I’ll be on the road, shortly, so I can’t get to the link to the new C&E mag, which made its debut today. Here’s my first stab at a column – which anticipated the Ann Coulter flapdoodle, but not the magnitude of it. Hope you like it.
Right about now – right about the time you are squinting at the inaugural offering From the War Room! – American political pundit Ann Coulter is somewhere in Canada, shrieking about something or the other.
We’re not quite sure how she got in. But one thing is for certain: we must make a collective effort to ensure that she never, ever enters Canuckistan again. Ever. We have anti-banshee importation laws up here, you know.
The presence of such a, er, famous U.S. pundit presents us with a timely opportunity to answer a few questions that I, as a charter member of the commentariat, am often asked: what is a pundit, exactly? Who gets to be one? Do the media decide, or the political parties? Do pundits get paid vast sums for their scintillating insights and witty repartee? If so, how does one get invited back? What makes for effective punditry, and what will serve to embarrass your family members and closest friends, for generations to come?
That – that little thing right there – is something that a pundit (on TV or radio political panels, at least) should never say “um.” Also: “er.” Equally unhelpful: “you know.”
To be effective, to rhetorically slay all partisan opponents within the immediate vicinity, it is essential that a pundit sounds like he or she knows what he or she is opining about. (Even when, often, you don’t.) Gaps in your banter suggest to your adversaries – and, worse, the panel’s host, and Joe and Jane Frontporch, suspiciously eyeballing the on-air shenanigans at home – that you are making it up as you go along.
Which, as mentioned, pundits often do.
The simple fact of on-air punditry is this: there is not enough time in the day to prepare for a five-minute-long TV appearance, on which any number of verbal curveballs may be tossed your way. Some hosts, in fact – like CTV’s Tom Clark, who is an expert at this – delight in surprising his Conservative, Liberal and New Democrat panelists with an unexpected question or factoid. When in receipt of same, and the fire alarm is too far away to be pulled, I simply say: “Speaking for myself only…” In that way, your political party of choice is not compelled to disown you. Which happens, believe me.
So what, you query, is a pundit anyway? Mostly, it’s a gal or guy who editorializes about an issue. He or she attacks the other side, and defends their own. That’s it: attack and defend, attack and defend.
One of the best TV and radio pundits around is the guy I spar with most often: the Conservative Party’s Tim Powers. Tim, a Newfoundland-born rugby player with a ready grin, knows one of the cardinal rules of punditry: never take the punditocracy stuff too seriously.
On air, Powers is self-deprecating when the circumstances demand it – and he also knows when to concede a point, and laugh at himself and his team. Also easy-going is his fellow Tory, former Stephen Harper comms boss, Kory Teneycke. Kory, who looks about twelve years old, never lets an opponent get under his skin, and never loses his cool. But he gets his point across, in a viewer/listener-friendly way.
TV punditry in particular, you see, is mostly about entertainment. That’s not to say there isn’t room for serious, sober reflection when on-air – and the New Democrat’s highly-respected Anne McGrath, is one of the best in the business at relating useful information in a manner that doesn’t sound like a three-hour political science lecture – but, generally, TV punditry isn’t about information. It’s about emotion.
Long, long ago – when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, and Treasury Board president Stockwell Day was there to witness them with his own eyes (sorry, I sometimes just can’t help myself) – my approach to punditry was to treat it like an exam: study, study, study, and cram as much information as possible into my tiny cranium. I would then show up at the studio, crib notes clutched in my sweaty hands, and use the minutes-long segment to recite as many statistics and facts as the schedule permitted. Dead pan.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The best approach to punditry – and, for that matter, speech-writing and scrums and legislative work – is to do what The Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan, used to do. Have one main theme, and no more than two or three supportive related themes. Stick to them religiously. Keep it simple, keep it relevant, keep it as upbeat as the circumstances permit. That’s winning political communications. That’s punditry that works.
What doesn’t work, in my opinion, is becoming the story – which the aforementioned Ms. Coulter, now jetting to and fro in Canada on her broom, does on a regular basis. What doesn’t work is indulging in rhetoric that is so extreme, so hysterical, that the only people who end up paying attention to you are other hysterical, extremist red-necked mouth-breathers (like, well, Ms. Coulter). What doesn’t work is becoming a circus sideshow. Like Ann Coulter is.
Political punditry is fun and often funny. It is no way to get rich, but your mother may be happy to see you (occasionally) on her TV screen.
And the best pundit rule of all? Watch Ann Coulter, then say and do the reverse.
Works every time.