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So What Do You Do, Donna Brazile, Political Commentator and Strategist?

'If you rely on the media for your information... you get just part of the equation'

By Janelle Harris - October 27, 2010

Some kids learn how to play basketball at the local playground. Young Donna Brazile got her first taste of winning political hardball there instead. The New Orleans native was just a fresh-faced 9-year-old when she held a city council candidate's feet to the fire for promising to build some swings and a slide in her neighborhood.

Since that intoxicating victory, she's sealed a place in history as the first African-American campaign manager to direct a major presidential bid when she led Al Gore's push for the Oval Office in 2000. Recently, the Washingtonian named the veteran grassroots organizer and Democratic strategy sharpshooter -- whose double-sided calling card is her sharp wit and her sharp tongue -- one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the country. These days, Brazile is probably best known for her work in another highly politicized arena, cable television news. As an in-demand commentator for the big networks, Brazile says she knows the impact her words can have on those headed to the voting booth and relishes the chance to be held accountable. "Politics is a rough and tumble business," she says. "It's not for the faint-hearted."

Name: Donna Brazile
Position: Political strategist, syndicated newspaper columnist, TV commentator, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and managing director of Brazile & Associates LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based grassroots advocacy firm
Resume: Volunteered for the Carter-Mondale presidential campaigns in 1976 and 1980 as a teenager. One year later, while still an undergrad student at LSU, led successful movement to make Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Upon graduation, Coretta Scott King asked Brazile to organize the 20th anniversary commemoration of her late husband's historic March on Washington. Worked on Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984. Contributed to scrolling list of bids for political office in her more than 30-year career. Serves as political commentator for CNN, ABC and NPR. Published bestselling first book, Cooking with Grease, in 2004.
Birthdate: December 15
Hometown: New Orleans, La.
Education: Degree in political science from Louisiana State University; awarded honorary doctorate degrees from her alma mater and Xavier University
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: Opinions or editorials
Favorite TV show: Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Good Morning America and This Week with Christiane Amanpour. She's also an ESPN Sports and Syfy Channel junkie on weekends.
Guilty pleasure: Popcorn and gardening
Last book read: Pops by Terry Teachout. "I read David Baldacci for long flights and all things Zane for pleasure reading."
Twitter handle: @donnabrazile

You've worked on every presidential campaign since 1976. That's a lot of years and a lot of politics. Which campaign do you think the press had the most influence on? How do you think the press played a part in the Gore campaign?
Every cycle is different. The nature of how the media has covered the presidential campaigns has shifted from the ones I worked on early in the 1980s when we were still faxing information to reporters to today when you can basically tweet out your messages by the minute. I felt that there was a lot of scrutiny in the 2000 campaign, largely because we had the greatest period of economic recovery during the Clinton/Gore years. The media was influenced by some of the changes in the undercurrent of American politics, where they thought that the American people, while being in a relatively peaceful period, wanted something different, wanted some change, and therefore I believe the media gave a lot of what I call "free press coverage" to then-governor George Bush. But by and large, I believe the media plays a large role in determining how people think and feel about elections.

In this midterm election season, the media have taken flack for focusing too heavily on fringe groups, i.e., the Koran burning or anything the Tea Party does. What's your take on those stories and the political coverage this year in general? Is there a story you feel is not being told?
If you rely on the media for your information, to educate yourself about the candidates and what issues are facing the country, then you get just part of the equation. I think it's important that we as citizens of this democracy take the responsibility to get as much information as possible before we go into the voting booth. I think it's important in a democracy such as ours that we have multiple sources to get news and information and utilize the media only if we want to get a different opinion.

"The one thing I would get rid of in the world would be hyper-partisan political pundits because I think they add more heat than light to the political debate."

A lot of politicians are moving over to television permanently. Eliot Spitzer has a new show on CNN, Sarah Palin on Fox. Do you think a politician having a constant presence on TV helps or hurts a political career?
Well, TV looks for experts. They look for people who bring a certain point of view. They look for people who know the process, and so it's natural that they recruit from the political world. Public service, after all, is the most visible form of leadership in our society, so it's natural that they go and find former politicians, former campaign strategists and in some cases, former business executives to serve as analysts and hosts for various TV programs.

You've been a contributor on CNN, ABC News, and NPR. Have you ever regretted something that you've said, or has something you said ever been misconstrued?
Oh absolutely. There's no question when you're on TV -- for example, on Sunday mornings when I'm on This Week -- you get graded based on the truthfulness of what you say. I find that to be a challenge, but it helps me put together the very best research before going on a Sunday show. I try to do my research, I try to understand my facts, I try to read the legislation before I comment on it. Does it make me work harder? Yes, because you can utilize talking points, but they're not the meat and bones of what you try to tell the viewers.

What was it and how did you handle the fallout?
Politics is a rough and tumble business. It's not for the faint-hearted. I've got bruises and cuts from being in the political arena. But by and large, I understand how to navigate the process. Yeah, from time to time I make mistakes, but I try to work through my issues by learning from others, by not repeating the same mistake twice, and by going out there everyday to do the best job possible.

"I have a simple rule: when I'm on TV, I'm not talking to just my anchor or my colleague on my right. I'm talking to America."

Cable news is often accused of pitting analysts and commentators against each other, encouraging them to be loud, angry, or engage in heated debates. Do you think that's a fair accusation?
I wrote a column a couple of months ago in The Washington Post, saying that the one thing I would get rid of in the world would be hyper-partisan political pundits because I think they add more heat than light to the political debate. They don't provide critical analysis for issues like healthcare, where it's important to inform the public about what's at stake and how it impacts their lives -- and not just disagree basically because your party doesn't like it.

As a frequent on-air commentator, how do you get your point of view across without attacking other guests?
I have a simple rule: when I'm on TV, I'm not talking to just my anchor or my colleague on my right. I'm talking to America. I look into the lens and in my head, I'm talking to somebody in Nebraska. Why Nebraska? Why the Cornhusker State? I have no idea. But it feels like it's a good place to talk to people.

What's one subject that you're passionate about that you haven't been able to really dive into yet? How will you do it? Book, documentary, speaking tour?
I want to write my second book. At some point, I'm just going to have to push myself away from the political table and take time out to write it. I want to continue what I started when I wrote my first book. I ended that by saying one day we would see a minority female in the White House. Now that has come to pass, so I want to look at the future of American politics. Where do we go after this period of political turmoil and uncertainty? I'm looking at that and giving people an overview of what has happened over the last five years in American politics, some of the broad changes I see on the political landscape. And there's another book I've been anxious to write, and that's post-racial America. I want to talk about how we set out to get the country on the right path and here we are today, even further divided than we were before. So I have a lot of other ideas, but as they say in the movies: just wait.

NEXT >> AvantGuildHey, How'd You Create Social Impact Using Your Documentary, Trouble The Water?

Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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