For These Junkies, Drug of Choice Is Politics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He held off for most of the dinner party, but the craving grew too strong. Avoiding his wife's eyes, Jon Palmer Claridge slipped into the living room, flicked on the television, and felt a surge of relief as Sen. John McCain flashed on the screen.

Relief quickly changed to agony. Election returns were coming in, and Claridge couldn't get the sound to work.

"It was awful," Claridge said. "A political junkie is the same thing as anybody else who's a junkie. You have to find out what's going on right then."

In a nation of passions and addictions, where the line between fan and fanatic is regularly blurred by everyone from shopaholics to bingo gamblers, the political habit is one of the oddest of all.

These are the folk who watch six talk shows on a Sunday morning or who actually know that there are 132 living former U.S. senators. They hoot at Al Gore's proprietary feelings for the Internet, chortle at instant replays of George W. Bush's interview gaffes and delight in the pitter-patter of pundits.

With four round-the-clock cable news networks up and running, political junkies have more suppliers than ever. Dozens of new political Web sites also beckon. And nothing both inflames and satisfies the urge like a presidential election.

Claridge, 48, fits the profile. When he was 16, he and two buddies took a 10-hour bus ride to Miami Beach, not to peek at bikinis but to sneak into the 1968 Republican National Convention. At age 5, he spurned Sunday morning cartoons to watch "the tall man in a suit" named David Brinkley.

Decades later the attraction remains so strong that he and his wife have deliberately disconnected the cable TV in their home in Arlington, Va. But in a presidential season, it is hard not to succumb when a neighbor's TV beckons.

"You go to a crack house to get crack," he said. "If you're addicted to politics, you go to the talk shows, you go to C-SPAN or CNN and get your stuff."

That night at the dinner party, his hosts rescued him by turning up the sound as the Michigan primary returns rolled in. But "they didn't really understand," he said. "There's a sense of urgency that the so-called normal person lacks."

Planning His Day Around Talk Shows

Every book on Claridge's bedside table is about politics. He is not to be disturbed until after noon on Sundays; mornings are set aside for watching the talk shows from bed. On a recent shopping trip to Costco, he gasped when he saw the full Nixon tapes on sale but restrained himself because "I knew my wife would yell at me."

Ron and Jeanne Ortega yell at each other almost every night as they watch Washington pundit Chris Matthews on MSNBC. But it's good-natured. The St. Louis couple have been yakking about politics since they met at a Jimmy Carter rally in 1976. Their first date was sitting on her sofa with a bowl of popcorn, watching election returns.

These days, "I have to go upstairs and watch [on the second TV] when she gets really ticked off," Ron Ortega said. "Last night it was Dianne Feinstein. They were asking if she had any ideas about being vice president, and I told my wife, 'There is not a snowball's chance in hell Dianne Feinstein will get nominated,' and my wife said, 'She'd make a very fine vice president, thank you very much.' "

Ortega, a driver for a car service, often makes innocuous political remarks to passengers. If they bite, he said, "then I let them know how I feel."

Although he is a staunch Democrat, Ortega said Republicans produce the liveliest discussions and are the best fares.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "The madder you get them, the bigger they tip."

Each weeknight, Ron hurries home from work, has a beer, practices his Buddhist meditation, then tunes in to the cable talk shows, usually four a night.

"Every night you listen to three or four senators, governors, people from everywhere, and it's exciting," he said. "It expands me. . . . I find politics extremely relevant and current. I find it astounding that most people don't."

In his account of the 1992 presidential race, "Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie," journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote, "It's a rush that a lot of people will tell you is higher than any drug they've ever tried or even heard about, and maybe better than sex. . . . Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal--like all junkies."

Thompson was writing about professional politicos: campaign consultants, congressional staffers and Capitol Hill lobbyists. But there are millions more far from the Beltway. University of Missouri political science professor John Petrocik calls them "political groupies," as opposed to "operatives" who toil in politics or "activists" who volunteer on campaigns.

Petrocik admires true political junkies.

"They're fans, they're dedicated, but they're people who live a larger life," he said.

While it is hard to quantify how many are out there, experts say the number could range from 400,000, the average viewership on several weekday political talk shows, to as high as 20 million if you count regular listeners of Rush Limbaugh's weekday radio show.

Petrocik estimates 10 million to 15 million adults have "an inordinate interest in politics, government, public policy and public affairs," based on national surveys of social habits and political involvement by the University of Michigan and Gallup pollsters.

As for what constitutes a typical political junkie, "trying to figure out the characteristics is almost like trying to figure out who's an 'at-risk' teenager," Petrocik deadpanned. "The most notorious indicator is a history of politics in the family."

Junkies Share Characteristics

Family history aside, political junkies tend to be solidly middle class, not rich or poor, well educated, retired or with some free time on their hands, Petrocik said.

Nadine and Eugene Stegelmeyer of Idyllwild, Calif., both 82, qualify on most counts. His parents were involved in union organizing and politics in the 1930s, and politics has been a passion from the couple's courtship during World War II through their 57-year marriage.

Since he retired from his job as a Los Angeles schoolteacher and she from her post as a high school librarian, they have traveled four times to Washington to watch congressional budget hearings.

When she was hospitalized with pneumonia last fall, there was a silver lining. "I finally got C-SPAN 2," she joked.

Before Eugene suffered a stroke recently, the couple routinely woke early on Sundays to program one TV to tape "This Week" with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts on ABC while they caught Fox News Sunday with Tony Snow on the other TV.

While he talks back or even shouts at the screen, she is more analytical.

"I have a little trouble with both Sam and Cokie these days. They've taken on the new mode of trying to be cute and funny," she said. "Cokie has gotten into the habit of giggling, 'heh heh heh,' and it drives me nuts."

Then there are the numbers guys.

National Public Radio political editor Ken Rudin writes an online feature aptly called "Political Junkie" (http://www.washingtonpost.com) that revels in campaign arcana. A typical reader comment:

"You stated that former Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) is nine months older than Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). In fact, Thurmond is three months older than Mansfield."

It would be easy to portray these people, Petrocik said, as "utterly and hopelessly goofy." But he said the trivia lovers are just one species of political animal. Many political junkies are, in fact, modern-day philosophers, he said.

"Most of us spend our time rushing up and down the freeway to work," Petrocik said. "These people deal with the big questions of the world."

Others say an excessive love of politics is just one more impulse-based behavior dressed up as a loftier pursuit.

"There's a certain portion of the population that is vulnerable to having pleasurable activities or hobbies . . . get out of control," said Dr. Sanjaya Saxena, chief of the obsessive compulsive disorders program at UCLA Medical Center. "It's similar to people who get so wrapped up in other pleasurable activities it starts interfering with the rest of their lives, like gambling or drinking or Internet addiction."

Saxena says it's important to monitor "trigger points" and modify behavior if necessary.

Claridge and his wife, Andrea Snyder, saw the warning signs. "I kept feeling like I was missing something if I wasn't watching one of these shows," he said.

They pulled the plug on cable TV in their house two years ago, over the squawks of their teenage daughter who missed her MTV.

Snyder admits she's grown fonder of politics herself, thanks to her husband.

"I changed her life," he says proudly.

Marriages have been destroyed, though.

Hollywood actress Jane Wyman in 1949 famously told a judge that her actor-husband Ronald Reagan was inflicting mental cruelty by incessantly discussing his newfound love: politics.

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