As the second George W. Bush administration gets under way, holdovers from the first one seem to include not only a handful of cabinet secretaries but also the fierce divide that characterized American politics for much of Bush's first term. For evidence of both look no further than the political shoutfests on cable television: Hardball, Crossfire, Hannity & Colmes, and the reigning king, The O'Reilly Factor. Each features an endless procession of motormouths, the most successful of whom display their shaky grasp of current affairs with the belligerent energy of a loutish barfly. Yet the format has spread.
It's easy to assume that all this vitriol flows naturally from the contentious politics of a difficult time. But that isn't quite true. As more shows adopt an adversarial format, people who wish to appear on them must be equipped to survive the ordeal. (Any channel-flipper has surely seen Bill O'Reilly steamroll an overmatched guest.) The idea that someone would create a school to train aspirants in hand-to-hand political combat may sound farfetched—but not in Washington.
Rich Masters, forty-two, is the managing director of media relations at Qorvis Communications, a mid-sized public-relations firm in Washington, and a Jedi master to television pundits. Last year a Qorvis partner spotted an unmet demand—hardcore pundit training—and hired Masters to devise a cutting-edge program to fill it. Qorvis built a faux television studio in downtown Washington solely for this purpose, identical to the real thing in every detail, including decorative books and a rubber ficus.
Masters is an energetic, fast-talking Louisianan, a former television reporter and senatorial staffer who favors alligator-skin boots regardless of the occasion. He is also a player-coach, as rare in the political-talk-show world as in sports: in addition to training clients, he appears regularly on television himself. Were his métier football and not feuding, Masters would be said to prefer a "smash-mouth" style of play; a Democrat, he is a frequent and enthusiastic guest in the enemy territory of Fox News, and gives as good as he gets.
I first met Masters when we sat next to each other on a plane to New York for the Republican convention last summer. It wasn't long before he'd convinced me that pundit training had a bright future. "Even business shows and legal shows require CEOs, lawyers, and accountants to be just as skilled a debater as a political consultant or political-party leader," he pointed out. "Heck, any one of these days you're going to see Emeril hosting a debate on the Food Network over the merits of natural sugar versus a chemical substitute like Splenda." Before we'd landed I'd resolved to put myself in the hands of this master.
Until recently, media-training programs catered largely to a business clientele. With the stock-market boom and the proliferation in the 1990s of business-oriented cable networks like CNBC, the duties of the typical CEO grew to encompass more than just running the company; they now include representing it on television as well. Shrewd public-relations executives realized that hard-charging business leaders didn't always go over as well on television as they did in the boardroom. So as early as the 1960s an industry sprouted up to soften the rough edges—to train executives to speak in plain English rather than in business jargon, to hold their egos in check, and above all to smile and behave agreeably on camera.
The subsequent rise of political-debate shows, however, called for an entirely different skill set—one more or less the opposite of polite and agreeable. On Hardball and its like, egos run rampant, insider jargon predominates, and agreeability, if any can be detected, is strictly limited to commercial breaks.
Many people might think it unusual to seek professional help in order to spend time on television in the company of such bar-emptiers. But Washington is teeming with fixers, and even the most ignoble demands can usually be met for the right price. Occasionally this is problematic for the fixer. On the morning I had arranged for training, Masters appeared flustered and apologized for not being better prepared. Two days earlier the FBI had raided his office and confiscated his computer, he explained with a weary shake of the head—all part of the cost of doing business with another Qorvis client: the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Masters led me to a studio jammed with state-of-the-art equipment: cameras, teleprompters, video monitors, and sleek plasma-screen televisions on which to track and critique my performance. Qorvis gives its clients a choice of goals that, as best I can determine, range from politely assertive, for nonpartisan reporters simply wishing to sneak a word in edgewise, to partisan jerk, for aspiring cable-TV mainstays. I opted for the full-blown-jerk treatment, and Masters seemed pleased.
We began with a video presentation titled "How to Feed the Media Beast Without Getting Eaten," which ticked through the basics. When answering a question, look directly into the camera, put your message in sound-bite format, and never pitch it above a seventh-grade level. (Also sit up straight: "Better breathing equals better sound bites.") To this Masters has brought his own innovation: the Message Diamond. "People think and process information in groups of three," he explained. "Larry, Curly, Moe. Beginning, middle, end. Anytime you answer a question, first hit your message, then enhance it with a story or an anecdote, then hit it again. Narrow, wide, narrow." He made a diamond with his fingers.
Not every question is a welcome one. A Republican must occasionally grapple with news that reflects well on Democrats and (more likely) vice versa. In such instances the cornered pundit must "find the gloomy lining." Masters counsels clients to either broaden the question or narrow it, depending on what suits their partisan purposes. Was Bush helped by strong job numbers this month? Then the broader issue is the continual outsourcing of American jobs. Are Hillary's favorability ratings on the rise? No problem: in red states she still ranks below avian flu.
The truly professional pundit understands that although the bickering and shouting may appear to be a free-flowing drama, television is rigidly segmented, most segments running about three minutes. This makes it possible, Masters explains, to "filibuster"—a technique he himself employs. "When you're up against an opponent and a question comes your way," he says, "start talking and keep talking. A lot of times inexperienced hosts don't know how to control the interview, and you literally run out the clock—you get to hit your message repeatedly and prevent your opponent from getting hers out at all."
One of the fun things about Masters is that he shows clips of his own TV appearances to illustrate these techniques. We watched a snippet of him easily outmaneuvering one of the blonde replicants who host Fox News and launching into a disquisition on John Kerry. Masters's verbal dexterity called to mind the famous speed-talking Federal Express commercials of the 1980s, as he strung together diamond after diamond to draw out an impressive filibuster that left his opponent exasperated.
Often, of course, one is pitted against an equally capable foe and must break a filibuster. This, too, is an art form. "Don't scream," Masters warns. "You'll look nuts. Wait till they breathe and then pounce!" Masters believes that demeanor is crucial. He recommends interrupting in a funny way ("Whoa, hold the wagon, lady!") and shouting down an adversary only as a last resort. As long as you're not Al Gore, loud sighs and theatrically rolled eyes are good signals to the host that you'd like to butt in.
A more advanced maneuver includes strategically dispensing obsequious praise to co-opt an opponent—a kind of verbal jujitsu that thwarts a loaded question by exploiting an adversary's ego or rare streak of intellectual honesty. Masters played a Fox News clip in which he was pitted against the former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, a noted conservative. The host asked, in the taunting way that Fox hosts do, whether Kerry's attacks on the Patriot Act didn't signify a general wimpiness among Democrats. Masters, realizing that Keating hailed from the libertarian strain of conservatives who look askance at government oversight, returned serve: "Well, Governor Keating has done some remarkable work on this subject, and I actually agree with him that the Patriot Act raises serious concerns." Point to Masters.
Part of the Qorvis experience includes a Madden-like play-by-play breakdown of one's prior talk-show appearances. (The company also provides "scouting reports" on the major hosts.) Because the nettlesome FBI agents had carted off his computer, Masters told me, he was not able to pull my clips. Instead we adjourned to the studio for some role-playing exercises. Masters assumed the persona of a self-important talk-show host and began peppering me with questions. Though I considered myself battle-tested, he effortlessly picked apart my performance when we reviewed the tape. He gently explained that I had a "bobblehead problem"—that is, as the "host" delivered a question, I assumed a stern expression and nodded my head vigorously, aiming, I suppose, for an air of calm sagacity. But as he fast-forwarded through the replay to illustrate his point, I plainly looked idiotic, my head apparently fixed on a piston. I made a mental note to maintain rigid posture and a plastic smile in the future.
More troubling was that I committed a cardinal sin while attempting to maintain a filibuster: I ran out of things to say. This is a problem that plagues inexperienced pundits, but Masters has an easy solution: come up with a list of talking points and commit them to memory. "To train yourself," he went on, "be prepared to weave your points into any conversation. It's a fun thing to practice at cocktail parties." Also, I thought, deeply illuminating as to the stultifying conversation at most Washington parties. Masters was serious, though. "As a training exercise, make a bet with a colleague and see who can weave their talking points into the conversation without the rest of the guests' realizing it."
He sent me on my way with a suggestion concerning my pale complexion and the attendant need for makeup. True black belts, he advised, carry their own "base powder" in the event that a tardy arrival precludes a visit to the makeup artist, and he stressed that I should too. As we parted company, Masters encouraged me to wangle party invitations and put my new skills to work, which I intend to do—assuming, once my training secret is out, I still get any.