Jane Fleming-Kleeb went on “The O’Reilly Factor” two weeks ago to talk about global warming, a topic on which, by her own admission, she’s hardly an expert. So who, then, is Jane Fleming-Kleeb? Well, according to the Chyron that flashed across the screen after Bill O’Reilly introduced her, she is a “Democratic strategist.” But she’s hardly that, either.
“The first time they called me a strategist,” Fleming-Kleeb recalls, “I literally laughed on TV.”
She kept a straight face this time, however, because she has grown accustomed to the misbegotten label. It all started in 2006, when Fleming-Kleeb, the deputy director of Youth Voter Political Action Committee, was asked to appear on MSNBC and Fox to talk about young voters. She did well enough in those early forays that she was soon brought back on the air to discuss a wider range of political matters.
Thus, Fleming-Kleeb was anointed a “Democratic strategist” and made regular appearances on cable news shows as such, before decamping from Washington for Nebraska, where her husband is running for a U.S. Senate seat. She now makes about one appearance per week via satellite feed from the heartland.
“There is a whole group of us like that,” says Fleming-Kleeb.
Indeed there is. Among the things that the proliferation of TV cable news has wrought is slackened standards for what constitutes a political strategist. Now used as a catchall tag for a whole host of people with varied — and often peripheral — backgrounds in electoral politics, the term has all but lost its meaning.
“I think it’s absurd,” says Ed Rollins, a bona fide strategist who has held high-ranking positions in numerous Republican presidential campaigns. “Everyone calls themselves a strategist. I have been doing this for 40 years, I know most of the players, and I go on these shows and think, ‘Who are these people?’”
“It’s like Noah’s ark. There are a couple of these people, a couple of those people, with no skill and no real analytical ability.”
As Fleming-Kleeb tells it, this group of make-believe strategists has become something of a pundits club, with participants working together to compensate for each other’s experiential or informational deficiencies.
“There is a small group of us that rely on one another to help each other with talking points,” she says. “Then I have a small group of friends who make sure it’s on message with the Democratic talking points.”
Of course, the very benefit of bringing a strategist on the air is to break through the echo chamber of talking points.
“If you are a professional political strategist,” says CNN Political Director Sam Feist, “this is what you’ve done for your career. You have worked on a campaign or been a significant member of a campaign team.”
The morning before she went on O’Reilly’s program, Fleming-Kleeb said she distributed an e-mail to her kitchen cabinet — a cadre that includes the likes of Democratic National Committee spokesman Dag Vega — to bandy about her talking points for the show.
“Many of these sort of more junior folks who have sort of made it into the ranks of analyst/commentator/strategist,” says one high-ranking cable news executive, “are only too happy to talk about things they don’t know about. Part of the problem is that because, again, they’re very glib, they’re good on TV. And if you ask someone the question and they give you a good-sounding answer, you might not know by asking them that it’s not their area of expertise.”
Others concur that the fractured nature of cable news time, particularly midday, allows almost anyone who’s articulate and politically inclined to act like a campaign insider Rollins, who often appears on CNN himself, blames the cable news networks for “dumbing down” good analysis in the name of multitudinous voices. “I think the networks are idiotic in that they have capable people who have been around, but they want 12 panels,” he says. Independent TV analyst Andrew Tyndall thinks the “mislabeling” is also the product of the media’s unyielding “bid to seem as though they are inside the horse race.”
For those who are actually in the strategy business, the armchair quarterbacking can be maddening at times.
“What’s frustrating for people who worked on campaigns is seeing these folks second-guessing decisions every day,” says one Republican strategist who has been a veteran of several presidential campaigns. “It has to be like an astronaut who spent their whole career and life trying to get to space, and you’ve got somebody who has never been there giving you an opinion of what it’s like on the moon.”
Close observers and participants in the cable news cycle say that, while this trend has been afoot for years, it seems to have reached a new apex this election cycle, fueled perhaps by the interest in attracting a more diverse crew of expositors.
“It truly is about availability,” says the cable news executive. “Everyone is always interested in having a wide spectrum of guests, whether that’s a woman or people of color, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the reason. The principal reason is the amount of hours to fill.”
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, sees this incidentally elevating the position of the TV booker in the modern cable news culture.
“That is often a young person who is told by the show producer, ‘We are going to talk about X; we need some people who can talk about that. Find some people,’ says Rosenstiel. “And the bookers tend to watch other shows, so if they see somebody who is interesting or provocative, they think those people would be interesting.”
Betsy Goldman, who worked as a booker and producer for CNN and MSNBC from 1988 to 2006, says that, when it came to identifying guests, she “never paid attention to it. I would just put ‘strategist’ or ‘consultant.’”
Goldman, who now runs an on-air placement firm, says that news programs have become far more interested in the TV footage reels of potential guests than in their backgrounds or résumés.
“When I was coming along, we never looked at their picture,” she says. “I was talking on the phone to see if they were a good talker and if they had credentials. Now they just want to see if they were good-looking.”
When it comes to presenting talking heads to the TV viewing public, Goldman says, “it’s pretty easy to just throw up that title as a ‘strategist.’ Nobody is going to check it.”
If you do check, you’re certain to find that many of the faces appearing aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be.
Recently, CNN contributor Amy Holmes was filling in as a guest co-host for Glenn Beck’s “Headline News” show. Before Holmes was a “CNN political analyst,” she was often labeled by the network as a “Republican strategist,” even though her only experience working for a politician was in the role of speechwriter for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Holmes got her big TV break during the 2000 election, when MSNBC invited her on to talk shop alongside Chris Matthews, Brian Williams and Paul Begala.
“You’re just learning as you go along,” Holmes recalls of her maiden voyage into campaign coverage. “Who ever knew about chads and hanging chads? I had not worked on campaigns, so I did not have that knowledge.”
Holmes oesn’t claim to be a strategist, and she says that she has been talking with CNN recently about her TV classification, concerned that the “Republican strategist” label gives her audience the wrong impression about her background.
“If it has happened, it is by accident,” says Feist, “because I don’t consider her to be a political strategist, and we don’t describe Amy Holmes as a political strategist.”
Frequent Fox and MSNBC guest Laura Schwartz says she asks producers to identify her on air as an “analyst,” yet she is still often designated as a “Democratic strategist.” She says it depends on what show she’s on. Schwartz also says that, when she was under exclusive contract at Fox, she would be identified as a “political analyst” on O’Reilly’s show and then as a “Democratic strategist” on “Hannity & Colmes.”
While Schwartz spent eight years in the Clinton White House, her jobs were hardly those of a political strategist. She was press secretary for the Midwest, director of television and then special assistant to the president and White House director of events. Several sources who were interviewed for this story voluntarily offered her up as the quintessential make-believe strategist.
“‘Political strategist’ is a term that can be very broad or very narrow,” says Angela McGowan, who has been appearing on Fox News since 1999, sometimes as a “Republican strategist.”
“You’ve had Hispanic activists for years helping with the Hispanic community and spreading issues that impact the community,” she says. “You had black activists; you had political strategists during the civil rights movement. ‘Political strategist’ can also be taken from the standpoint of fundraising. ... You can be in front of the stage, behind the stage, or you can be the secret weapon.”
McGowan rejects the notion that a strategist should be defined purely by conventional Beltway establishment standards. She considers herself to have as much of a right to claim the title as anyone else on TV, even though her most recent strategic work consisted of being director of government affairs for News Corp. and an unregistered lobbyist in Mississippi for casino magnate Steve Wynn.
To their credit, the cable networks have begun running additional graphics that further detail a guest’s résumé while he or she is speaking. But the networks still keep handing out the term “strategist” like it’s candy.
“If you had a bunch of us in a room and asked if we are political strategists,” says Fleming-Kleeb, “I think you would get a lot of laughter.”