30 Years at HUMAN EVENTS with John Gizzi

Wandering around the sites of various Republican National Conventions with HUMAN EVENTS Political Editor John Gizzi is always great fun. The problem, however, comes when we try to walk across the crowded lobby of one of the convention headquarter hotels. What should take maybe one minute, often takes 15, as John is hailed by dozens of people: “ Hey Giz, thanks for the Race of the Week.” “Giz, great Politics story last week.” “Giz, how’s Colleen?” “Giz, wait up, I have a story for you.” And so it goes, as long as we walk in the lobby. Senators, state party chairmen, candidates, and on and on stop us on our way. John, always polite, takes time to introduce me to those I don’t know, and by then someone else has stopped by. As these conventions show, it’s the rare conservative active in American politics who doesn’t know John Gizzi. It was a great day for me and for HUMAN EVENTS when, 30 years ago, Gregg Hilton, a young man who helped me with the Conservative Victory Fund, knowing that I would soon need someone to write HUMAN EVENTS’ “Politics” page, recommended John Gizzi.. I brought John in for an interview right away. Born in Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 13, 1955, he attended Newington High School and Fairfield University, graduating in 1977. After a brief stint as a clerk typist at the Travis County, Tex., Tax Assessor’s Office, he had come to Washington looking for more interesting work.

As Gregg had told me, “Giz has an awesome knowledge of U.S. politics and will be very loyal to HUMAN EVENTS.” Right on both counts. After 30 years of producing prodigious amounts of copy, including hundreds of “How’s Your Political IQ?” quizzes and over a thousand “Races of the Week,” Giz, who for the past six years has been a White House correspondent, still gladly takes on new challenges. Last year, he scored a unique interview trifecta that was the envy of many Washington correspondents: John had one of the last interviews with departing President George W. Bush, interviewed Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and had one of the very few interviews with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

This week, we at HUMAN EVENTS and many of his friends and associates pay tribute to this wonderful reporter and my good friend for his 30 years of service.

Teo Molin, a HUMAN EVENTS intern this summer through the National Journalism Center, interviewed John before heading back to his studies at Amherst. Here is the interview:

Question: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in Washington politics during your time as a reporter? How has the news industry changed?

John Gizzi: The biggest changes involve speed. When I came to Washington as a reporter, I did stories on a manual typewriter. After I started as a writer at HUMAN EVENTS, I wrote them in longhand on a yellow pad and went through Allan Ryskind and my editors, a few times. I had that luxury because we were a weekly print publication. Even daily papers had some time then. Today, with the Internet there is such a rush to post online that many times stories — even if incomplete — have to be written very quickly with follow-ups later. The downside is that articles have to be written often to correct errors. The up-side is many people are after any information — even incomplete with inaccuracies. That’s always a healthy sign in a democracy.

The news industry has also changed in the sense that there is greater distance between elected officials and those of us in the press. This is a problem because when I came to town in 1979, members of Congress, for the most part, moved their families here, stayed here on weekends and socialized.

Conviviality between politicians and the media has diminished appreciably in my 30 years in Washington. Part of that, of course, is the “gotcha” mentality of the press and part is the fact that, because of the Internet, elected officials are increasingly able to put out their own message and try to eliminate the role of the reporter.

Q: What sparked your interest in politics? Would you consider yourself a “political junkie”? When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in journalism?

JG: I attribute much of my pursuit of a career dealing with politics to the book Advise and Consent by Allen Drury. In fact, Drury’s six books in the Advise and Consent series dealing with Washington politics, Congress and the media, were a very big influence in my life. After reading them, I began to devour the newspapers. My parents were very big newspaper fans at home, my dad used to bring home the New York Daily News and the Boston Record American. And I read HUMAN EVENTS at the Lucy Robbins Welles Library in my hometown of Newington (CT.) But I have to trace my fascination to politics back to Advise and Consent. Both the way Drury characterized politics — particularly on the national scene and the role of the media — were big influences in my life and I am pleased to say that I later got to know him. He became a friend before he passed away and was very kind to me.

I always followed campaigns and volunteered on some in my home state of Connecticut. In 1970, I walked precincts for the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Lowell P. Weicker. I thought he was a solid conservative. I hope I can be forgiven for my youthful indiscretion.

While at HUMAN EVENTS, my portfolio grew. I like to think that I’ve grown as a reporter. When I first came here I just followed campaigns and candidates. It has expanded to Congress, the White House and international politics, including the World Bank and IMF meetings. Recently, Jed Babbin and I interviewed Japan’s ambassador to the United States. I still have a great passion for knowing who is a party leader in a particular state or local district; who is running for an office; who are the factions in a primary. Do I consider myself a political junkie? Yes. I love the game.

Q: You have a famous Rolodex collection. How do you maintain all of those relationships? What inspires you?

JG: Show me a reporter who just sits in his office — and this is what I try to tell the young people all the time — and I’ll show you a bad reporter. I go places. I plan lunches and dinner meeting people who might help on a story. Trips even. The important thing is to stay in touch with people. Be out and about. That’s one of the things I learned from Allan Ryskind. I’m very grateful to him and Tom Winter who gave me encouragement and training early on. My parents also supported me, and without their encouragement, I don’t think I would be in the position I’m in now. That’s been an enjoyable part of being a reporter, the help of many great mentors. I include the one who always encouraged me the most, and lifted me up when I was down. And she has never been afraid to criticize or ask me to rewrite — that’s my wife Colleen. She takes a tremendous interest in what I do and guides me along patiently.

Q: What is the best interview you’ve conducted and why?

JG: Talking with Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. I interviewed him when he was running for his last term in the Senate in 1996. At the time he was 94 years old. I had a fine intern, Nate Green of Ohio, who did research for the interview and joined us. He was fascinated, as was I, with Sen. Thurmond’s talking about figures in history in a very familiar way.

For example, Nate asked him if it was true that the first convention he had gone to as a Democrat was in 1932. Sen. Thurmond without hesitation said, “Yes! It was in Chicago, and I was a delegate for Gov. [Franklin] Roosevelt. I thought he was our best candidate and he would do something about that terrible Depression.” Hearing one refer to FDR as “Governor Roosevelt” was awesome.

Q: What is the best time you’ve had in the White House?

JG: There have been a number of occasions. For instance, my interview with President Bush seven days before he left office. He was giving some very long answers. He noticed I was looking nervously at the clock and said, “Relax, I’m not going to filibuster.” He went on for 40 minutes and signed notes to the critically ill son of a friend of my wife, to my nieces and nephew, and he asked about my wife’s two sisters, whom he had met at White House Christmas parties. It was a memorable experience on the personal and the political fronts.

Also, I would have to say that getting to know so many new colleagues in electronic and print media and becoming friends with them has been both a learning experience and spiritually uplifting.

Q: Who is the most impressive politician you’ve met?

JG: Ronald Reagan, for being a communicator and staying firm in his political beliefs, but not to the point of not moving on issues. That was impressive. I find it interesting that 21 years after he left the presidency, so many people still invoke his name. In many ways, this reminds me of when I was growing up, my parents’ contemporaries would talk about FDR. That’s the sign of a master politician, when people still say, “What would Reagan have done?” And that’s people of all persuasions.

But there have been others that I’ve known as well. The late James Rhodes, governor of Ohio — master politician — served four terms. When he was written off politically he would bounce back. He had a tremendous resiliency and one could learn from him to never give up.

On the current scene, Gov. Haley Barbour (R.-Miss.), is clearly someone who, like Richard Nixon, meshes knowledge of grassroots politics with deep understanding of the issues. He was impressive as a Republican national chairman and he is impressive as governor of his state as well.

Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) is someone cut from the mold of being able to communicate, knowing politics well and also having firm beliefs, but being willing to bend on certain things. There is Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R.-Minn.). Many people make a point of telling me that the chief difference between him and the last three Republican governors of his state is that he’s a lot more conservative than they are. And this is Minnesota, the home of Paul Wellstone and Al Franken. He must have something on the ball. I think he’s someone definitely to watch.

Also in the House is Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.), again, an issues man and with many ideas. I’d say this: Anyone who knows politics, has an understanding of the issues and can communicate ideas to people is impressive to me. And I can’t forget the most impressive politician who I know best of all — elected to her state’s House of Representatives at 22 and Republican nominee for lieutenant governor at 34, my wife Colleen. I am so proud of her!

Q: Which was the most poorly run administration you covered?

JG: Jimmy Carter’s. I didn’t cover Carter much, he was in his last year when I came to town. But very clearly, he was a President that history will not be kind to. The late David Brinkley did a special on NBC at the time talking about how there was less freedom in the world than at any time in history. We saw Iran fall, the Shah driven into exile and Khomeini come to power in the Islamic state. We saw Somoza overthrown in Nicaragua, and Ortega taking over. Then the Soviets went into Afghanistan. And I haven’t even mentioned the double-digit unemployment or inflation of the time. That was the worst administration of my lifetime, and we paid a very high price for it in the long-run. But Ronald Reagan was then elected.

Q: If you could revisit any Republican convention, which one would you attend and why?

JG: One of the things that I’ve seen in my life is, because of the new rules about money in politics, party rules are changed to call for more primaries and fewer caucuses and conventions. Nomination fights in both parties are usually decided in a sprint, rather than a marathon. Conventions become coronations. Now, I would like to revisit conventions where there were true contests for nominations, where it really meant something to be a delegate and to be a reporter on the inside. I wish I could have been there in Chicago in 1952, when Taft and Eisenhower clashed as representatives of the different wings of the Republican Party. And, of course 1964: A very defining moment when Barry Goldwater won the nomination, setting the stage for Reagan and contemporary conservatism. Of course, the famous 1976 convention at Kansas City, in which Ronald Reagan lost the nomination, but won the delegates’ hearts. I would love to have seen that first-hand in Kansas City.

Q: If you could interview any U.S. President, living or dead, who would you interview and why? What would you ask him?

JG: FDR. How can someone shift points on the political compass and still keep going North in one direction? Seriously, FDR — and I’ve read quite a bit about him — was the most Machiavellian of Presidents and was the first media-savvy President. He knew, for example, the importance of radio. He knew about personal contact with the White House press. The President’s press secretary now does the early-morning gaggles — FDR did two personally every week with Stephen Early, his press secretary. He saw new ways of getting information out. Walter Winchell was a popular Broadway gossip columnist, so FDR would invite him to the White House, knowing that Winchell, on his radio show and in his column, reached a lot more people than the political pundits. I’d like to interview FDR to try to find out about his almost extrasensory perception about the media and changing media formats.

Q: Last but not least, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs made a scene when he took your cell phone away during a press conference this summer. What is your take on the encounter? Is there a side to the story that’s been missing from the coverage?

JG: Well, as I wrote at the time, when someone makes you wait an hour your editors are bound to wonder where you are and where your copy is: So it was understandable that Tom Winter would call me. Now, that said, I rather got a kick out of the whole thing. If I have any regrets, it’s that, as one of Mr. Gibbs’ predecessors said to me: “Why didn’t he call you back for a beer summit?”    

Watch John Gizzi on the job as a White House correspondent, and read congratulations on his anniversary from colleagues and politicians.