The Voice of Experience? Um, Not Exactly

WASHINGTON POST

She has opinions, so many opinions, delivered straight into the hungry eye of the television camera.

Here is Heather Nauert talking about school shootings on PBS' "To the Contrary." And there she is yakking about politics on "Politically Incorrect." And on Fox News Channel, she's lambasting "the heinous tax system in this country."

The presidential election, Elian Gonzalez, gun control, foreign policy, the latest Dixie Chicks video--she weighs in on it all. Which makes you wonder: Who the heck is Heather Nauert? Why, other than looking like the younger sister of another Heather (Locklear), is she on TV at all? From what well of life-shaping experiences do our anointed dispensers of video wisdom draw their opinions?

Fox tells its viewers she's a "GOP consultant" or a "GOP strategist," investing Nauert with just the right wonkiness and insider cachet. Except she says she's never worked for the Republican Party. ("They need a label, I guess," she says.) Other times she's a "Fox News contributor," which means, rather circularly, that she appears on Fox News. Sometimes, she's both GOP consultant and Fox News contributor.

Only 30, Nauert has run the alphabet gamut of TV punditry over the past few years: MSNBC, BBC, CNBC, PBS, ABC. She has a regular gig on the Fox News Channel, commenting on an astonishing variety of political and public-policy issues, sometimes popping up three or four times a week. The Fox people think she's going places, although it's anybody's guess where. One clue: Last year she read for a co-starring role in a Robert De Niro movie (she didn't get it). She's got a William Morris agent, the same guy who represents Regis Philbin.

"I told her, 'God made you beautiful. Now you've got to make yourself smart,' " says Tony Snow, host of "Fox News Sunday," who has coached Nauert in the pundit's arts. "TV can be a blond wasteland. There are a lot of gorgeous people with only one thing to say who vanish from the scene."

Nauert sees herself as filling a gap in the pundit firmament. "It's more interesting to see a young person talking about issues than a big, old, fat white guy," she says.

"If you're young and you can't back it up with smarts, then people are going to say, 'Who cares what you have to say?' . . . Honey, let me show you what I can do."

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Heather Nauert is the first to admit she didn't work her way up the journalistic rungs from "Sioux City to Cedar Rapids to Milwaukee," as she puts it. Nor is she a former administration hack, or one of those gray, grandiloquent professors.

"From the time I was 16, I knew I wanted to do something on TV," says Nauert, the scion of a prominent Chicago-area family.

She wasn't even out of Arizona State University in 1992 when she landed her first regular TV gig in Washington. The summer intern hosted a country music video program, "Young Country," on the WB network. She stayed and finished school at Mount Vernon College, then worked for a coalition of small businesses and insurance companies, including one owned by her father, Peter W. Nauert. She was a lobbyist and sometime talking head, selling the insurance industry's line in the budding health-care debate. She liked her first introduction to politics and Capitol Hill, but "I still knew I wanted to get back into TV."

Answering an open call in 1995, Nauert earned a spot on "Youngbloods," a political talk show featuring dueling panels of twentysomething conservatives and liberals on National Empowerment TV, a local conservative cable network.

"I thought she was well-rounded and could speak to a variety of issues passionately," says Brian Jones, NET's then-general manager and now communications director of the Republican National Convention. "She wasn't so strident that she turned people away. A lot of people on TV are just yellers and screamers. She's able to hold a conversation."

Nauert spent a year on "Youngbloods." By day, she was the Washington communications and legislative director for her family's company, Pioneer Financial Services, until the firm was sold in 1997 for $450 million.

She had a brief 1996 stint as a business news reporter for a U.S. Chamber of Commerce program, and by early 1998, she was doing consulting work for trade associations and corporations, still waiting for her big break.

Then Monica happened.

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal created full employment for pundits of all stripes, with particular visibility to a subset of young, female conservatives--Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Barbara Olson, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. And Nauert. The "pundettes," as they came to be known, filled a market need: a telegenic group of anti-Clinton women.

"There's been a general prejudice in TV for a long time about women pundits," observes Bonnie Erbe, host of "To the Contrary." "Women have been seen as smart enough to cover the news, but there have been very few women . . . considered smart enough to formulate opinions about the news. . . . That's not fair and it's not right."

The networks had a strong marketing rationale too: News audiences tend to be older, usually 50 and up, and predominantly male. The challenge is to lure younger viewers, a group highly prized by advertisers.

"When I first saw her, I thought Heather was our demographic, that she could bring in younger people," says Bill Shine, executive producer of Fox News' prime-time programs. "When you have [a pundit] who is young and knows what they're talking about, they exude more energy. Older women and men tend to . . . sit back and relax. If you've got a debate show, you want that energy."

Nauert knows she needs to fill out her resume.

"Coming to TV the way I did, I missed some things," she says. "I want to do it the right way. I need a stronger foundation to stay in the business and build a career out of it."

She plans to keep her Fox job. This fall she's moving to New York and enrolling in Columbia University's graduate journalism school. She's also getting married.

Her ideal TV job, she says, would be "something combining politics and smart stuff. Something more fun. Something that could show you're human too. Reporters are so serious that I have a hard time connecting with them."

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