A limo arrives to take a highly sought-after guest to “Meet the Press.” But the guest is delivered to “This Week,” which had secretly changed the limo’s plans.
The oft-heard story and its many variations are likely apocryphal, but the dirty trick accurately describes the cutthroat, sometimes bitter competition among D.C.’s Sunday chatfests.
Taken all together, the ratings for “Meet the Press” on NBC, “Face the Nation” on CBS, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on ABC, “Late Edition” on CNN and “Fox News Sunday” on Fox don’t come close to matching a primetime hit like “American Idol.” What’s more, the demographics skew toward age 65.
But within the Beltway, there could not be a more important period of programming, or a more critical place to be booked as a guest.
Every Sunday, at least one appearance makes it to the evening newscast, political blogs, the Monday papers, YouTube and beyond. Five years after the start of the war in Iraq, Dick Cheney’s appearances on “Meet the Press” are still being parsed or ridiculed.
But the competition is fierce among the shows and has gotten more intense, thanks to competition from latenight talkshows and political laffers like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” which have become increasingly important to politicos who want to appear hip as they spread their message.
And the news-shows’ bookers and producers have the added headache of coping with D.C. egos that want to know who else will be on the show (i.e., which reporters or other newsmakers) before they commit. And with news changing hourly, the show’s Sunday lineup is sometimes not firmed until Saturday night.
The politicos are right to be wary.
If news isn’t made, embarrassment is. Bill Richardson had a tough go of it on “Meet the Press” in spring 2007 — “self destructs” is how Slate put it — when he was faced with defending a seemingly unending series of contradictory statements that grand inquisitor Tim Russert posed to him, right down to whether Richardson supported the Red Sox or the Yankees.
“There is no better way to study the human ego than to book guests for the Sunday talkshows,” says Bob Schieffer, host of “Face the Nation.”
As such, each show tries to best the other to land the “get,” a purely Darwinian ritual that is a ruthless expression of political life and culture in the nation’s capital. The difficulty of booking a guest is directly proportional to that guest’s position in the D.C. hierarchy.
Top of the heap, of course, is the president. “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert scored the first Sunday show interview with George W. Bush in 2004. Russert and “Meet the Press” finally landed him after an extended conversation with White House officials.
The vice president, senior Cabinet officials and senators are also on the list, along with some more prominent members of the House of Representatives.
“Everyone is trying to get the same guests,” Stephanopoulos says.
“Fox News Sunday” executive producer Marty Ryan calls it “hand-to-hand combat.”
Or, as Schieffer puts it, “We’re all like scorpions in a bottle — like, ‘You going to do something to me? You know I’ll get you back.’ So everyone’s pretty fair and even handed. Most of the time.”
When it comes to booking, principles of dominance and submission apply, artfully at first.
Anxious to lock down guests as the week progresses, bookers’ polite tones take on a harder edge by Friday. “Screaming at you,” is how one press secretary once characterized the calls.
Looming over everything is the prospect of getting a bigger name.
“Sometimes we’d keep a B- or C-level guest on the line while waiting for confirmation from a heavy hitter,” confesses a former Sunday ayem booker.
What screws it all up is the White House, which has to approve all appearances by Cabinet members, sometimes waits until well into a Saturday.
That leaves booking particularly hellish, because suddenly producers are forced to bump guests off to make room.
Former “This Week” exec producer Tom Bettag says, “It is no less difficult to say to a John McCain or a Joe Biden that you are using them as a placeholder and they will get dropped if Condi Rice comes on. You also hate to tell the administration that it’s just too late to fit in the Secretary of State.
“It’s a very tense game of chicken, all done with the best intentions on all sides.”
The White House has taken advantage of its status as the 800-pound gorilla, dictating when its officials will appear on the shows — usually on a rotating basis and, to the show’s increasing dismay, non-exclusively.
“One thing that has changed is that the Sunday shows used to have more leverage for getting exclusive interviews,” says Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. “Now, they often have to swallow hard at the fact that the White House can put one big name on three or four shows at once, which the shows privately hate but have to accept.”
The same apparently holds true for a presidential front-runner. In September, when she was the presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton did all five Sunday morning shows, almost flawlessly, one after the other, in a feat known as “the full Ginsburg.” (The phrase refers to William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, who in 1998 was the first person to set the record).
Any kind of political scandal creates a particularly elbows and knuckles atmosphere.
When the news media were devoting wall-to-wall coverage to the Lewinsky scandal in 1998, “Meet the Press” landed Bob Bennett, President Clinton’s attorney, for an exclusive interview.
But spies at ABC News learned of the deal, so Sam Donaldson, then co-host of “This Week,” arranged to take a satellite truck to Bennett’s home driveway that Sunday morning and catch him before he left for the rival show. NBC News spies learned of Donaldson’s plan, and made sure that the network had its own satellite truck at Bennett’s easement.
“That’s the last sneaky thing that happened,” says “Meet the Press” showrunner Betsy Fischer. “Usually we’re pretty civilized now.”
Schieffer remembers when a “Meet the Press” booker tried to do “something underhanded” after “Face the Nation” landed a commitment from a much sought-after guest. “I called Tim, told him about it, and he took care of it,” Schieffer says.
Guests cancel at their own peril.
A junior staffer for Tom DeLay, then House Majority Leader, informed “Fox News Sunday” on a Friday that the congressman would not be appearing as planned.
“All hell broke loose,” says GOP strategist John Feehery, who was then DeLay’s press secretary but happened to be out of town that day.
“The Fox bookers were so pissed I had to cancel DeLay’s appearance the next Sunday on Schieffer and put DeLay back on Fox in an exclusive.”
Of course, that made Schieffer and the “Face the Nation” bookers unhappy.
“I had to kiss ass for two years to make up for that,” Feehery says.
Bookers also feel burned when they woo a guest all week long, only to have the guest go to the competition.
“But you can only have short-term memory in this business,” says Ryan of Fox. “Thursday is key because you really want to be booked by then. But every now and then you are going to have a bad Thursday when someone decides to go elsewhere.”
“This Week” executive producer Kathy O’Hearn says the shows “have to be a little more forgiving” than latenight talkers because, “at some point, we’ll all want the same person again.”
Bookers keep track of who’s appearing where, and have been known to ring up press secretaries to complain that their boss seems to be playing favorites. The White House and others say they never do such a thing, but many question that.
“Look at how many times you’ve seen Vice President Cheney on Fox,” Feehery says.
There is a pecking order. “Meet the Press” is first, because the show has led in the ratings for the past 10 years, according to NBC. Over the past year, Russert has had on all the presidential candidates, and it’s like a rite of passage to come away relatively unscathed.
“From a conservative’s point of view, you always wanted to be on ‘Fox News Sunday’ when Tony Snow hosted it, because Tony was always with you on the issues,” says Feehery, who also was press secretary for then-House speaker Dennis Hastert. “Chris Wallace (the current host) isn’t always.”
Conversely, Feehery adds, “We decided not to put Speaker Hastert on ‘This Week’ because George Stephanopoulos had been a Democrat operative, and we felt we didn’t need to help his ratings.”
Bob Dole, who has appeared on “Meet the Press” a record 63 times, says Russert is “probably the best prepared of the hosts.”
“Bob (Schieffer) is such a gentleman and is so nice when he asks you a question, you don’t even feel the knife going in.”
Of “Meet the Press,” Dole says, “They’ll ask nine or 10 people to be on the show knowing they don’t want all of them. I’ve even said to Tim when he’s called, ‘Are you serious? Because I know you’re talking to a lot of other people.’ ”
Still, much of Washington is craving to get on the shows, and wouldn’t pass up an opportunity. Senators keep track not only of their appearances but their rivals’ air time, Schieffer says, and sometimes say they deserve as much if not more.
“I had Senate colleagues who would call the shows early Sunday morning just to ask if any guest had gotten sick at the last minute and canceled, and did they need a replacement,” Dole notes.
The trick is to get on a show yet not appear that you are forcing it. Adds Dole: “Don’t ever call them. I never did.”
There is such a thing as being too eager. The wife of a Senate candidate once brought baked goods to the taping of “Meet the Press,” thinking that would ingratiate them with the host.
Latenight talkshows may be making their own play for the political class, but they still don’t command the same cachet.
Dole once appeared on Jay Leno on the same day as the 95th birthday of his mother-in-law, who was not happy that he was taping in Los Angeles instead of celebrating with her.
“Jay called her up and was saying, ‘Hey, don’t be mad, your son-in-law has finally made it big, he’s going to be with me on “The Tonight Show,”‘ and I had to say, ‘Wait, Jay, let me tell her who you are first.’ “