A Better Way to Report Politics

The Hotline was the go-to source for political news in Washington for nearly two decades.

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
By SHARE

In the fall of 1987, just as the 1988 presidential campaign was gearing up, curly-paper fax machines would start printing out a 20-page must-read of that day's political news from across the country. Before Politico, before Real Clear Politics, before the Huffington Post's "Cheat Sheet," before blogs and chat rooms and Twitter and even before the Internet itself, there was The Hotline. That fall, Republican political consultant Doug Bailey and Democratic strategist Roger Craver had a great entrepreneurial idea: They founded The Hotline, the "Dow Jones wire of the political world," as they called it, and political coverage has never been the same.

Back then, if you lived inside the Beltway and wanted to know the latest polls from Iowa before the caucuses, you'd have to drive to a lonely newsstand on Dupont Circle and get a printed copy of the Des Moines Register, sent in from the heartland on a two-day journey by truck. Same with the news from New Hampshire or any other early primary state. Bailey and Craver changed that. They cut deals with key newspapers across the country. As editors transmitted their newly-digitized copy to the printing presses overnight, they'd send their political stories by computer modem to the rundown McLean, Va., townhouse that was The Hotline's headquarters.

A bipartisan staff – Will Saletan (now at Slate) was the Democratic managing editor; I was the Republican one – arrived to work a graveyard shift, along with a handful of editorial assistants, to go through all the copy arriving by modem, printed out on perforated computer paper with holes down both margins. We'd start writing up overnight news summaries from the battleground states, report on the latest local polls, recap the nightly news and late-night talk show political humor, and include a feature that had never been done before: 200-word unedited reports from each of the presidential campaigns every day. Sort of a pre-Web version of a daily Facebook post from the candidates.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Future White House press secretary Mike McCurry had a cult following for his posts from the Babbitt campaign. Along with the rest of the Democratic contenders – Al Gore, Paul Simon, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt, Michael Dukakis and Joe Biden (Pat Schroeder and Gary Hart dropped out earlier) and Republicans George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Pierre du Pont and Pat Robertson – the campaigns regularly sent in dispatches. Political columnists like David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register and Tom Fiedler of the Miami Herald became widely read.

The Hotline would arrive at subscribers' desks every weekday morning, most by fax, a few by newfangled "computer download." Subscribers each paid about $300 a month, and the initial subscribers included political operatives, pundits, politicians, staffers on the Hill and news junkies of all stripes. Bailey once told an interviewer that in The Hotline's first year, potential subscribers asked three main questions: "You're going to do what?" "You want me to pay you how much?" and "What's a fax?"

Bailey would tap his vast network of political connections and add "insider" interviews and commentary, handwritten in beautiful cursive on a yellow legal pad and quickly typed up by one of us before deadline. He'd go through a paper copy of the stories we were covering, cut the titles into strips with scissors and staple them to a page in the order he wanted. At the time, it didn't strike me as odd that he didn't use a computer. He was from another era, but he saw what was coming.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

As The Hotline became more popular, The Washington Post sent its legendary profile writer, the late Marjorie Williams, to spend an overnight shift watching how the hottest political news digest in town was produced every day. She noticed, correctly, that the fresh-out-of-college staff wrote most of it. "Watching the staff put together The Hotline is more like wandering into the middle of an early Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie," she wrote. "This font of instant wisdom is mostly the work of people under age 25, and until their middle-aged bosses show up at around 6 a.m., the office seems to whisper, 'Hey, let's put out a bipartisan electronic digest of the nation's salient political news! We can rope off the whole neighborhood!'"