The McLaughlin Grope : If These Washington Pundits Are So Smart, How Come They're So Often Wrong?

Scott Shuger is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly and a consultant to ABC's "PrimeTime Live."

ON DEC. 28, 1990, THE FIRST GUEST ON "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN" was psychic Morris Fonte, a former window washer who serves up predictions on his own Manhattan cable TV show. Under a bad toupee, accompanied by Letterman's trademark smirk and cheesy sitar riffs from the band, Fonte sat in the blue chair and gave his forecast of the signal events of 1991.

That same day, five of America's highest-profile public-affairs commentators--Pat Buchanan, Fred Barnes, Eleanor Clift, Morton Kondracke and host John McLaughlin--gathered in a Washington television studio for the weekly taping of "The McLaughlin Group." As the red light went on, the show's narrator once again described the proceedings as "an unrehearsed program presenting inside opinions and forecasts on major issues of the day," which, as regular viewers know, means lots of shouting and interrupting--and predictions galore.

It was a typical Group outing: The participants were all over the previous week's political waterfront, peering into the future on everything from the fate of Saddam Hussein, to the fight against AIDS, to which Democrats would run for President. In the course of the show, they riddled the airwaves with predictions--29 in all.

That day's orgy of future-gazing raises a question: What's the difference between an influential political pundit and a talk-show psychic? Or put it another way: What does "The McLaughlin Group" have that Morris Fonte lacks?

Not accuracy. Fonte's crystal ball was pretty foggy. He wrongly predicted that in 1991 the San Francisco 49ers would win the Super Bowl, that the New York Mets and Oakland A's would end up in the World Series and that there would be at least four significant earthquakes in Europe (there was one). Regarding that day's Topic A--the Persian Gulf crisis--Fonte predicted negotiations that would avert war. His only correct calls were that President Bush would seek reelection and that there would be an earthquake in California. Overall, Fonte could do no better than an accuracy rate of 25%.

But the Group fared much worse that day. True, Barnes said the emir would return to Kuwait, and Clift said Iraq would become regionally fragmented, but McLaughlin said that the hot contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination were Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, and that Sen. Paul Wellstone, the freshman Democrat from Minnesota, would be the political star of 1991.

Buchanan foresaw the contender mantle falling on New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, that it was Education Secretary Lamar Alexander who was destined for political stardom and that the spread of AIDS was leveling off. Kondracke thought 1991's political star would be Boris Gromov, the former Soviet commander in Afghanistan, whom he called "the next Napoleon."

Barnes predicted that the United States would oust Hussein and replace him with a new government, that there would be an agreement between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights and that Bush would tell the Saudis and Kuwaitis that they can't belong to OPEC. Clift took the Fonte line on the Gulf, saying that Bush would compromise his way out. For the show, the Group ended up with an accuracy rating of 10%--less than half as good as Letterman's psychic.

Whereas Fonte's predictions are no more esteemed than a trick by K-Mar the Discount Magician, the Group's attempts at clairvoyance cut a wide and deep swath. A generation ago, politically aware Americans kept in touch with the gist of thinking in Washington primarily through the sober columns of Walter Lippmann, Joseph Kraft and Stewart and Joseph Alsop. In those days, if a journalist made television appearances on such staid programs as "Meet the Press," TV was hardly the source of his influence; it was the print outlet that gave a journalist weight. That's all changed now.

"People will return calls to me and Fred," reports Kondracke, "who ordinarily would never return calls to the New Republic," where Kondracke and Barnes are columnists. These days, the airwaves are fairly saturated with political talk shows--including "This Week with David Brinkley," "Crossfire," "Evans & Novak," and "Capital Gang"--that have made more Washington journalists more influential than any newspaper or magazine ever did.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, "The McLaughlin Group" is still near the center of this ever-expanding hot-air universe. Running in virtually all commercial markets and on 306 PBS stations, the show is one of the top-rated public-affairs programs on television and features just the sort of Washington pundits who embody the term "inside the Beltway":

John McLaughlin, a former Jesuit priest, was Washington editor of the National Review and, before that, an aide to Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford;

Patrick Buchanan, before his presidential bid, was co-host of "Crossfire" and a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Ronald Reagan;

Jack Germond is a Washington-based reporter for the Baltimore Sun and, with Jules Witcover, author of syndicated columns and several campaign books;

Fred Barnes, a former political reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is a senior editor at the New Republic and an editor at Reader's Digest;

Morton Kondracke is a senior editor at the New Republic, a columnist for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and former Newsweek Washington bureau chief;

Eleanor Clift, congressional and political correspondent for Newsweek, is a former White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

In Washington, "The McLaughlin Group" is watched religiously on Capitol Hill and in the White House--from staff members to the congressional leadership to the President himself. If George Bush misses the show, McLaughlin says, a summary is included in one of his subsequent news briefings.

WHEN I WAS DOING THE SHOW," CONFESSES MICHAEL KINSLEY, NOW seen on "Crossfire," "I was much more interested in coming up with an interesting prediction than in coming up with one that was true. There's no penalty for being wrong, but there is a penalty for being boring. . . . Prognosticators have known for centuries that people only remember what you got right. They don't remember what you got wrong."

And sure enough, when I ask John McLaughlin if he has any idea of his batting average on predictions, his answer isn't a percentage--it's a litany of successes.

"I predicted that (Gov. Pete) Wilson would veto the gay rights bill. . . . I predicted that (Boutros) Boutros-Ghali would be the secretary general of the United Nations. I predicted that Cuomo would not run. I predicted that Buchanan would get 35% of the vote in New Hampshire--he got 37. I predicted that Israel would not get its loan guarantees. I predicted that the U.N. would repeal 'Zionism is racism.' . . . In August of last year, I predicted that the BCCI scandal would move to the United States. I predicted that (Sen. Lloyd) Bentsen would not seek the presidency. I predicted that (Sen. Tom) Harkin would seek the presidency. Lowell Weicker will be the next governor of Connecticut--I predicted that too. And I predicted that Bush would hang tough on returning the emir to Kuwait."

It turns out that even this selective list contains some hidden failures. McLaughlin did indeed predict that Bush would stand by the emir, but he also insisted until the day the shooting started that there would be no war. And yes, McLaughlin predicted Bentsen would not run, but only after twice predicting that he would.

"No one ever keeps any count of it. It's very hard to know how off we are," admitted Kondracke when I asked him if he had ever tallied his predictions in light of subsequent events. "I would love somebody to take the time to go back to tote up a month's worth, or a year's worth, and see how we do."

That sure seemed like a good idea to me--which explains how I ended up working my way through a year of "McLaughlin Group" transcripts, covering the shows taped between Aug. 17, 1990, and Aug. 16, 1991. That was a momentous stretch of national and world affairs, filled with war, peace, economic ferment and political intrigue. A time when an accurate snapshot of future events would have been a special comfort. Unfortunately, my research revealed that the Group had pretty much left the lens cap on.

(A note on method: Whenever possible, if a prediction could be broken into individually verifiable parts, I did so, and if a prediction had not been fulfilled yet, but still might be at some reasonable future date, I excluded it from consideration.)

During the inspected period, the Group had an overall accuracy rating of 43.2%. Kondracke had a personal score of 46.7%. Barnes got 44%. Germond had 42.8%. Buchanan had 40%. And McLaughlin brought up the rear with 37.4%.

Because a lot of political questions aren't either/or--"Who is going to be nominated to succeed Thurgood Marshall?" for example--averages below 50% might not seem so bad. But it's amazing how often John McLaughlin does in fact hammer the complexities of current events into either/or questions--as in "Will a limit on congressional terms be the next amendment to the Constitution?"

And even when a question can't be boiled down to a yes or no response, an accuracy rating of 50% is hardly impressive. In other words, if you know absolutely nothing about current events, the Group probably knows more than you do. On the other hand, if you know absolutely nothing about current events but flip a coin to make up your mind, you know more than the Group does.

MCLAUGHLIN, BUCHANAN AND THE OTHER GROUP PANELISTS ARE smart, well-connected and capable of solid reporting. So how come they're so wrong? There are two main reasons.

First, there's what I'll call the Zimbabwe Zig-Zag. Suppose you've done some very good work at newspapers and magazines for years, all the while developing techniques and contacts oriented to specific beats. When your track record finally brings you national attention and TV beckons, it's no longer enough for you to talk about your old stomping grounds, the courts in D.C., or social policy in Chicago. Now suddenly, you have to be an Expert on the Courts and on Social Policy everywhere. And it's even worse than that.

"The McLaughlin Group" tapes at 1 on Friday afternoons and if an American diplomat is murdered in Zimbabwe at 10 a.m. Friday, the show is going to cover it. So there you are at 12:30 p.m., with the car coming to take you to the studio, and you're desperately trying to digest some basics from the Rand McNally on your lap while cradling a phone in each ear. On one you're on hold to the Zimbabwe desk at the State Department and on the other you're on hold to the Zimbabwe Embassy. What's going to happen to you in the next half hour that will enable you to say anything true (or interesting) about Zimbabwe?

"If you have the same people on week in and week out," argues James Fallows, Washington editor for the Atlantic magazine and a reporter who long ago swore off appearing on or watching weekend talk shows, "then by definition they can't know enough about a whole range of issues to talk about them seriously. . . . It's as if every book released each year were written by the same few people."

The Zimbabwe Zig-Zag fosters a distinct brand of sweeping TV prediction that makes test patterns look information-rich by comparison. It's what makes an intelligent man like Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, look into a camera and say, "Somebody is going to run for president because the economy is going to stink, the Federal Reserve is going to cut the rediscount rate, the federal funds rate, the banks are going to continue to be in serious difficulty, and George Bush is going to be faced with serious difficulties next year." It's the reason that during the early days of the Gulf crisis, a knowledgeable campaign analyst like Chris Matthews, Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, suddenly found himself knee-deep in geopolitics, predicting that no European country would send troops to the Saudi Arabian front. And why McLaughlin proclaimed "the beginning of the beginning of the end of the strife in Northern Ireland." This last is a classic of the genre, almost wholly unverifiable--and wrong.

Second, there's the Studio Short Leash. Again, suppose you're a successful journalist who's finally made it to the weekend talk shows. In your old print days, if you had a line on a good story that took you on the road, you packed your bags and did real on-the-ground reporting, for several weeks at a pop if necessary. But now that you're in the Group, you've got to be in that Washington studio nearly every Friday. And that puts a measurable crimp in the kind of reporting you can do. Suddenly the most barren contacts count as real investigation.

Witness McLaughlin explaining how one of his predictions was derived from a rare venture into the field: "I spent three days in Belgrade. I talked to a variety of people over there--a lot of journalists and government officials, and our own embassy people." All the elements of the syndrome are here: the ludicrously short stay, the failure to get outside the capital--in particular, the failure to visit the various major ethnic regions--and the restriction of discussions to official and elite channels. It's not surprising that McLaughlin came away with the mistaken prediction, one he made on the air repeatedly between 1989 and 1991, that Yugoslavia would remain a single nation. McLaughlin didn't seem to notice, but even 4,700 miles from the studio, he'd been trapped by television.

My survey of "McLaughlin Group" episodes confirmed the Studio Short Leash's effects. If you lump together all the hits and misses of the guest panelists--each of whom appears only about one-third as often as the regulars--you come up with an accuracy rating of 49.5%. That's still lower than heads-or-tails, but it's 6.3% higher than the Group as a whole and 12.1% higher than John McLaughlin.

In other words, what really helps the predictor is not being on the show.

By now you'd probably be tempted to concede that, when it comes to Group predictions of events beyond Washington, the Zig-Zag and the Short Leash render most a dreadful waste of videotape. But you might also conclude that when it comes to inside Washington predictions, the Group has a grip. Not so fast.

True, being more or less permanently mired in Washington politics does mean that Group panelists have ample opportunity to develop sources among the movers and shakers. But a lot of times, if it's moving and it's shaking, it's just mixed up. For instance, occasional Group panelist Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, arrived at his Democratic presidential pick by sounding out Democratic senators. He found a definite edge there for one candidate; that's why he predicted on the show that the nominee would be Tom Harkin. If a savvy political reporter like Page were still working in Chicago, it wouldn't have taken him long to sense that, in Illinois at least, Bill Clinton was king. But last May, in part to do more television, Page moved to Washington.

There's a paradigm for just how unreliable inside Washington predictions are: Watergate. McLaughlin knows a little something about this. He was, after all, a special assistant to Nixon during the Final Days. On May 8, 1974, in his first White House briefing, McLaughlin told reporters just three months before it was all over that, "I cannot contemplate any set of circumstances in which President Nixon would resign. . . "

Because Washington is filled with people as insulated as the Group is, once you're on the Studio Short Leash, most of the people you can reach even with your most strenuous reporting efforts are on short leashes of their own. Generally, that spells doom for inside Washington predictions.

For example, on Dec. 14, 1990, the Group turned its attention to the freshly vacant positions of Republican Party chairman and secretary of education. McLaughlin presented two lists of candidates for these posts. Despite having 11 names on it, his list for the GOP slot didn't include the man who got the job, and although his list for the education post did include the eventual jobholder, nobody picked him. In fact, none of the nine predictions about the two positions was right.

On Nov. 9, 1990, and again on May 3, 1991, the Group took a swing at who would get the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Not only did no one pick Clinton or Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., but each panelist picked a nominee who never became a candidate.

On July 19, 1991, McLaughlin gave a good example of just how much error a Beltway-bound pundit can deliver in a single breath when he said, "Robert Gates will withdraw his nomination (for CIA director). Brent Scowcroft will become the President's new nominee. Gates will become head of the National Security Council, which is Scowcroft's existing job. Scowcroft will sail through." Since Gates got the CIA job, none of this came to pass. That's three errant insider predictions in 10 seconds. (Actually, since Scowcroft didn't sail through a nomination he didn't get, it's four, but I'm being kind.)

McLaughlin had a much better instinct the week before, when this exchange took place:

McLaughlin: Quick yes or no answer: Will Gates be confirmed? Yes or no, Pat Buchanan?

Buchanan: Yes.

McLaughlin: Eleanor?

Clift: No.

McLaughlin: Jack?

Germond: No.

McLaughlin: Mort?

Kondracke: No.

McLaughlin: Answer, it's too close to call. How can any of you answer a dumb question like that?

Together, the Zimbabwe Zig-Zag and the Studio Short Leash put a predictor in an impossible position: He must have inside knowledge about everything. Isn't that the job description for Karnak the Magnificent?

"THE MCLAUGHLIN GROUP" IS entertainment, of course, but it's also something more: It's harmful.

"One of the real bits of damage that McLaughlinism has done to American journalism," asserts Michael Kinsley, "is this emphasis on predictions, on what's going to happen rather than on the rights and wrongs, what's a wise policy, what's an unwise policy. . . . I see this at 'Crossfire.' The producer's always saying, 'Ask him if the bill's going to pass!' "

"The prediction thing struck me as stunt journalism," snaps David Broder, longtime political columnist at the Washington Post and a frequent guest on "Meet the Press." "What worries me is that people would watch the show and come to believe that arguing with each other about predictions is what journalism is about."

At least one panelist doesn't see that as a problem. "My theory is that most people are going to understand that this is sort of fun and games," says Germond. "I'm not going to spend a lot of time--I'm not going to spend any time--trying to find something I can predict on the air. . . . I really don't take the whole thing that seriously, to tell you the truth. . . . On the other hand, it put my daughter through medical school." (Panelists get several hundred dollars per appearance, and exposure on the show puts them on the lecture circuit, where they make thousands at a crack.)

"The predictions serve as a kind of propaedeutic, a kind of early invitation to self-learning," McLaughlin says. "They start people thinking. . . . We want to trigger further thought and further reading."

"Preposterous!" Fallows responds. "That's like saying Las Vegas point spreads get you interested in physical fitness." Fallows says the importance of the Group's topics "conceals the fact that what they are actually doing would be considered gossiping in any other venue."

If you're still harboring any reverence for McLaughlin Group predictions, I guess it's time to haul out the smoking gun transcript. Consider the show of Aug. 16, 1991. That was the day John McLaughlin asked how the Republican Party was going to handle its conservative wing in the 1992 election. That was the day Pat Buchanan gave the following answer: "George Bush will take care of the conservative wing up through the convention . . ."

Only four months before the fact, one of the most esteemed members of the Group failed to predict his own presidential candidacy.

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