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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

Confessions of a Quote Slut   

A pundit is always ready to shoot from the lip.


By Robert Schmuhl
Robert Schmuhl is chairman of the Department of American Studies and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. He’s author of “Statecraft and Stagecraft,” “Demanding Democracy” and “Indecent Liberties.”     

As the 2000 presidential campaign moves from the shadowy foreplay of pre-race fundraising into the limelight of media absorption, journalists will try to make sense of the unfolding spectacle by not only covering the candidates but by dialing the phone. On the receiving end of these calls will be members of a far-flung chorus of academic commentators, offering their quick take on a day's story.

Serious though the work can be, it's not to be confused with the exactitude of any branch of political science. Everything from express-service punditry in the buff (one call during the 1996 campaign summoned me from a shower) to full-dress interviews that never appear become the lot of someone whose name ends up in the collective Rolodex of American journalism.

In the book "All's Fair," James Carville refers to sources regularly contacted by reporters as "Quote Sluts." This label might offend many of the usual suspects in the dial-a-quote trade as unduly disparaging and dismissive. But, truth be known, I've been called worse, and more than a few practitioners of short-order commentary do, indeed, pant at the prospect of offering observations that reach beyond a seminar room or lecture hall. Some even sport beepers and mobile phones when electioneering heats up.

What's the seduction for anyone to be a Quote Slut? Although journalists often summarize a breaking news story and ask what-does-it-all-mean questions when their sources don't have a clue about the details or possible consequences, the work (as someone once remarked of the vice presidency) requires no heavy lifting.

In fact, more commonly a point uttered for contemporary relevance in a class or talk ends up being sharpened and recycled (for a wider audience) during such interviews. Fugitive perceptions that would never cohere into an article or column find their way into print, offering a sense of bemused satisfaction. Thanks to usually out-of-the-blue inquiries, these thoughts live on in cyber eternity for Lexis-Nexis searchers everywhere.

Then there's the matter of ego. Vanity is an objectionable but absorbing vice. If you think you might have something to say for the betterment of the republic, it's difficult to decline a chance to opine on the passing parade. Duty calls.

My adventures in the quote trade began in earnest earlier this decade when I cobbled together several essays into a little book that carried the subtitle "American Political Life in the Age of Personality." After Harper's described me somewhat ostentatiously as an academic "who specializes in the country's peculiar fascination with personality politics," I fielded several calls from reporters, with each conversation starting with a line like, "I understand your area of expertise is personality politics."

Being a source, though, involves more than one-way trafficking in telephonic interpretation. For anyone distant from the daily chatter of Washington and its obsession with all things political, interviews can be as instructive for the interviewee as they can be helpful, at least potentially, to a reporter.

Stories and, yes, gossip from the campaign trail help a stay-at-home academic better understand and evaluate internal dynamics of a candidate's organization. What often goes unreported as "inside baseball" to the public at large is valued intelligence for a cloistered connoisseur of the political arts. Early whispers about staff disarray surrounding Bob Dole four years ago foreshadowed what turned out to be a lackluster campaign for the Republican nominee.

Moreover, many calls provide enduring lessons about the vagaries of journalism--what becomes news and what doesn't. My checkered if not plaid past includes one instance in which an Associated Press reporter called on a Sunday about a long-range piece she was doing about Vice President Al Gore's role in the 1996 presidential campaign. At the end of her planned questions, she inquired off-handedly: "While I've got you on the line, do you have any comment on what Ross Perot said today?" Thoughtful former students from hither and yon dispatched clippings from the next day's newspapers, complete with my top-of-the-head musings about the tall-tale aroma of the Texan's talk.

Earlier the same campaign year, three different reporters for that wire service called from Washington in the span of a couple of hours on one day. Not having spoken to anyone in the bureau for several weeks, I asked the third caller: "Is this my shift? Have you got a blackboard out there with people to call today?"

"No," he laughed. "We're not as sophisticated as that. You're on one of our lists, and it just happens that way sometimes."

With random selection and survival of the pithiest, it's impossible to know what, if anything, might happen after a source hangs up the phone. You learn, for instance, the importance of the angle a reporter is pursuing. Not following the predetermined angle can jeopardize the use of observations that take a different tack.

To confess: I've been serious when the interviewer sought sarcastic, and deliberately (or, at least, allegedly) amusing instead of pipe-smoking academic another time. In neither case did I know the slant the story would take, and in neither case did anything I said ever appear. My news analysis wasn't fit to print because it didn't conform to the planned approach.

These experiences, of course, raise questions about whether a reporter is trolling for a particular statement to enforce his or her viewpoint. When journalism veers toward ventriloquism, the source becomes something of a dummy, mouthing only what's wanted by a news person.

And on one occasion during the 1996 presidential campaign, I was the victim of what justifiably might be termed "interview interruptus." Dole had given a speech in Los Angeles about the entertainment industry. A Washington reporter called, seeking precisely three sentences of interpretation.

At the end of the second sentence, I heard some background commotion and a couple of choice expletives. "I'm afraid we won't be needing you," the reporter explained. "Editors have decided the L.A. bureau will do the react story."

Serving as a source means being on-call for the odd, occasionally offbeat request. A week before the 1992 presidential election, with some polls indicating a tightening race, a weekly newsmagazine tracked me down on a trip to conduct a lengthy interview based on the premise of why I thought George Bush had come from behind to win his second term.

This how-it-happened, hypothetical commentary featured definite verbs in the past tense and region-by-region assessments of the remarkable Bush recovery and triumph. Of course, with the lead time involved and the objective of being prepared for whatever occurred, the magazine was assembling interpretation "on spec." Actual results would ultimately dictate final copy. Given my train of thought, I never left the station: Nary a word ever appeared.

Besides becoming acutely aware of the chanciness and contingency of journalism, someone in the source game learns the media practice their own form of incest. A reference one place often leads to others elsewhere. USA Today, for instance, is used as a daily tip-sheet for radio talk-show producers throughout America. A remark of one or two lines in that paper can lead to a flurry of requests to discuss the subject more fully.

The syndicated columnist and television commentator Mark Shields once likened a professional political analyst to a Christmas tree salesman. Frenetic, seasonal activity comes to a screeching halt on a definite day. The same holds true in the quote business. A week or so after an election, the volume of calls drops to the point where you almost long to hear from a telemarketer.

However, the advent of what's aptly called the permanent campaign in governing now means the telephone rings at other times as well. Monica Lewinsky's explosive emergence in 1998 sparked a five-alarm scramble among the usually sedentary band of armchair analysts. As the investigation began amid a cacophony of allegations, call after call sought speculation about the possible consequences of presidential hanky-panky--and worse. Would the president be forced to resign? Were these grounds for impeachment?

One incident remains memorable in that year of pontificating on matters mostly profane. The day of President Clinton's 1998 State of the Union address (less than a week after the news broke about the alleged Lewinsky affair) the Dallas Morning News carried a couple of my lines in its advance story. I'd jotted them down the day before in case of an inquiry. (For certain occasions a source prepares to be spontaneous.) Harking back to 1997, when the verdict in O.J. Simpson's civil case arrived exactly at the same time as the State of the Union speech, I remarked: "Last year Bill Clinton was competing against O.J. Simpson for public attention. This year he's competing against himself."

Other newspapers picked up the Morning News quote, and ABC Radio tracked me down in a Chicago hotel (where I was getting ready for a post-mortem program about the speech) to have me say it on tape. Late that evening, cruising through the TV channels back at the hotel, CNN began a speech story with the now well-traveled comment. Stunned by this newspaper-radio-television trifecta, I felt trapped in a multimedia echo chamber.

Today, with the 2000 presidential campaign taking shape and gathering momentum, the unpredictable world of Quote Sluts and sources will begin to spin with unscholarly speed. For just the fifth time in the past half-century, an incumbent president won't be competing, adding that variable to the electoral calculus.

Will Gore overcome his prominently played early problems or face a bloodying challenge from fellow Democrat Bill Bradley? Will talk of George W. Bush's past persist and provide traction for Republicans Elizabeth Dole, Steve Forbes or John McCain? Will Jesse Ventura and the Reform Party muscle their way to the campaign's center stage? Who knows?

Yet there's one abiding certainty to the uncertain calling of the quote trade. Being a source means never having to say "no comment."