Not in office, but in power

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The Independent Online
DWIGHT EISENHOWER did little to conceal his distaste for sensation-seeking columnists and commentators. George Bush was openly combative towards them: beset by media criticism during his bid for re-election last year, he urged his supporters to 'take it out on the talking heads in the national press'. His campaign rhetoric was directed more at pundits than opponents.

Dubbed 'the punditocracy', these unashamedly partisan - and largely conservative - commentators have been elevated by media exposure to a level well beyond mere politicians. To paraphrase Voltaire, they know everything worth knowing, and more - as the television pundit Fred Barnes claimed, 'I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority.'

The power of the American pundits lies in their ability to reach a far wider audience - through a combination of regular television appearances and newspaper columns syndicated nationwide - and so exert a far greater influence on the political climate than either the average congressman or the charmed circle of Washington think-tanks.

It was the punditocracy - spearheaded by George Will, Pat Buchanan and William F Buckley Jnr - that formed the vanguard of the Reagan Revolution in the early Eighties. It was their zealous support that enabled Mr Reagan to steer 'Star Wars' through Congress, while their bellicosity first secured congressional approval for Mr Bush's bombing of Baghdad and then spurred the lacklustre president into action to protect the Kurds.

The weekly apotheosis of the punditocracy is on Sunday mornings, when 'talking heads' congregate on The McLaughlin Group - a no-holds-barred brawl between five pundits, fought out under the glare of John McLaughlin, a former Nixon speechwriter. The programme leaves its patrician predecessor, William F Buckley Jnr's Firing Line, sauntering in its wake. Mr McLaughlin will set the agenda with an imperious 'Issue One]', dismiss his colleagues' opinions with a maliciously gleeful 'WRONG]]', and reduce the political debate to predictions on a scale of one to 10 - 'zero being zero possibility, 10 being absolute metaphysical certitude'.

Its carnivorously confrontational style makes riveting viewing. The show not only draws the highest ratings among current affairs programmes, but also - crucially - enjoys unrivalled access to insider information. After years of cunningly calculated leaks to the show, the Reagan White House finally paid The McLaughlin Group the ultimate accolade - a tribute from the President himself. 'I wouldn't miss it,' he confessed, 'I can't afford to.'

The Reagans, shrewdly gauging the influence of the talking heads on public opinion, were assiduous in their courtship of the punditocracy - dining chez McLaughlin, lunching with George Will at the Jockey Club, holidaying with the Buckleys in Barbados. The relationship was mutual - Mr Will contributed to Mr Reagan's speeches and debates, while Pat Buchanan became his director of communications.

Increasingly perceived as the arbiter of political debate in the US, the punditocracy has become a lucrative profession. The disputatious double-act Evans and Novak have built up an empire of opinion - writing syndicated press columns, hosting two talk-shows on CNN, circulating Washington gossip in the guise of newsletters, and lecturing at a hefty price. Mr Will's pundit pulling power rakes in dollars 20,000 ( pounds 13,500) a speech, while Mr Buchanan's annual income reportedly approaches dollars 1m.

Mr Buchanan indeed is leading the punditocracy to new heights - or depths, depending on your viewpoint - in his transition from pundit to presidential contender. And it works both ways: while Mr Buchanan prowled the campaign trail in 1992, that consummate politician John Sununu, former White House chief of staff, substituted for him on CNN; likewise, Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, is now a power-pundit, bringing his intellectual gravitas to bear on world events from his Park Avenue eyrie.

When Mr Buckley ran - unsuccessfully - for mayor of New York in 1965, he was asked what he would do if elected. 'Demand a recount,' came the urbane reply. What need had Mr Buckley for public office when he was already editor of the magazine described by Mr Will as 'the most consequential journal of opinion ever'?

When Mr Buckley, appalled at the ideological inertia of the Eisenhower administration, founded National Review in 1955, he sought 'to revitalise the conservative position'. Thirty-five years later, Mr Will was able to credit National Review with being 'the beating heart of the movement that has transformed America'. After laying the philosophical foundations of the 'Reagan Doctrine' in foreign policy, it galvanised the domestic agenda of the Eighties with articles that became seminal studies of education and welfare.

When has a British prime minister spoken of the Spectator or New Statesman as indispensible? How many members of the Cabinet turn to columnists rather than think- tanks for new policy initiatives? Are television programmes such as A Week in Politics as pivotal as the political pyrotechnics of The McLaughlin Group? How many editorial page commentators are reverentially invited on to the evening news to pronounce on the issues of the day?

As yet, there are no British equivalents of the American pundits. The staid air of Westminster recalls the Washington establishment prior to the enlivening emergence of the punditocracy. As George Will would say, 'Et tu, Britain?'

The authors are the directors of Independent Policy Research, an Anglo-American consultancy. They are exploring the possibility of publishing a UK edition of 'National Review'.

Peter Pringle is on holiday.

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