I gained an enormous political education and came to political maturity by obsessively watching political shows while I worked on Capitol Hill a few decades ago. And I continue to watch them to this day.
Back in the late ’80s and the ’90s, for me, there was the must-watch roundtable of commentators on CNN’s Capital Gang. My grandfather and I shared a love for Chris Matthews and Hardball, which started on an obscure network, America’s Talking, then moved to CNBC and eventually to MSNBC. Finally, Sunday morning was appointment television for the three major networks’ political talk shows. I personally favored ABC’s long-running This Week With David Brinkley.
For a bit of levity, I tuned in religiously to CNN’s Crossfire, with legendary pundits Bill Press and Robert Novak. They were always yelling, and I’ve never been able to hear very well, so I didn’t get much out of it. However, I can still do an impression of Novak’s intro to the show, “This is CrossssFIIIIIEEER!”
Similarly, I tried never to miss the weekly syndicated, mostly conservative political debate program The McLaughlin Group. Looking back, that show was almost a precursor to Fox News. You’d hear such outrageous banter, particularly by the host John McLaughlin. It was less shocking, more amusing. At parties, you would most likely find me imitating the moderator, and his rude and dismissive questioning of the panel’s only woman, columnist Eleanor Clift.
It would go something like this:
McLaughlin: “Issue One! Bill Clinton! Political predator or predatory president? Eleanor?”
Clift: “I would say…”
McLaughlin: “Wrong, Eleanor! Both AND a lascivious liberal!”
Clift stuck out because she was one of the few liberal pundits on the show and a punching bag for the conservative male panelists McLaughlin, Fred Barnes, and Pat Buchanan. And of course, she was an anomaly as the only woman on the panel and one of the few women on those political talk shows.
Back in the era before the explosion of cable news, those shows were dominated, overwhelmingly, by angry middle-aged to older white men. Looking back, the pundits and panelists were just reflections of what made up our legislative bodies at that time. Women, Blacks, other people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals were few and far between.
Thank God times have changed. Not only have political talk shows proliferated, but they are more representative of society as a whole. They are much more diverse, with a wide array of panelists, contributors, hosts, and guests with varying backgrounds.
I spoke recently with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jonathan Capehart, host of MSNBC’s Sunday morning political show The Sunday Show With Jonathan Capehart. Capehart is not only the first African-American to host a Sunday morning political talk show but the first LGBTQ+ person as well.
I still have my favorite programs. I love CNN’s The Lead With Jake Tapper, but he’s on at the same time, 4 p.m. Eastern daily, as MSNBC’s Deadline: White House, hosted by Nicolle Wallace, so Tapper gets DVR’d.
Wallace asks brilliant questions, and she has a plethora of terrific guests — it is this man’s dream to be one of those guests! One of her new contributors is Politico’s White House correspondent and an author of the outlet’s must-read daily “Playbook,” Eugene Daniels. So imagine my delightful surprise when I was watching Daniels on the show last week, and spotted his baby blue nail polish.
My eyes opened wide, and I proudly blurted out, “Way to go, Eugene!” Them I immediately thought, What would the likes of Novak and McLaughlin think if one of their peers was a gay Black man wearing bright nail polish? For that reason, I had to reach out to Daniels and get his take on the new era and look of political punditry.
First of all, how did it all begin for him? Was Daniels obsessed with politics like I was? “I started out wanting to be a lawyer and a politician,” he began. “I sort of figured out that I didn’t want to go into politics, and by chance I took a journalism class, and I didn’t take it that seriously in the beginning since it was an elective, but I quickly fell in love with writing.”
Daniels said his journalism teacher gave him profound advice that set him off on his career. “My professor told me, if you do not want to go into politics, then go into journalism and hold politicians accountable. And I haven’t looked back since that moment.”
Daniels began his career on television in Colorado, and then went to work for Newsy, a streaming news network. He’s been with Politico since 2018, and his work has run the gamut, covering all manner of politics, including the midterms, the Democratic presidential primary, and the general election through print, video journalism, and podcasts.
Where did Daniels get his interest in politics? “My grandmother watched all the political shows, and I got a lot of that from her. She especially loved all the programs on MSNBC. She liked Chris Matthews too, and all the other network hosts. My family always tells me how proud she would be of me that I’m appearing on her favorite channel and speaking about one of her favorite subjects. That means a lot to me, and I think of her during all of my TV appearances.”
Daniels said he was and still is inspired by Oprah Winfrey. “Growing up, there weren’t a whole lot of people on TV who looked like me, and she really was one of the only ones. She spoke to me because she was just herself, and she treated everyone as a human being and just had a conversation with them, so that’s a real lesson I learned. Now when I prep for a big interview with a major figure, I think about approaching it from a simple human interaction point of view.”
His approach shows in his prolific writing for Politico and his spot-on observations as a panelist on Wallace’s show. “I should also mention that I grew up idolizing Brian Williams, and now I appear on his nightly show weekly, and that’s another dream come true,” he said.
Daniels loves his job, most particularly since it’s a front-row seat to history. “I’m writing about and talking with some of the world’s major newsmakers and biggest stories. I feel so grateful to be able to watch history unfold.”
I asked him how he feels about the new era of pundits and journalists who look nothing like Novak and McLaughlin, and what they might think about his nail polish. “I think it’s amazing what’s happening,” he said. “First of all, I don’t wear nail polish as a statement. That’s just part of who I am, just like having expertise in the field of politics and journalism.
“Nail polish doesn’t negate the fact that I can write and talk about infrastructure, voting rights, and Russia, for example. Finally, if you really want to cover this country and the world, you have to have people who look like the population and individuals who bring a different background and point of view to their reporting.”
Daniels feels that the environment now is much better and more hospitable but that there is still a lot of work to do. “For me it’s huge to hear from parents who say that their son has never seen a Black man with an Afro on TV before. Or from parents of queer kids who tell me that I’m a great example to them because I’m smart and wear nail polish and the fact that they coexist.”
Which led to my final two questions for Daniels. What is his favorite color of nail polish, and what’s been the most interesting topic he’s reported about? “Right now I’m wearing really pretty yellow, orange, and blue colors on my fingers, so that’s my favorite today. Each time I wear a new color, it’s my favorite, so I don’t have just one in particular.
“Voting rights has been the most interesting subject I’ve been covering thus far. There’s so much to it, and it affects everyone, crossing races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. There’s not one person or group of people who aren’t affected by voting rights. It’s one of those issues we still haven’t figured out in this country, and it has both politics and policy all wrapped into one. Voting rights determine the future of our country in such consequential ways.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.