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.
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.
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!'"
About that middle-aged boss: "Bailey has Dick Tracy's face and a wristwatch to match, and he is tickled to death by the whole process." The piece perfectly captured his infectious enthusiasm. In fact, a few months later, soon after he had open-heart surgery which required breaking all of his ribs, Bailey was right back in the office. He just couldn't stay away.
Doug Bailey was not happy that Williams had revealed that the inmates were running the asylum. But she did give him credit as the genius behind a great idea, and he deserved to be recognized for transforming the way political news was delivered. It wasn't about the money – I doubt he made a profit for a long time. (In fact, when we went to cover the political conventions that summer, there was only enough cash to pay for one hotel room with two beds, so we worked single-sex shifts and alternated use of the hotel room between the men and women.)
Over the years, many of Washington's top political reporters got their start working at The Hotline and until the advent of free news sites like Politico and Talking Points Memo, The Hotline continued to be a daily must-read for political types. It stayed on the cutting edge for nearly two decades.
Doug Bailey died last week at the age of 79. He'll be remembered as an old-school believer in bipartisanship, and a visionary who saw a better way to report political news. He lived life ahead of his time, and we'll miss him.
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