How to Sound Smart On TV
Don't worry too much about what they're going to ask you. Have a good quip at the ready. And act like you know what you're talking about.
UNTIL 1999 I HAD DONE almost no television. I was a print reporter covering the statehouse. Then the NBC affiliate in Dallas got me a gig on Meet the Press after George W. Bush’s announcement that he was running for president. My first experience on TV was on a roundtable at the end of the show with David Broder, Robert Novak, and Tim Russert. As it turned out, it went very well, because I knew what I was talking about. That’s one of the keys to being a good pundit: Know your material.
Another is, don’t think too much. Generally speaking, you know that what they want you to talk about is politics. The worst thing you can do is formulate paragraph-long answers in advance. My philosophy is: Keep it simple, stupid. Just respond to the questions they ask.
It’s best not to think up a long list of clever lines in advance, either. But part of being a pundit is offering up, supposedly in an offhand way, a throwaway quip. For example, whenever I’m asked about foreign policy these days, I will inevitably say that George W. Bush knows there are electoral votes in Paris, Texas, not Paris, France. When I was on Meet the Press during the 2000 Republican primaries, I was asked why Bush was distancing himself from the rest of the GOP field. What I said was, “Why join the Dalton Gang when you’re doing just fine as the Lone Ranger?” I came up with that line that morning, while I was brushing my teeth. I knew it was a success when I said it and David Broder started laughing.
You have to know who you’re supposed to be. Am I the guy who thinks Bush is dumb? The guy who knows Bush’s history in the National Guard? The guy who can explain Bush’s faith? They’ll let you know; they’ll say, “We want you on to talk about whatever.” Understand your role and fit into it.
And you have to consider the forum. Fifteen minutes on National Public Radio is a heck of a lot different from three minutes on Chris Matthews. Matthews is fast and furious; the noun-verb syntax required is not even close to English. NPR allows you to think through a subject and maybe reach a different conclusion from the one you came in with. Some shows make it easy for you to be a good pundit. Russert’s is absolutely the best. His producer prepares you, and Russert knows the subject—he’s head and shoulders above the rest. So is Ted Koppel; he’s open and bright. It’s an extraordinary thing to be on Nightline. And Bob Edwards on NPR—doing Morning Edition is the best experience. You sit down and have an intelligent conversation, and you just know that everyone in the world is going to hear you. Connie Chung was the worst. She was just horrible. Her method, apparently, was to not read anything you’d written and to interrupt you before you had a chance to answer her. In her mind, that translated into tough journalism.
Whatever you do, don’t let your thoughts wander, especially on TV. If you do, you’re dead. Your face gives it away. Everyone can see that you’re not speaking with authority. And, of course, try to be sure that what you say is right. One time before going on national TV, just before Bush was going to select his running mate, I checked in with a Bush intimate and asked, “Who’s in the running?” What I heard was “Senator George Voinovich, of Ohio”—so I went on national TV and said so. I started a little stir in Ohio. The problem was, it wasn’t true. My “Bush intimate” was floating a trial balloon, and I felt used.
The bottom line is, it’s TV. It’s shtick. You may be talking about foreign policy or domestic policy or the presidency or the war, but it’s still, transparently, entertainment. Keep it bright, short, and direct, and act like you know what the hell you’re talking about.
Wayne Slater is the Austin bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News and the author, with James Moore, of Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential (John Wiley and Sons).