Advice from the ‘Full Ginsburg’

For four and a half hours every Sunday, they hold the attention of official Washington, D.C., grilling members of Congress, Cabinet officials, world leaders and occasionally the president. Collectively they are known as the “Full Ginsburg,” named for Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer William Ginsburg, who appeared on all five shows on Feb. 1, 1998 — a rare feat in Washington.

Only a handful of public officials have appeared on all five political talk shows, the most recent being White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew in February on the president’s budget, and before that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann after she won the Iowa straw poll last year in the GOP presidential primary.

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Bob Schieffer, Candy Crowley, Chris Wallace, George Stephanopoulos and David Gregory freely admit to being political junkies. Four of them came to the anchor desk after years of reporting at the local and national levels. Stephanopoulos, who served as a senior adviser to former President Clinton, left politics to become a political analyst for ABC’s “This Week with David Brinkley” in 1997, eventually stepping into the veteran newsman’s shoes in 2002.

“I took one of the more unusual paths to where I am today,” Stephanopoulos said.

Many in the political news business might aspire to sit at the anchor desk, but few are chosen, and those who make it have to be at the top of their game. And while it’s not something you can plan for, it is something for which you can prepare, should the call come.

NBC’s Gregory knows this only too well. After the sudden death of “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert in June 2008, former “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw was called back into service while the network searched for a permanent replacement for Russert. Six months later Brokaw turned the reins over to Gregory, who was then the network’s chief White House correspondent, known for his tough line of questioning.

Now in his fourth year, Gregory recalls his feelings at the time. Having spent eight years on the White House beat, and before that stints covering the high-profile trials of O.J. Simpson and Timothy McVeigh, Gregory felt he was ready.

“I think I knew what I was getting into in terms of how challenging the job is and how important it is,” he said. “People pay close attention to what the guests say, what they don’t say.”

He’s right — what’s said on these Sunday talk shows drives the political conversation Monday morning in Washington, and how politicians perform can do good, but also harm.

Former House Speaker and GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (Ga.) was widely condemned by party officials for criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget last year as “social engineering,” and had to quickly backtrack in the days following his appearance. Gregory wasn’t surprised. “To me it was Newt being Newt and thinking out loud. It was a really interesting ‘Meet the Press’ moment,” said Gregory said.

Unscripted moments such as this are what make the political talk shows worth watching. Wallace, who has the unique distinction of hosting two Sunday shows in his career — he moderated “Meet the Press” from 1987-88 and now hosts “Fox News Sunday” — remembers interviewing Clinton in 2006 about his post-presidency work. But a question on why

Clinton hadn’t done more to put Osama bin Laden away clearly upset the former president — and Wallace let him run with it.

“I know when a guy is making news like that to just let it roll. It shocked me, but it was one hell of an interview,” Wallace told The Hill.

Not all interviews are as dramatic or riveting. For the most part, the Sunday morning anchors spend their 15 or 20 minutes of allotted time with each guest trying to cut through the talking points politicians typically bring to the table. After all, both moderator and guest each have a different definition of a successful appearance.

“I try to get something real,” said Gregory. “I’m always hopeful with my own curiosity they’ll reveal something that’s illuminating.”

Still, some guests can be more engaging than others. Stephanopoulos, who recently returned for a second stint on “This Week,” says he always enjoyed when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared on his show.

“We came prepared, but he threw away his talking points,” Stephanopoulos explained. “Instead we had a real discussion and debate, and it was exciting — the producers enjoyed it, too.”

Gregory said one of his most engaging guests has New Jersey Republican governor Chris Christie. “He is someone who answers the question but challenges you as an interviewer,” he said.

Although a newcomer to the Sunday morning circuit, Crowley is no stranger to Washington — the host of CNN’s “State of the Union” knows politics inside and out. And while she’s the only female host among the five, she doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer or for other women to follow. “People before me did that,” said Crowley.

Like her colleagues, she says she’s been influenced by some of the best in the business, including the late Mike Wallace, and that she remains focused on the story — which right now is the presidential campaign.

Now, all eyes are on who the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, will pick to be his running mate. This is what the anchors live for.

“The blood runs faster in election season. The fall campaign is hard to beat no matter how many times I’ve done it,” Crowley said. “It’s just fun.”

Perhaps no one knows presidential campaigns or politics better than Schieffer, CBS’s “Face the Nation” moderator; the veteran broadcaster has been in the news business since the 1960s. He also wears a unique badge of honor, having earned his stripes on the four top beats in Washington, at the Pentagon, the State Department, Capitol Hill and the White House. Now in his third decade as a Sunday morning host, he’s reported on every presidential campaign since 1972.

Well-liked and respected by his peers, Schieffer is known for giving young reporters help and encouragement along the way. “Journalism is an apprentice-learned craft,” he said.

“Find someone who knows more than you do and your style should evolve out of that.”

For those wishing to follow in their footsteps, all five moderators will tell you that hard work, long hours and passion for the craft will pay off. Being both prepared and curious are key, as well.

“I’m a big believer in a broad liberal arts education,” said Gregory. “Critical thinking skills are what’s important. Critical thinking and good writing are so central to it [journalism], and curiosity.”

And while the news is a serious business, it’s important not to take yourself too seriously. Stephanopoulos knows his children will keep him grounded. “My kids are young, they’re a lot more excited for Taylor Swift than Romney or Obama,” he said.