Another political operative, this time former George W. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, has been hired by ABC News as a commentator and blogger. Thus continues the phenomenon of bringing “them” aboard to join “us” in our sacred if sometimes sanctimonious interpreting of the political gospel.
“Them” of course refers to professional practitioners of spin in the service of all manner of politicians and officeholders. “Us” are we noble and untarnished toilers in the vineyard of the newsroom and the news studio, whose task has been, is now, and ever shall be holding the feet of “them” to the fire.
This latest journalistic hire of a political partisan comes on the heels of evil genius and spinmeister extraordinaire Karl Rove leaving “them” to infiltrate “us” at Newsweek. Who’s next, Ari Fleischer?
Not that this recruiting of such Willie Suttons as bank tellers is any new wrinkle in our hallowed business. George Will was an aide to Sen. Gordon Allott of Colorado before making the leap into print and television commentary. The politically ambidextrous David Gergen worked for Presidents Nixon, Ford, the senior Bush and Clinton while popping in and out of the news business as an editor at U.S. News and World Report and a ubiquitous television commentator and analyst. And Bill Moyers helped spin the Vietnam war as LBJ’s press secretary for quite a while before climbing, or being levitated, to Mount Olympus by way of Newsday.
Then there was Bill Safire of Nixon-in-the-Moscow-kitchen-with- Khruschev fame, gracing the Gray Lady’s op-ed page as guardian of the Mother Tongue while introducing the linguistic bastardizations of a string of “gates,” perhaps to make Watergate seem a mere bagatelle. Not to mention George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, just recently a Washington Post columnist, old Tip O’Neill flack Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, right-hand man to Sen. Pat Moynihan, and Bill Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, all of whom have shed the sackcloth of partisanship for the habit of our pristine order.
Journalism being a craft and not a priesthood, there’s no law against a political operative taking a news job if he or she can get it, and especially at wages seldom earned on the rim of a copy desk on Saturday night. It’s all in how the new hire performs. Moyers with his outstanding Journal on PBS, for example, and Russert’s pointed resurrection of NBC News’ Meet the Press have enriched the political dialogue, and Stephanopoulos has proved to be a fair, informed and steady moderator of ABC’s This Week. There’s a world of difference, certainly, between former political speechwriters and other aides who have moved over to journalism-land and continued to spin in behalf of their old masters, and those who have made the transition to public benefit.
Let’s see what Dowd does with his new platform. While he has officially left the world of political strategy, he is not, the Washington Post reports, “giving up his Austin-based lobbying business.” So, we’ll be watching.
Jules Witcover is a columnist for (Chicago) Tribune Media Services. He has been a columnist and a reporter at newspapers including the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Star, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times (Washington bureau), Newhouse Newspapers (Washington bureau), and the Newark Star-Ledger. He has written 12 books on American politics and history and co-authored five others. He is one of several guest writers who are contributing to cjr.org's Campaign Desk during the presidential campaign.