him from the leading edge of comedy — HBO’s “Comic Relief” — to the White House to enduring work with Bill Clinton for the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.
Dan Emmett (Ep. 51) Dan was on the Presidential Protective Division of the U.S. Secret Service during my time in the White House. He recently wrote Within Arm’s Length, about his days on the PPD, and became the show’s go-to source for all questions about presidential security.
Dan Gerstein (Ep. 56) Dan, a top speechwriter, runs Gotham Ghostwriters and was a senior aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman prior to, and during, his run for Vice President.
Dan Pfeiffer with President Obama
Dan Pfeiffer (Ep. 143) Dan invited me into his office in the West Wing for a long conversation about the strategy of presidential events during the Obama Era.
Dan Rosenthal (Ep. 67) Dan was director of advance in the Clinton White House and is now one of the principals of the Albright Stonebridge Group, led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.
David Morehouse (Ep. 89) David is one of the best stories in American business, rising from tough circumstances in Pittsburgh to becoming a presidential advance man. He is now the CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
David Rubenstein (Ep. 36) One of the biggest success stories in American business, David, the co-founder of the Carlyle Group, started in Washington as a staffer in Jimmy Carter’s White House. Among his vast philanthropic endeavors, he has helped to restore the Washington Monument, preserve the Bill of Rights and, most recently, wrote the check that helped to build the new White House Visitor Center.
Dee Dee Myers (Ep. 11) Dee Dee was President Clinton’s first White House Press Secretary and gave me by dream job as director of production for presidential events. She is now head of communications at Warner Bros.
Don Baer (Ep. 66) Don was director of communications in the Clinton White House and my boss during the “Bridge to the 21st Century” campaign of 1996. He’s now head of Burson-Marsteller, the global P.R. firm.
Ezekiel Emanuel (Ep. 149) Zeke helped to write and pass the Affordable Care Act and is now is Vice Provost for Global Initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
Fred Davis (Ep. 34) Fred is one of the most creative minds in political advertising. While his legacy may always involve “Demon Sheep” and the California senate race, his impact has been felt on campaigns across America.
Geoff Morrell (Ep. 15) Geoff was the press secretary for former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He’s now a senior executive for BP.
George Caudill (Ep. 67) George was my successor at the White House as director of production for presidential events. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa but travels the globe to help promote democratic values.
George Little (Ep. 87) As Leon Panetta’s spokesman at both the CIA and the Pentagon, George served as the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and Pentagon Press Secretary from July 2011 to November 2013.
Gordon England (Ep. 128) Gordon was Secretary of the Navy under President George W. Bush. He also made history as the man to ride with Gov. Mike Dukakis in an Abrams M1A1 Main Battle Tank on September 13, 1988.
Gordon Johndroe (Ep. 60) Gordon had worked with George W. Bush since he was Governor of Texas and in various roles during Bush’s presidency. He’s now Vice President for Worldwide Media Relations at Lockheed Martin, where he serves as chief spokesperson for the corporation, counsels senior leaders on media engagements and oversees the company’s media relations campaigns and strategies.
Howard Wolfson with Mayor Bloomberg
Howard Wolfson (Ep. 137) Howard joined our D.C. poker game in the late 1990’s and we’ve been friends ever since. He was Hillary Clinton’s communications chief during her presidential campaign and was a three-time guest on Polioptics when he served as Deputy Mayor of New York City under Mike Bloomberg.
Jack Quinn (Ep. 21) Jack was the White House counsel under President Clinton and then became one of Washington’s leading lobbyists.
Jake Siewert (Ep. 12) Jake was President Clinton’s press secretary at the end of his term in office and famously helped the former president re-acclimate to private life and learn to use an ATM Machine.
Jamie Rubin (Ep. 61) Jamie served as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the State Department under Madeleine Albright.
Jeff Berman (Ep. 43) Jeff was senior counsel to Sen. Chuck Schumer and then an executive with MySpace and the National Football League. He’s now working with Lloyd Braun to build and expand Whalerock Industries.
Jeff Smith (Ep. 96) I read an article about Jeff — how he ran for Congress and was then indicted, and convicted, of violating federal campaign finance laws, and went to prison as a result — and reached out to him to come on the show and tell his story. He’s an amazing guy, now a good friend, and became a regular co-host of the show.
Jen Psaki (Ep. 48) Jen is the State Department spokeswoman under John Kerry. She earned her stripes working on Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and later served as his press secretary on the 2012 presidential campaign.
Jenni LeCompte (Ep. 93) Jenni, known as Tiger, was Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs under Tim Geithner. She’s now at the Glover Park Group.
Jeremy Gaines (Ep. 29) Gainesey, the longtime MSNBC spokesman, which he ankled to become head of communication for Gannett, was my boon companion for White House trips all over the world. Jeremy is an authority on all aspects of air travel.
Jim Margolis (Ep. 97) Jim has been the leading go-to ad man among Democratic ranks for years. He managed the advertising for the Obama campaign in 2012.
Joe Lockhart (Ep. 70) Joe was President Clinton’s press secretary and a founder of the Glover Park Group. Back in the 1988 campaign, when I got my start, Joe was an assistant press secretary with the Dukakis campaign. He joined me to talk about the late-night speechwriting session that led to Bill Clinton’s stemwinder at the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte.
John Emerson (Ep. 72) In the Clinton White House, John managed all of our issues in California. Today, he’s the U.S. Ambassador to Germany.
John Feehery (Ep. 84) John is one of the principals at QGA Associates, one of the leading lobbying firms in Washington.
Josh Gottheimer (Ep. 70 Josh was one of the speechwriters in the Clinton White House. He’s now an executive with Microsoft.
Karen Hughes (Ep. 99) Karen was counselor to President George W. Bush and ran the nation’s communications apparatus on 9/11.
Kathy Roth-Douquet (Ep. 81) Kathy and I both did advance work in the service of Illinois Sen. Paul Simon when he ran for president in 1988. We worked in the White House together until she married Greg Douquet, a Marine aviator, and embarked on the life of a military spouse. After writing a book on the experience of raising a family in a military household in a time of war, Kathy now runs Blue Star Families.
Kevin Sullivan (Ep. 9) Sully was White House communications director under President George W. Bush. A frequent guest of the show and a good friend, his firm represents some of America’s leading athletes and sports teams.
Mark Katz (Ep. 54) Mark runs the Soundbite Institute. During the Clinton Years, he would be called on to help with the president’s comedy speeches at events like the Gridiron Dinner and the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. We had a lot of fun planning some of Clinton’s comedy gigs.
Mark Penn (Ep. 49) I met Mark when he served as pollster to President Clinton, part of a unique triumvirate that included adviser Dick Morris and communications director Don Baer. I worked for Mark as his firm from 2001 to 2003.
Matt Bennett (Ep. 20) Matt and I worked together as advance men in 1992 and we’ve been friends ever since. He gave me his diary from 1988 that served as the core document for my “Dukakis and the Tank” article and he was a frequent guest host on Polioptics.
Matt Mackowiak (Ep. 91) Matt is a Texas GOP political consultant who has become a good friend as a result of Polioptics. Thanks to Matt, Polioptics enjoyed its weekly listing in Mike Allen’s POLITICO Playbook.
Feldy with wife Savannah Guthrie
Michael Feldman (Ep. 55) Feldy and I have been friends since 1992. In 1993 we both did our first White House advance trip together, bringing Bill Clinton and Al Gore to the headquarters of Silicon Graphics, the Apple of its day. Feldy went on to become a founder of the Glover Park Group and married well. He and Savannah are now the proud parents of @TheRealValeF.
Mike McCurry (Ep. 75) I met met Mike when he was spokesman for Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt during the 1988 presidential campaign. He was a steadfast supporter of my work at the White House when he was Clinton’s press secretary.
Mo Elleithee (Ep. 155) Mo is one of the leading Democratic strategists working today, currently the communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
Mort Engelberg (Ep. 23) Mort is one of my favorite people on the planet. An old guard member of the Hollywood crowd of the 1970s and 8o’s, he taught me the finer points of advance. Whenever I go to L.A., I always try to stop in on him in the Hollywood Hills.
Neal Wolin (Ep. 119) Neal and I worked together in the White House and later in the private sector at The Hartford Financial Services Group. He served as Deputy Treasury Secretary during President Obama’s first term.
Neera Tanden (Ep. 32) Neera was one of Senator Hillary Clinton’s top aides and is now the president of the Center for American Progress.
Nicholas Burns (Ep. 71) Nick was State Department Spokesman when we were in the White House. He later served as U.S. Ambassador to Greece and U.S. Ambassador to NATO. He is now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a columnist for the Boston Globe, among other endeavors.
Nicolle Wallace with President Bush
Nicolle Wallace (Ep. 62) Nicolle was communications director for President George W. Bush, among other leading communications roles in GOP politics. A bestselling author, she recently signed on as one of the hosts of The View.
P.J. Crowley (Ep. 24) P.J. was N.S.C. spokesman when we were at the White House. He was the first Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Rich Galen (Ep. 42) Rich was press secretary to Newt Gingrich when Newt was Speaker of the House. Rich and I worked together at SpeakOut.com, and Internet startup that tried to make a business out of online polling, but was an idea whose time had not yet come.
Richard Klumpp (Ep. 104) General Klumpp was the Air Force Military Aide to the Vice President and later a pilot of Air Force One during a long and distinguished military career.
Ron Klain (Ep. 97) Ron and I talked about his upbringing in Indianapolis and the day that he went to see Robert Kennedy speak in his hometown, the same day that Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Russ Schriefer (Ep. 82) Russ is a GOP consultant who was one of the leading tacticians of the Romney 2012 campaign. He joined us after the campaign to share his reflections.
Stephen Goodin (Ep. 52) Stephen was personal aide to President Clinton. During the 1992 campaign, when he was working at the Little Rock campaign headquarters, Stephen was the guy who originally sent me back on the road after my four-year hiatus from politics.
Steve Rabinowitz (Ep. 26) Rabbi has been a mentor of mine since 1988. He was my immediate predecessor at the White House as director of production for presidential events.
Steve Rattner (Ep. 44) Steve was lured into government service by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who asked him to run the rescue of the U.S. auto manufacturers. Today, among other things, he manages the wealth of former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Steve Schmidt (Ep. 49) After helping reelect Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California, Steve became the campaign manager for John McCain in 2008. His role in helping to select Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate is thoroughly chronicled in Game Change.
Ted Widmer (Ep. 85) Ted was a speechwriter for President Clinton and also played in a rock band called The Upper Crust. Today, he’s a historian and author, among other things, of Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy. He is also the ghostwriter of Hillary Clinton’s book Hard Choices.
Theo LeCompte (Ep. 63) Theo is the Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. We chatted when he was the chief operating officer of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Timothy Geithner (Ep. 93) Tim was Secretary of the Treasury under President Obama. He called into the show when his former Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, Jenni “Tiger” Lecompte, was on the show telling stories about working for Tim.
Tony Fratto (Ep. 48) Tony was Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Treasury Department and also served as Deputy Press Secretary under President George W. Bush.
Tucker Eskew (Ep. 41) Tucker is a longtime GOP communications strategist. He served as Deputy Assistant to the President from 2001-2003, heading Media Affairs and then Global Communications. After 9/11, Tucker served in London as the President’s wartime communications representative to No. 10 Downing Street. He’s now a partner at Vianovo.
Will Ritter (Ep. 86) Will was the “body man” for Mitt Romney in 2008 and served as his director of advance in 2012. Today, he’s a founder of Poolhouse, an independent digital agency “hell-bent on crafting the best ad campaigns for candidates, causes and companies.”
* * *
During my last year as host of Polioptics on SiriusXM, the burden of researching topics for the show, booking the guests, reading their books and plotting the hour in the studio began to take its toll. I steered free of conflicts with my day job in corporate communications, but the hours added up just the same: late nights deep in study, days hunting down emails and phone numbers to try to secure guests, hours sourcing audio clips and writing scripts, and then traveling uptown to do the show in SiriusXM’s studio at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I loved doing the show. It was immensely gratifying when I heard the familiar theme music pipe up on the radio every Saturday morning, but I also knew I needed help.
A few fantastic friends answered the call. Originally, Matt Bennett did the show for me once every few months. Then Jeff Smith joined the rotation, followed by Steve Silverman. Matt is a founder of Third Way, one of the leading Washington think tanks. Jeff is a professor at the New School and a former Missouri state senator, one of the few, or only, people to go to prison for violation of campaign finance laws and learn a life full of lessons as a result. Steve worked with me at the White House and went on to a career in corporate communications and marketing. Our listeners were beneficiaries of their unique perspectives on Washington and popular culture. As much as I had enjoyed doing the show every week, I now enjoyed listening to Matt, Jeff and Steve put their own stamp on the podcast while remaining true to the core concept of bringing the theater of politics and the behind-the-scenes stagecraft of Washington to life.
For a while I did three shows a month, with Matt, Jeff or Steve taking the other one. Then it was two shows a month. Finally, when I received my book contract and planned to change jobs, I was down to one show a month, with the guys taking the other three. On May 27, a few weeks into this arrangement, I received an email from Liz Aiello, a SiriusXM executive who had assumed a role overseeing the talk channels the year before. The email said, “Katherine tells me you got a new job. Congratulations! Please let me know how this will affect PoliOptics.”
Before receiving Liz’s email, I had met with her only once, in the fall of 2013, for coffee in a Greenwich Village restaurant. She seemed content to allow Polioptics continue its run according to the arrangement that had been ironed out prior to her arrival. After all, it was a good deal for SiriusXM. They got a quality hour of programming each week, which they ran five or six times on the weekend, and only had to invest Katherine Caperton’s producing time and the studio itself in trade. It didn’t hurt, either, that POLITICO Playbook was promoting the show for free every Saturday morning. But now, with me happily retreating to one show a month, my sense is that they were wary of keeping the show on the air with the voices of four different hosts coming through the microphones, no matter how unique those voices were or how high we maintained the quality of our broadcasts. They were also wary, I think, of maintaining the precedent of allowing a property to be hosted online as a podcast, free and on-demand for listeners, beyond their control.
Liz and I spoke on the phone in June and we agreed to put the show “on hiatus” indefinitely, until such time as I might be able to return to a more consistent schedule in the hosting chair. While neither of us said as much, I don’t think SiriusXM intended to bring the show, with its somewhat complex production needs, back on air, and I was in no hurry, with a book to write and more than 150 shows under my belt, to resume the extensive commitment of producing and performing a weekly show for free.
The decision fell hardest, I think, on Matt, Jeff and Steve, who had just begun to develop their rhythm as hosts. They encouraged me to propose to SiriusXM a new format for the show, in which I would introduce and close the show each week, to provide a sense of continuity, while they would perform their hosting duties in the meat of the podcast. I was reluctant, but made the pitch, using the opportunity to voice a range of longstanding concerns that I hoped could be addressed going forward. I knew as I sent my email to Liz that I was effectively writing the show’s cancellation notice, and she confirmed as much in her reply. The show has been dark ever since.
* * *
Since Polioptics went off the air following Episode 159 on July 12, I’ve thought a lot about what’s been lost by its absence.
It was a humble little podcast, dwarfed by the Sunday shows and restricted to audio when so much of the content about Washington and politics that we consume is tied to television and visual ingredients. But as I always said in the introduction to our episodes, it was “the only show of its kind on the air today,” and I think that was true.
Matt, Jeff, Steve and I were ex-campaigners, politicians and government servants often talking with journalists, artists and commentators in a reverse of the usual arrangement found on radio and television networks. Our questions, and the conversations that sprang from them, came from people who actually lived lives working in government jobs and assumed a level of understanding and engagement in the political process that I think is missing in most Washington-focused content today.
We never tried to play “gotcha” with our guests, instead conferring genuine respect for what they’ve done as journalists, film makers and public and campaign officials. And besides some of the stuff that C-Span, Charlie Rose, Terri Gross and a small handful of podcasts try to do, there weren’t many outlets where a show would devote a full 30 or 60 minutes to a guest’s literary or professional life. Our simple hope was that what came out of the car radio or the earphones from an iPhone would inform and entertain our listeners for an hour each week as they ran errands, walked the dog, did the dishes or otherwise multi-tasked their busy lives. By and large, after 159 shows and three and a half years on the air, I think we can say, “mission accomplished.”
I’m busy focused on my new job and working to complete my book manuscript that I hope to see published by Palgrave Macmillan in early 2016. I periodically have conversations about how Polioptics might return, in some form on some outlet, prior to that, and those conversations continue. For now, I’m glad that I struck the deal with SiriusXM that I did, and that all of our 159 shows created over three and a half years remain free and online, available to stream and download for our listener’s enjoyment. Based on analytics that I keep my eye on, Polioptics continues to entertain listeners every day. That makes me happy.
For those who have listened loyally over the years, or are just now beginning to tune in to our work, keep in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @polioptics. At some point down the road, I look forward to tweeting out that Episode 160 is online and available for download.