CNBC’s Chief Washington Correspondent talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about growing up in the shadow of Washington politics, covering presidential debates and how he believes the written word can thrive in the digital age.
Covering U.S. presidential debates is one of the highlights of John Harwood’s career. He has been privileged to witness first hand some of the most historic, most heated—even most embarrassing—verbal sparring matches between political candidates of the last 25 years. He was there when Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen made his now famous “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” insult to Dan Quayle, who had been comparing himself to the late-president throughout the 1988 campaign. He had a front row seat to the fiercely criticized debate in which Al Gore boldly invaded the personal space of George W. Bush. And during the first round of debates last year, he was the moderator when Governor Rick Perry of Texas tripped over his response to a question and forgot which federal agency he would abolish if elected president. Perhaps the most memorable presidential debate he has ever witnessed, he says, was the second round between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney last Tuesday night. “It was the most intense debate that I have ever seen,” says Harwood. “The candidates were incredibly audacious with one another. A few years ago we took note of the fact that Al Gore invaded the personal space of George W. Bush, but this time Obama and Romney not only did that but they were barking at each other the whole time. It will be remembered as one of the real debating brawls.”
Opportunist: What sparked your decision to work in journalism?
Harwood: I am the son of a journalist. The biggest inspiration that I always had—and still have today—is my dad. He had a long career at The Washington Post, where he covered government and politics. He was one of the major figures in late 20th century print journalism who, along with legendary editor Ben Bradlee, helped make The Post a national force in journalism. He covered civil rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate—all the immense stories of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s—with guts, integrity and a commitment to telling it right and in ways that people could understand. That has always been my role model.
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., around the kind of subjects I am covering now. I concluded that was a fun and exciting way to make a living. The only hurdle I had to overcome was trying to satisfy myself that I was good at it.
Opportunist: What was it like as a child to accompany your father on a presidential campaign press plane?
Harwood: It was a lot of fun. I was in the sixth grade when my father was covering the campaign of Robert Kennedy. He was killed and George McGovern stepped in as a sort of surrogate to lead the Democratic National Convention. We flew out to the Midwest. It was about 100 degrees and very hot, but I felt very special to see the campaign up close. That experience certainly had an impact on some of my zeal for journalism.
Opportunist: You started out in print. Was it difficult to make the transition to broadcast journalism?
Harwood: I spent about 20 years in print journalism, first at the St. Petersburg Times—now called the Tampa Bay Times, incidentally—which I consider the best newspaper in Florida, and then at the Wall Street Journal. From time to time, because my print career coincided with the rise of cable TV, I was invited to contribute my expertise in politics. I did not find the transition all that difficult, in part because I was brought into TV to provide analysis and that was a zone where I felt comfortable. One thing led to another, and CNBC approached me after the 2004 presidential election and asked me to come work in TV.
Opportunist: Do you prefer print or TV?
Harwood: I am enjoying both elements of my career. What I like most about TV is the immediacy. You can communicate very rapidly. In print there is greater depth, somewhat, and I like having that as an outlet.
Opportunist: Do you believe print is dying?
Harwood: In terms of making a distinction between the printed written word and digital, print journalism is remaking itself and I do believe the ability to disseminate information online provides entirely new distribution opportunities that mean print is surely going to survive. The question is how well the business minds behind print can figure out how to adapt themselves to the environment. They need to ask, ‘Where are we going to make money through great journalism?’ It is certainly harder than it used to be but I think it will be done.
Harwood: Not really. Credit for that partly goes to my father, who believed journalists should do their best to tell the truth as they see it but try to filter out their individual prejudices, stereotypes and preconceptions. Everyone sees the world in a different way. Our job as journalists is to understand the arguments by people on both sides and analyze events taking into account those conflicting perspectives.
Opportunist: How did you end up in South Africa, covering the unrest against the apartheid regime?
Harwood: When the uprising came to a full boil in 1985 and 1986, the St. Petersburg Times sent me over to cover what was going on. I covered lots of national and international stories for them. For a regional paper, they were very profitable and had a large ambition to leave their mark. That experience was both thrilling and frightening. It was certainly something that underscored the incredibly high life and death stakes in Africa compared to the United States, where to our pretty good fortune the political choices are less stark and the consequences less severe. I believe we sometimes forget how lucky we are in how affluent and free we are here in the states. South Africa was none of those things to most people at that time.
Opportunist: What was your favorite interview?
Harwood: When I hosted an hour-long economic town hall meeting with President Obama live in September 2010. It was a rare opportunity to interview a sitting president. We had a great discussion about all the economic difficulties the country was facing. It was memorable enough that one of the highlights still lives on as an iconic moment—when Velma Hart, an African American woman who voted for him said, ‘I’m exhausted of defending you.’ People will remember that for a long time.
Opportunist: Who is the most impressive person you’ve met?
Harwood: I’ve known a lot of impressive people, so I don’t know that I can come up with one who stands out. Certainly the political figures I have met at various points in my life, each of who is impressive and strong in their own way. People like Bob Dole, longtime Senate Republican leader, who I just interviewed the other day about one of the debates. He left his mark on politics and policy. In his late-80s, he is still alert and entertaining. Bill Clinton is uniquely the most naturally talented politician I have ever met. I first met him during his time as governor of Arkansas and I would see him at National Governors Association meetings. The elder Bush, who was the first president I interviewed, lacked some of the political gifts that Bill Clinton had but his character and public service were certainly impressive. I think Obama is also somebody who is very impressive.
Opportunist: Who was your most difficult interview?
Harwood: That’s hard to remember. I would say the most difficult individual moment—and it wasn’t acrimonious, just challenging—was when I went down to Texas in 1999 to interview then-Governor George W. Bush about his emerging presidential campaign. I wanted to talk with him about the theory of his election, which was advanced by his political advisor, Karl Rove. But Bush didn’t want to engage in a discussion about that. So I had to scramble for a different line of questioning. Fortunately, it worked out OK.
Harwood: Honestly, in the journalistic environment that we are in, I would say that surviving in this business for a long period of time and being able to cover campaigns for years. The fact that I am still able to have a front row seat to the history that we make in presidential campaigns is something I feel very lucky to have.
Opportunist: What was the inspiration for your book, Pennsylvania Avenue? Do you have plans to write more books?
Harwood: I wrote that book with my former Wall Street Journal colleague, Gerry Seib, in 2008. It’s a book about Washington, built of sketches of various influential players such as politicians and lobbyists and various cabinet members and actors in the political scene. I hope to do another book sometime in the future, but due to the demands of being a parent and writing for a newspaper and going on TV I am not ready to take that on right at this moment. [Laughs]
Opportunist: How do you feel about America’s economic outlook?
Harwood: We have been in shock with the recession and the financial crisis. We are in a very difficult period—when the economy and incomes aren’t going to grow as fast as we are accustomed to seeing them grow—and probably will be for a few years. Our challenge as a country is figuring out a strategy and sticking with it long enough to see if it can work. Can we figure out if we can build a new foundation to drive the economy, so we aren’t in a race to the bottom with other countries and have the ability to lead the world in doing great things again?
Harwood: There is no typical day. My day varies with the news and with what is happening in Congress and at the White House and on the campaign trail. Some days I am on TV 10 times, and on other days not at all. My challenge is to fill the slow periods with avenues of accumulating ideas and information and make it through the intense periods like the last 24 hours without falling over. [Laughs] Yesterday [covering the second presidential debate] I was on TV at 6 a.m. and got off at 11 o’clock at night. So, by the time I got back to my hotel at 1 o’clock in the morning, I had put in a 19-hour day. I’m hoping today won’t be quite as long.
Opportunist: How do you spend your free time?
Harwood: I am addicted to running. I like to entertain my kids’ friends—we are big on pizza and ice cream parties at my house. I also enjoy watching basketball and Redskins football and Washington Nationals baseball. They had a fantastic season.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Harwood: I hope that I will still be actively engaged in the coverage of national politics and finding an outlet for the way I see things. And, I hope, enlightening people in choices facing the country.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.
Pres. Obama and Romney Go Head-To-Head – http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000124171
John Harwood’s New York Times Blog – http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/author/john-harwood/
Classic Moments in Debate History – http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000120175
Presidential Candidates Testy on Key Issues – http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000123194
Failed Obama Foreign Policy? – http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000121119