On a Thursday evening this past May, Eliot Spitzer, hosting his now-cancelled CNN show, lobbed a chummy question to his studio guest Fareed Zakaria—an opinion columnist for The Washington Post, an editor-at-large for Time, a best-selling book author, and the host of Fareed Zakaria GPA, a weekly CNN show on foreign affairs. “Look, I read something in the paper this week,” Spitzer said. “It said that the president of the United States calls
you for wisdom and advice about issues around the world. So first, when he calls you, what does he say? ‘Hi Barack, calling for Fareed?’ ”

Zakaria helpfully responded: “Mostly it’s been face to face meetings, usually organized by Tom Donilon, the national security advisor. What I’m struck by though, honestly, Eliot, is how much time he is spending thinking about the issues of the Arab Spring… It’s been a very thoughtful conversation, we’ll see where it goes.”

“I’m not going to ask you what you have said to the president,” Spitzer closed. “But it makes my heart warm that the president is calling you for wisdom and advice.”

On one level, there was nothing surprising about this exchange. Zakaria, “the most influential foreign-policy adviser of his generation,” as the Esquire quote on his website reads, has a well-established track record for offering private advice to high-level policymakers. “If a senator calls me up and asks me what should we do in Iraq, I’m happy to talk to him,” he told The New York Times back in 2006.

But let’s step back. Is it appropriate for a journalist, even an opinion columnist, to give confidential advice to a president? And what’s up with Obama seeking advice from scribes like Zakaria?

These questions go to one of the murkiest corners of the media landscape—the rules and practices of political punditry. History suggests that punditry is a form of journalism that can be particularly ripe for manipulation by presidents with a natural interest in shaping opinion coverage to burnish their images and advance their goals. And Obama, it seems, for all his reputation for being somewhat aloof, is very much an actor in this game of courtship—with the pundits themselves, operating by their own personal codes of conduct, mostly willing to play along.

They shouldn’t always be.

The term pundit itself is appropriately exotic—it comes from the Sanskrit pandita, for “learned” person. The popular image of a pundit suggests a wide-bottomed sort, office thumb in mouth, conjuring political opinion from some ethereal cloud.

In fact, the best pundits do their own first-hand reporting, including visits to hot spots like war zones. Still, punditry long has been, and still is, a classic form of access journalism, with the most influential pundits scooping up valuable tidbits from high-level sources in Washington, with the president, of course, at the top of the pinnacle.

The most famous of the type was Walter Lippmann, renowned for his extensive involvements with a string of presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson. Lippmann had no compunction about offering them private advice, and neither did another bigwig syndicated columnist from the age, Joseph Alsop. At the Democrats’ 1960 convention, Alsop barged into nominee John F. Kennedy’s hotel suite to press the case for Johnson as the best pick for vice president. Alsop then, typically, filed a column on the VP choices facing Kennedy—without any mention of his own behind-the-scenes machinations. Nor was he above pulling punches in his column (written with his brother Stewart, for a time) to stay in the good graces of JFK, who supped on caviar and Moet & Chandon as a dinner guest at Joe’s Georgetown home.

For such writers, a dual role as private advisor in a presidential braintrust and tutor to the public at large was all part of a seamless web of responsibilities, borne as members of an elite establishment that regarded itself as the rightful steward of the nation. In certain respects, the era of the Lippmanns and Alsops is over—in this age of partisan polarization, the establishment is certainly not what it once was. And yet there remain the Zakarias of today—a “throwback,” says Evan Thomas, recently retired from nearly a quarter century at Newsweek, to the time “when journalists really were members of the establishment.”

Paul Starobin , a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week, is the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.