Ann Gerhart on Pulling Back the Curtain, Laura Bush’s Spin, and DC’s New Baseball Team

Ann Gerhart

Ann Gerhart is covering the presidential campaign for the Washington Post’s Style section. She joined the Post in 1995 and its Style section four years later as one of three reporters covering politics. She is the author of The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush, released in January. Gerhart spoke with Campaign Desk as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators covering the campaign.

Susan Q. Stranahan: There hasn’t been much “style” in this campaign, but you’ve found plenty to write about. What is your definition of political reporting and how do you approach it differently than, say, your colleagues, Dana Milbank or Dan Balz?

Ann Gerhart: I’m not interested in horserace coverage. I’m looking for themes, I’m looking for a way to pull back the curtain. I think that much about politics is stagecraft and controlling the image, and I’m always trying to find ways to illuminate how that image is formed, manipulated, to … let the reader and voters see what’s going on backstage.

I think a lot of people get their sense of what’s happening in the race from television, and by the time they see it, the picture is perfect. I’m interested in writing what happens when the camera is turned off.

I tend to approach my feature writing more like a photograph, trying to be very observational, to watch facial expressions. I try to pay attention to the people when they’re at rest. I also work very hard to maintain an outsider’s view, which, in this campaign, is very hard to do when you’re inside the bubble. I prefer to meet the campaign ahead of time rather than being herded around. I get there before they come, stroll around the venue the day before, and stay after they’ve departed. That’s one of the hard things for political journalists to do. I try to find a way not to run with the pack.

For me, it’s a real gift. I don’t have to be driven by the daily game story. I have been struck by how much this feels like a major league baseball season. Everybody writes about who caught the ball for the third out in the bottom of the ninth. Maybe because I’m a girl, the horse-race aspect of the campaign doesn’t appeal to me as a story I want to tell.

SQS: How much did the research and writing of the Laura Bush biography help you understand this campaign? Have there been any surprises?

AG: In writing a book you spend an enormous time dwelling inside the story and ruminating on the person you are profiling. You’re trying to figure out not so much what she did, but why she did what she did.

I can’t say there have been many surprises because I wait for the voters maybe a little more than others might in the political press. But I’m able to do that. People aren’t looking for me to provide the breathless Who’s up and who’s down? That’s essential, but it another part of the political journalism process.

SQS: The media, at least until recently, portrayed Laura Bush as a behind-the-scenes spouse, a non-political player. Is her “emergence” as a tough campaigner real or spin?

AG: I think it’s completely spin. She’s always played an integral role in her husband’s life and campaign. She has a steeliness that she reaches for when he’s attacked, or when her children are attacked. People make the mistake with her and with him of underestimating them and their level of engagement.

SQS: Before starting out on a lengthy profile or issue piece, what kinds of research do you do?

AG: I’m a geek clip-reader. I like to do my own searches because I’m always looking for something that’s not conventional. Places where someone may have spoken, or an award they may have received, something that might show up on Google but not Nexis. Something that would never show up in an official biography.

For example, Laura Bush wrote the preface to a book of archival photos of west Texas. That revealed to me a lot of her depth of feeling about a place — the openness and harshness of a place like west Texas, a place that meant something to her. It explains a lot about why a person who has lived in many sophisticated, urban places would want to build a house in dusty, dry Crawford, Texas.

It’s always good to talk to people who know your subject intimately, but often it’s more useful to find people with a bit of a distance. When you talk to people who are close friends, they are protective — and rightly so. But they don’t see quite as clearly as you want. You need someone who says, “I’ve wondered, too, how she deals with this particular issue.” That’s very helpful.

SQS: If you could ask one question at tonight’s second presidential debate, what would it be?

AG: My question would be to the president: When you pray for guidance, how does that specifically inform your policy-making?

SQS: Final question, what would you name Washington’s new major-league baseball team?

AG: The Washington Deficits.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.