A day in the life of the King of Quotes begins as it should: in the make-up room. Mild-mannered Norman Ornstein sits patiently and just a bit anxiously as a producer pats powder onto his cheeks and under his eyes. 8 a.m., ten minutes until air time.
He walks onto the set of CBS “Morning News,” on which he has a regular political discussion with Cokie Roberts of National Public Radio. The host, Charlie Rose, greets them from a TV monitor, noting thankfully how little he has to coach his two guests. “You two make this so easy for me. It’s like breathing for you!”
They’re on, and after five minutes of chit-chat about the Senate elections, the segment is over. But Norman Ornstein’s day as one of the most quoted people in Washington is just beginning. An hour later he is off to the Brookings Institution to give a speech to visiting business executives. They listen politely as he offers brief analyses of Senate elections, congressional performance, the summit, and tax reform, and urges responsible leadership to cure the deficit. The polite attention shifts to excitement, with several people literally moving to the edge of their chairs, when Ornstein, a frequent guest on “Nightline,” tells them what Ted Koppel is really like. “I hold him in awe,” he says, to their delight.
Back to his office at the American Enterprise Institute in downtown Washington. In the hour Ornstein has been gone, ten people have called, including reporters and producers from Westinghouse Television, The Christian Science Monitor, the Swedish Broadcasting Network, and Aviation Week. In the next hour he is interrupted by calls from the Chronicle Broadcasting network and WFAA, the ABC affiliate in Dallas.
At noon he dashes down the hallway to a nearby conference room, where he does a sit-down interview assessing Congress’s performance. “What grade would you give them?” asks a reporter from Westinghouse. “A ‘B’. . It surprises me that we got as much done as we did,” says Ornstein.
Ten minutes later, he’s down the elevator and out in front of the building to do a stand-up interview. A half hour later, a different crew is there for another. Passersby stop and gaze at the celebrity.
Monday morning has finally ended for Norman J. Ornstein, political scientist.
Like a narcotic
Norman Ornstein is officially a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Unofficially, he is the number-one professional analyst of Congress and, increasingly, of Washington in general. He has appeared about ten times on “Nightline” and 30 times on “The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour” in addition to frequent appearances on the CBS “Morning News,” National Public Radio, and NBC’s “Today Show.” He’s quoted in publications ranging from Sport to Ladies Home Journal to The Wall Street Journal. In the past year he was quoted more than 300 times by major print news organizations and at least as often by smaller newspapers—a level of visibility that would make many a U.S. senator envious.
Journalists have been known to go to great lengths to talk to Ornstein. “Nightline” producers who were preparing a show on tax reform last May discovered to their horror that Ornstein was in Bermuda. They tracked him down and set up a special satellite hook-up. “He is certainly accorded royal status,” says Tara Sonenshine, a “Nightline” producer. “We wanted him bad and were willing to go to Bermuda to get him.”
Los Angeles Times political reporters had been quoting him so often that editors out West last year tried to impose an Ornstein moratorium. “The editors said there must be someone else in town you could quote,” recalls Robert Shogan, national political correspondent at the Times and a regular Ornstein user.
Reporters speak of Ornstein quotes almost as if they were a narcotic. “You get hooked,” says Helen Dewar, Capitol Hill correspondent for The Washington Post and a longtime Ornstein addict. “Sometimes I’d go in circles trying not to quote him, and then I’d get to writing and there would be that Norman Ornstein quote that just summed it up and I just had to use it.”
It is not readily apparent how this bright but seemingly unremarkable man became the main voice in the media expressing expert opinion and analysis about American politics and government. Although a few TV producers point out that he is “cute,” his is a rather ordinary cuteness. While he is considered a well-polished TV commentator, he still conveys a slight nervousness. When he is introduced on CBS “Morning News,” his smile is sudden and tight, as if someone just asked him to say “cheese.” He is articulate, but his prose doesn’t ignite. Obviously, there is more here than meets the camera lens; Norman Ornstein is a phenomenon. His importance tells much about political journalism, how it has changed and what its limitations are.
The punchy entrepreneur
When isolated and dissected, the Ornstein quote does not seem particularly impressive. Its beauty, say many reporters, lies in part in its simplicity. It is often a straightforward, bold, declarative statement. “Norm has learned how to give the unconditional quote,” says Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and the Norman Ornstein of that state. “Most academics are so fearful of being wrong that they pile on qualifications until the quotes lose their verbal stamina!”
Ornstein’s quotes are punchy. On the dreary subject of budget policy, Ornstein told the American Banker, “The president’s 1984 budget was deemed dead on arrival. The 1985 budget was dead before arrival. And the 1986 budget is dead before drafting” He told Financial Times that “Congress and the President have handcuffed themselves to one another and jumped off the cliff without knowing whether they will land on a plump mattress or a bed of nails!” In a Wall Street Journal article on congressional oversight hearings, Ornstein said, “The watchdog phenomenon can have its political payoffs, especially if you can combine oversight with something sexy like $600 toilet seats or drug-using terrorists who abuse children.” And on April 7, 1986, Ornstein’s remark on efforts to trace Ferdinand Marcos’s fortune— “This is going to be one of the biggest boons to American law firms we’ve seen in a long time ” —was USA Today’s “Quote of the Day.”
Just as important, the quotes are there when you need them. He is known as one of the fastest phone call-returners in town and has a knack for sensing what the reporter is looking for and getting right to it. “He is an astute observer of Congress and has an uncanny ability to take a very complicated subject and make it interesting and understandable,” explains Peggy Robinson, senior political producer at “MacNeil/Lehrer.” “He is,” she concludes, “the master of the pithy quote.”
That’s part of it. But one cannot rise to become, in Garrison Nelson’s phrase, “The King of Quotes” simply by being glib. Ornstein’s rise has come about mostly because of fundamental changes in political science, politics, and reporting. In 1972, when Norman Ornstein came to town as an assistant professor at Catholic University, political scientists in Washington were not plugged into the day-to-day events in politics. They either did laborious studies of the government or abstract theoretical research that could have been done in Washington state as easily as in Washington D.C. But the opportunity existed to try a different kind of political science. Congress was becoming a more open institution, more accommodating to study by outsiders.
Meanwhile, in part because of an increasing recognition that the public was getting its day-to-day news from television, print reporters began practicing more interpretive journalism. Editors started to ask for a what-does-it-all-mean paragraph along with who, what, where, and when. These forces combined to create a tremendous need for someone who could act as a bridge between political journalists and political science—someone who could provide an element of depth, or at least create the illusion of depth, in journalism. Enter Norman Ornstein. “Norm carved out a whole new role,” says Alan Ehrenhalt, political editor of Congressional Quarterly. “Before him there was a void . . . . He’s been a very good entrepreneur.”
Ornstein was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1948, but spent most of his childhood in Canada. His father was a traveling salesman specializing in women’s clothing, his mother was a housewife, and he was a child prodigy. He graduated from high school at age 14, from college at 18. By 19 he had a master’s degree; by 24 his doctorate. His high-school yearbook said, “Our avid debater seems to think Canada should be the 51st state,” and added, “Ambition: to prove his point.”
In 1964 he went to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, starting out as a pre-med but switching to a social science major. He went on to graduate school in political science at the University of Michigan. Although Michigan’s political science department is a center of the quantitative approach to political science, Ornstein infused his work with what is known in the discipline as “participant observation” He spent a year as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow, working on Capitol Hill for Rep. Donald Fraser of Minnesota.
Soon after the completion of his dissertation, in which he studied the relationship between the size of Senate staffs and issue specialization, he was weighing teaching offers at two schools, the University of Minnesota and Catholic University in Washington. The University of Minnesota position fell through, so he went to Catholic University. The traditional road of an aspiring political scientist was to teach at a Big Ten or Ivy League school. Ornstein, through no choice of his own, was going to a little-known and littlerespected school. That decision turned out to be pivotal. “When I got here I realized I had a terrific opportunity,” Ornstein says. “I realized there were very few political scientists interested in Congress based in Washington. As soon as I got here it was clear I was going to be like a kid in a candy store,” Ornstein recalls. “There were things that I could do with one finger of my left hand that it would take others an enormous effort to do.” Professors from out of town would have to set aside a month to visit Washington, find an apartment, get a grant, and then struggle to get ten minutes with an impatient congressman. Then they would go home and write an academic paper that might be published a year later. It was impossible for them to stay on top of current legislative trends.
Ornstein on the other hand, could be patient, setting up interviews throughout the year. Over time he built up contacts and friendships among members and aides; he now has access to virtually any member of Congress. “There are a lot of other political scientists out there who have a staggering understanding of Congress, and there are plenty who are brighter than I am, but they’re not around,” he says.
Ornstein’s involvement with the press began rather inauspiciously in 1973. “I was sitting in a laundromat near Capitol Hill waiting for my clothes to dry,” he recalls. He had just finished reading a new book about former Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell. “On an impulse I scribbled out a book review and sent it to The Washington Post’s ‘Book World The Post liked it so much that they published it on the front page of the Style section. “That whetted my appetite for writing for newspapers. I began to think, ‘why can’t I be doing writing with more appeal?’ ”
Soon he was writing more book reviews and op-ed pieces. Then he became more deeply involved in the broadcast media and in hands-on legislating. He provided commentary for PBS on Nelson Rockefeller’s vice presidential confirmation hearings in 1974. In 1976 he began appearing on the “MacNeil Report,” the forerunner of “MacNeil/Lehrer.” The next year he served as committee staff director of the Senate Temporary Select Committee to Study the Senate Committee System.
In 1981 he became the political editor of “The Lawmakers,” a public TV show on Congress, and in 1983 became the series editor of “Congress: We the People,” a 26-part telecourse that he credits with helping him learn how to deal with the broadcast media. “I did editing, I interviewed, I wrote scripts. I had to try to fit sound bites into the script,” he says. “You’d have some person son who couldn’t make eye contact and someone who couldn’t answer a question in less than 72 sentences. I spent hours trying to get something I could use.” In much the same way that writing 750 word op-ed pieces made him sensitive to the constraints of print reporters, this experience taught him about the needs of TV and radio journalists.
In 1983, Ornstein, along with several other political scientists, resigned from the Catholic University faculty in protest over the treatment of a political scientist who they felt was denied tenure for political reasons and because she was a woman. The move to the American Enterprise Institute, whose corporate sponsors value high-impact, public affairs commentators, increased his visibility and allowed him to spend more time making himself known. With each appearance on “MacNeil/Lehrer,” each quotation in a newspaper and each article he published (more than 130 since 1972, including two in The Washington Monthly), his recognition grew.
Is Ornstein a media hound? Really, he’s more of a houndee, but then again he just doesn’t know how to say no. “I don’t know why I do those,” he says referring to interviews with smaller media outlets. “I just wouldn’t feel right about myself if I told ABC, CBS, and NBC to come and told the little stations no.” Part of it is that there is still the teacher in him. Ornstein delights in showing around reporters, particularly newer ones, giving them his theories, and helping break them in. Finally, part of it— although he insists it’s a small part—is that Ornstein simply enjoys being famous. Women come up to him in supermarkets, his kids get to see papa on the same station as Mr. Rogers (although he says that since they got a video camera of their own “they’ve become pretty blase”) and he now earns about $80,000 a year, more than a quarter of that from speaking fees. The $3,000 he can command for a speech is a pittance compared to what George Will or Henry Kissinger take in, but quite a bit more than your average teacher of government. He also has control over his own schedule, can say whatever he wants to whomever he wants, and gets immediate responses to what he’s written. “There’s something very nice about that,” he says.
Fleet Owner source
Part of what Ornstein does for the press is apply the basics of history and political science to current events. When the Los Angeles Times last year profiled Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, Ornstein explained why such a junior member could have an impact that he couldn’t have had in the days of Sam Rayburn. “You now have an open and fluid enough institution, especially given the media coverage, that the individual who sets himself out as a kind of rebel can get a lot of attention.” In a piece for The Washington Times on Reagan, Ornstein gave a short summary of the theory of incrementalism: “We don’t measure American politics by huge gains. It changes in the margins. The successful president is one who can make those changes look like significant victories, and shape them a little bit so that they move his way.” And hardly a week goes by without Ornstein defending the slow-moving government by pointing out that “the Founding Fathers designed the political system to prevent dramatic change.”
But Ornstein expounds on not just the intricacies of congressional process but on just about any topic. He talked to Sport magazine about regulation of the NFL, to Aviation Week and Space Technology about Gramm-Rudmares effect on the defense budget, to Fleet Owner about labor policy, and to the New York Post about unstable presidents. He gave his thoughts on abortion to Ladies Home Journal, on TV and politics to Video Review, and on the farm bill to the California-Arizona Farm Press. He talked about Rep. Jim Jones to the Tulsa World, about Rep. Lynn Martin to The Washington Post, and about Tip O’Neill to the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.
Ornstein gets his information by reading The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times every day, and the Almanac of American Politics periodically. He also milks the reporters who call him and tries to go to Capitol Hill twice a week. “I have to work at it. There’s a real danger in coasting,” he says.
While some journalists just call for the ten second sound bite, others will talk to Ornstein at great length on background, to test out hypotheses, learn some history, even get some reading recommended. “I just trust his judgment,” says Robert Shogan of the Los Angeles Times. “If I was going to buy a used car I’d call him. I like to talk to him!”
The best shortcut
Unfortunately, Norman Ornstein is not merely a resource; he is a prop, and sometimes a crutch, for political reporters.
In some cases, he simply provides journalists with a way of circumventing the constraints of traditional reporting; if you can’t state an opinion yourself, you can use a Norman Ornstein quote. “Frankly, sometimes I end up using him because he distilled the point I’ve been trying to make all along,” says The Washington Post’s Helen Dewar. When reporters think they know something but aren’t sure or haven’t found enough evidence to prove it, they can go to Ornstein. “If my instinct might tell me that it’s 50-50 then I can use Norman Ornstein” to state it more definitively, says Jon Shure, a reporter with the Bergen Record of New Jersey.
Sometimes Ornstein tells reporters little more than they already know or than they could find out by talking to a colleague. “I think very highly of Norman Ornstein. By the same token I don’t think he knows any more than any good political reporter,” says John Barry of Dun’s Business Month. But, as Shure says, “It doesn’t look good to quote another reporter. It looks like you’re not doing your legwork.”
Even when Ornstein’s quotes don’t really add anything to the piece, reporters feel they give the story more credibility. The result is that his quotes often are less glimmers of insight than statements of the obvious. “Lobbying is as old as the Republic, if not older,” Ornstein told People. “You can be sure that if we go into the 1986 elections and farmers believe the Republican party has turned its back on them, they will vote accordingly,” he said in the Los Angeles Times.
The first paragraph of a Fortune article by Craig C. Carter included the sentence: ” [Rep. Jim] Wright is way out in front in the race for Speaker,’ says Norman Ornstein, a veteran Congress watcher at the American Enterprise Institute.” Carter admits he and everyone else in Washington knew Wright was ahead, but says the Ornstein quote “gave credibility to my own judgment. Ornstein is seen as being an authority.” Just last month, The Washington Monthly quoted Ornstein three times in a cover story on Sen. Albert Gore.
There may come a time when Ornstein is quoted so often that newspapers will be too embarrassed to quote the same person every other publication uses. But so far, the more Ornstein gets quoted, the more of an authority he becomes.
Ornstein says that reporters will often interview him at great length but then quote only his most inane comments. In addition, Ornstein says he does not tailor his opinions to fit the point of the story. The titles given him, however, have often proven to be quite flexible. He has been labeled an “economist” in New York Times stories about tax reform, an expert on “congressional-White House relations” in a Boston Globe article on presidential leadership, and simply a “political pundit” in an American Banker article on the Senate elections. “Nightline” has described him as a “congressional scholar” for a show about the Senate, “political scientist” for a show on the politics of presidential cancer, and a “tax policy expert” for a show on tax reform.
Ornstein has become so established as an expert that journalists will quote him on anything, even when it’s beyond his area of expertise. The Christian Science Monitor quoted Ornstein about the direction Edwin Meese was likely to take at the Justice Department when he became attorney general. A 1986 editorial in the Journal of Commerce quoted “economist” Norman Ornstein as saying an oil import fee is “the least compelling” tax that Congress was considering. The Grand Fork Farm and Home of North Dakota printed a story from Combined Commodity News Services with the headline, “Congress won’t make severe farm cuts.” The source: Norman Ornstein, who “said last week that the 1985 farm bill would include reductions in price supports that are more than token but less than severe.” In an article in Sport magazine about Sen. John Warner’s serving on the board of directors of the Washington Redskins, Ornstein said it “doesn’t sound advisable to me” that Warner should resign or abstam during a vote affecting sports franchises.
In part, the constraints of daily journalism necessitate reliance on an outside expert. Craig Carter didn’t have time to talk to enough members of Congress to make an independent judgment on the speaker’s race. And certainly a New York Times reporter will not be allowed to state his or her opinion about who is going to win a race. In addition, though, there are journalists who rely on Norman Ornstein because they are intellectually insecure. They are afraid to make judgments on their own because they aren’t able themselves to put daily events into context, and because they could be wrong; it’s better if, instead, it’s Norman Ornstein who’s wrong.
Many Washington journalists feel more comfortable with politics than government. Campaign reporters tend to focus on the horse race without evaluating policies and issues; congressional reporters too often concentrate on whether the bill will pass, not what it would do. All the more reason that Norman Ornstein is a star. He is a process man in a town obsessed with the process.
Ornstein is careful that he be seen as not just well-informed, but non-partisan. When pressed he says he is a moderate Democrat, but only when pressed. “I want to keep them guessing,” he says. He gave Reagan an A- grade for his first year, but has sharply criticized Donald Regan. He has praised Republican Robert Dole and Democrat Mario Cuomo. He has favorite and least favorite legislators but will rarely give a one-sided assessment. “I don’t want to be known as a professional nay-sayer.”
This attitude is crucial for maintaining his standing as a detached, and therefore credible, observer. “We use him as a one-person truth squad,” says Peggy Robinson of “MacNeil/Lehrer.” “He can sit back and provide analysis, and, most important, he is a nonpartisan voice.” Most of his analysis is decidedly mainstream, and it is to his advantage that the American Enterprise Institute is considered ideologically in between the conservative Heritage Foundation and the liberal Brookings Institution. Reporters will often go to a conservative for one side of an issue and a liberal for the other, and then to Ornstein as the final authority. In every way—the centrism, the non-partisanship, the respectability, the quick reaction time—Ornstein answers a deep, anthropological need of the Washington press. He answers it so fully as to have created a stampede that must seem very odd to outsiders. It has gotten to the point that the “conventional wisdom,” that amorphous consensus of opinions held by respectable powers-that-be, is not so amorphous after all. It is what Norman Ornstein is thinking.
Ornstein gathers information from reporters, legislators and opinion makers, digests it and then, through his middle-of-the-road, process-oriented prism, reflects it out in a fine beam of light onto “MacNeil/Lehrer.” Ornstein predicted radical tax reform wouldn’t pass, and wasn’t that the conventional wisdom? He also predicted in 1980 that the Democrats would lose only four to five Senate seats (they lost 12) and that they would gain two to six seats in 1986 (they won 8). That was the conventional wisdom, too. If it doesn’t represent the popular consensus before he says it, it may become so if he’s quoted enough. “He helps set the conventional wisdom,” says John Barry. “Almost by definition he is conventional wisdom.”
Ornstein’s fame has given him a somewhat awkward position in the political science community. He is read and heard by more people than any other political scientist. Others in the profession respect him for providing a bridge between them and journalists. He doesn’t speak the language of political science, but he understands it. Indeed, Ornstein has typified and, in some ways, spurred a change in the field. There is now a growing group of other people in town serving the same function as Ornstein, though without as much recognition. At AEI alone, Allen Schick explains the budget process, William Schneider talks about national politics, Michael Robinson discusses politics and the media, Michael Malbin talks about interest groups and lobbying, and Ben Wattenberg pontificates about the media. Reporters also call congressional experts Stephen Smith and Stephen Hess at Brookings, Roger Davidson at the Congressional Research Service, and Robert Peabody at Johns Hopkins, the veteran of the group. Journalists looking for an expert’s view now have quite a few who will be perfectly willing and eager to return their calls and pronounce judgment.
Ornstein has, in fact, helped make expertise a growth industry in Washington. AEI survives on financial contributions; having Norman Ornstein popping up on television or in reputable newspapers is financially prudent. The AEI public affairs office’s compilation of news clips, which is often used to demonstrate the activity of the think tank, is often dominated by Ornstein clips. He is important to AEI “from the point of view of the clout this organization has and the ability to educate the public,” says Patrick Ford, vice president for development and public affairs. “He’s not here only to speak to the media, but then again that’s an important role of a scholar here. . .to educate the public.”
But Ornstein has never written a major academic work, which is a prerequisite to being taken seriously in the academic world. Stephen Hess of Brookings says some other political scientists don’t consider Ornstein a leading light in the profession. “They will increasingly speak of popularizers in humorous ways; they lose their solemnity” when they talk about Ornstein and company, Hess says. An admirer of Ornstein’s abilities and the role he plays in Washington, Hess warns that he may be quoting himself into a corner. “I think Norm is a good political scientist—a very perceptive person,” he says. “If he chooses to continue to be a ‘serious’ political scientist then he’ll have to do things ‘serious’ political scientists do!’ Right now his media appearances make him the source of envy, Hess says, but in the long run, “if Norm wanted an appointment at an Ivy League school it would be difficult if he didn’t refurbish his image by writing a book.”
Ornstein does try to maintain his contacts in the professional community and is active in the American Political Science Association. But he quite simply doesn’t have time to write books. Besides, he seems to be having too much fun to stop what he’s doing.
Indeed, it has gotten to the point that Ornstein has become such an institution in Washington that quoting him has become a sort of rite of passage for young reporters, the signal that they finally have become a genuine Washington insider. Jo-Ann Moriarty, a reporter at States News Service, is one of the most recent to learn the importance of Norman Ornstein. She had been in town just six months and was working on a profile of Rep. James Broyhill. “Someone here said did you talk to Norm?” recalls Moriarty. “I was embarrassed because I didn’t know who he was. Everyone said, ‘He’s Mr. Congressional Comment! ” So she called him. “He was so willing to talk to me. He called me right back!” Ornstein contrasted Broyhill’s political tactics with fellow-North Carolinian Jesse Helms and gave her a few pithy one-liners that she used. “I felt like an idiot for not having known to call him. The fact that I got him made me feel like I was finally learning my way around,” she says. “I just hadn’t realized he was a big cheese!”