Reflections On: Meeting Candy Crowley

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With Candy Crowley at Harvard Kennedy School’s JFK Jr. Forum.

Former CNN correspondent Candy Crowley is the first woman since ABC‘s Carole Simpson to moderate a Presidential debate in 2012.

According to the Daily Herald article, “CNN’s new anchor Candy Crowley is not your typical broadcaster“:

There’s no secret about what works on cable news these days.

Flashy graphics and raised voices burst through the screen to jostle into our agitated, unfocused, Twitterized minds.

Anchors are loud, beautiful and opinionated. They are celebrities, meticulously drawn on-air characters who may or may not bear a resemblance to their off-camera selves. Anderson the Great. Glenn of Conspiracyvilles. Rachel, Puckish and Left.

They can present news, sure, but they’re really here to provoke. Viewers should be fired up as much as informed. Guests will be either aggrandized or antagonized, based on party alignment and time slot. No segment can run more than a few quippy minutes, and everyone’s blood pressure must rise.

And as the host of its Sunday morning talk show “State of the Union,” a marquee program in a hyper-competitive hour, CNN picked Candy Crowley — who embodies absolutely none of that formula.

She is 61 and not gorgeous. She trades on layered, nuanced conversations expressly devoid of personal bias. Her dusty voice never lifts above a lecturer’s tone, and if she walked into any given beyond-the-Beltway restaurant, she might not be asked for an autograph. This is a woman who has been a vegetarian for 15 years and kneels to meditate twice a day, every day. In an era of unrelenting interruptions, she’s a self-deprecating anchor who hates to interrupt.

Crowley is beloved inside the halls of CNN and roundly respected in official Washington, a veteran political reporter who works hard and knows her stuff. Friends and colleagues describe her as brilliant and hilarious. But as the host of “State of the Union,” she’s a gamble.

It’s not just that the network’s executives are betting she can do the job; they’re taking long odds we’ll sit still long enough to watch. And if early ratings are any indicator, we might not.

Candy Crowley has been in our living rooms for more than a quarter-century now, first as an NBC reporter and since 1987 as a CNN correspondent. Until this year, she was relegated to the supporting cast, a perennial smart lady some well-lit anchor would conjure via satellite to explain Washington. She’d talk, he’d nod. Then the cameras would turn away; he’d move on to a hurricane watch or pop-star update, and she’d blink back to political Neverland.

There was no reason to ponder whether or not she really lived there — which, in fact, she did. It wasn’t for us to count the dozen-plus presidential campaigns she covered, the hundreds of congressional news conferences, or innumerable scandals and stump speeches. If we’d stopped to think about it, we might have guessed that she was never just a newsreader like some of the others, but we didn’t stop to think about it.

“She’s like the CliffsNotes for all the other reporters,” says Alexandra Pelosi, who covered two presidential races alongside Crowley. “They talk about those things that nobody reads — nobody reads bills. But Candy does. She reads all of that stuff. She reads everything. On the bus, everyone would just go to her and ask her, ‘Candy, so what’s this bill about?”

Still, Crowley wasn’t a star, and for decades no one seemed much interested in elevating her into one. So she is startled to find herself at the helm of a Sunday talk show, peaking in her career during her seventh decade of life.

A year ago, she wouldn’t have dared to wish for it. “Or even thought of it,” she adds. “People always used to say to me, ‘Don’t you want your own show? That’d be so cool if you had your own show.’ I said, ‘You know, it’s not going to happen. So — no.”

Mind you, this is the woman who hung a sign above her desk — in lettering usually reserved for homespun sayings like “Home Is Where the Heart Is” — that reads: “The Only Difference Between This Place and the Titanic Is That the Titanic Had a Band.”

Optimism is not her forte.

When media blogs lit up with speculation that the “State of the Union” job would be Crowley’s after John King announced he was leaving the show to take over a prime-time slot in January, what she wondered was: “Who makes this [expletive] up?” If people asked, she’d point out that there was a moment when Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed destined to become Barack Obama’s running mate. ‘And then we found out they didn’t even get her! I just want to remind you of that,” she remembers saying.

In the past couple of years, Crowley had been more seriously considering an exit strategy than an anchor desk. “It’s get on the bus, get off the bus. Get on the plane, get off the plane. Get in the hotel room, get out. Eventually, I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,” she says. “I thought, ‘What do I do after this?”

But she should’ve known not to over-think it. That’s the one piece of advice she always offers young people: “Don’t plan too hard, because something much better might be out there.”

Crowley didn’t plot out any of what her career has become. Which is not to say that she didn’t have a plan. She did: As she graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 1970, “I was wildly in love with this guy,” she says. “I thought I would marry him, move to California, have five kids, iron his shirts and write the Great American Novel.”

She recalls those dreams from a stool in the recently remodeled kitchen of her Bethesda, Md., rambler. The house is a showcase of family antiques, Asian art and memorabilia collected along her journeys with the press pool. Crowley, in chunky rings and a linen jacket, sits facing away from a lushly landscaped back yard, where two young men are doing maintenance on her lap pool. She was up before dawn for a 7 a.m. newscast but is still ebullient at noon.

As her friends are quick to gush, the newswoman is enormously likable — warm, chatty and without pretension. She laughs heartily at her own jokes, throwing her head back and slapping the counter. In every situation she seems to lead with her humor — a sharp wit that produces, as CNN President Jon Klein puts it, “some of the funniest e-mail chains you’d ever want to get hooked into.”

When things went sour with the college boyfriend, Crowley, the daughter of a St. Louis furniture salesman and a homemaker, moved to Washington with a friend. Neither could “figure out what we could do with a bachelor of arts degree,” but eventually Crowley was hired to help put out a newsletter at a chemicals trade association.

She also began freelancing for the National Education Association magazine, and at 22 she married a TV producer. He mentioned an opening with the channel’s sister radio station and, thinking that journalism “would be fun,” Crowley signed on to work a split shift producing traffic and crime reports during morning and evening drive times.

After a stint with another station, Crowley was hired by AP Radio Network as a general assignment reporter. But within a few years she became a mother to two young boys, and when her husband got a job in Iowa, she became a stay-at-home mom for six years. “I’m not sure you always appreciate those times when you’re in them, but I look back and say to everybody, ‘Take it off — your career will find you. Trust me, when you go back, it’ll find you.”

By the time her youngest started kindergarten, they’d returned to Washington, and AP rehired her. The radio network eventually assigned Crowley to cover the White House, where she caught the attention of NBC executives.

One screen test later, she was hired. But when the station went through cutbacks 2 1/2 years later, Crowley was on the chopping block. By then, she and her husband had divorced, and she remembers being “terrified because I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I needed the money.”

She latched on as a steady freelancer for CNN, and within two years was made full-time. Amid the rush of a 24-hour news station, Crowley’s work stood out for its thoughtfulness and eloquence.

In the early 1990s, Crowley began covering Capitol Hill, “a puzzle palace of politics,” and after five years she was promoted to a national political correspondent.

There were long days, cross-country assignments and two boys she was raising largely alone because their father had moved out of state.

For years, she would feel like she was going to throw up every day around 3 p.m., “because that’s when they come home from school and call you.” She’d pray that no late-breaking assignment would land in her lap, keeping her from dinner, homework and hanging out.

Of course the boys, Webster and Jonathan, now 31 and 30 and a neurosurgeon and rock musician, respectively, remember little of that. They remember that takeout dinners were just fine and that their mom made it to every football game, once insisting that CNN provide a car to chauffeur her to the stadium on a layover between campaign events. She refused to be away from her sons for longer than five days at a stretch, but when the youngest left for college, Crowley realized she could take the “Mom, I need money” calls from any hotel room in America.

She was on the campaign trail for months at a time after that, covering Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, John Kerry and Obama. Along the way, she made fans out of competitors and sources.

“I think everyone enjoyed her. She has that great laugh and is just a lot of fun,” says Karen Hughes, former political adviser to George W. Bush. “And some of the interviews I’ve done with her are some of the best interviews that I can remember doing. She’s probing and difficult and tough … but there’s not the air of confrontation that you get from some interviewers.”

But by the end of 2008, after almost 18 months on the road, Crowley was exhausted. Campaign life doesn’t lend itself to healthy living or serenity. She promised herself she’d spend all of 2009 dedicated to making changes: working out with a trainer, eating more nutritiously. “I just wanted to be a better person. I wanted to feel better,” she says. “And if at the end of the year I just hated it, then I’d go do whatever I want.”

When “State of the Union” came open in January, Crowley felt sure she didn’t have a real shot, but a friend convinced her that “if you don’t ask them for it, they’re never going to know you want it.”

And just as Crowley returned from a trip to New Zealand with her boys, Jon Klein called her to his office to offer her the job.

CNN hired veteran producer Tom Bettag to remake the show for Crowley. “What she brings is a real humanity,” he says. “She’s got that mix of, ‘You would absolutely believe her and go to her in a crisis, but you would also enjoy having dinner with her.”

But there is still a question of whether we’re willing to spend an hour with our attention fixed on the kind of substantive discussions she conducts — even if they’re with big-name guests such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell, who have all appeared on the show in recent months.

Robert Thompson, a communications professor at Syracuse University, thinks there could be a certain advantage in Crowley differentiating herself from the “adversarial and aggressive talk and opinion” we’ve come to expect from so much cable news. For a Sunday morning show targeted at political junkies, he says, viewers still “expect a more serious kind of presentation.”

Since her debut in February, though, the program’s ratings have dropped — the July numbers were down 22 percent compared to the previous year. All of the Sunday morning talk shows have seen their viewerships decline, so a slow political news cycle may have contributed, but CNN’s numbers slipped more than its competitors.

Klein says the network remains committed — “we’re convinced that there is an avid audience out there hungry for surprising insights expressed well,” he wrote in an e-mail.

It will take months to reveal whether Crowley’s show can find its footing and build a bigger audience.

But for this moment, at least, its anchor is having a ball.

“I sometimes look around that studio in the middle of commercials and think, ‘Really?” she says. “I can’t quite believe I’m doing this, but it’s a kick.”

Crowley, notably, was heavily criticized after the debate from conservatives because she corrected Governor Mitt Romney claim that President Obama did not refer to the consulate attack on Benghazi as an “act of terror,” according to CNN‘s article, “The truth about what Candy Crowley said“:

Conservative critics have launched an attack on CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley, who moderated Tuesday’s second presidential debate, after she corrected former Gov. Mitt Romney’s claim that President Barack Obama did not refer to the consulate attack in Benghazi as an “act of terror.”

Obama said in the debate that on September 12, he called the attack in Libya that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, an “act of terror.” Romney, however, disputed the claim, and said the president had not called it an “act of terror” for 14 days. Crowley correctly stated that Obama had used the term “act of terror” during remarks at The White House the day after the attack. Romney was mistaken.

In an editorial on Wednesday titled “Candy’s not dandy,” The New York Post — owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., parent company of Fox News Channel — repeated accusations against Crowley first leveled by Romney surrogate John Sununu on CNN’s Early Start on Wednesday morning.

“The president was caught lying last night, and I think the world should know that,” Sununu told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien. Sununu contended that Obama’s comments were in reference to “the original 9/11 event” and not the Libya attack.

However, the transcripts of the debate and also the president’s Rose Garden address, as well as subsequent comments, show that, in fact, Crowley was correct.

Recently, Crowley came to Indiana University Southeast’s on behalf of the Sanders Speakers Series, regarding the 2016 elections:

During her speech, Crowley said she had been sharing her predictions about the current election with students at Harvard University for four months.

“It’s been really embarrassing because I’ve been at Harvard for four months telling them exactly what’s going to happen, and none of it happened,” she said.

Crowley said that in 2014, the politicians she believed would be candidates to watch in 2016 were New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

“Bob McDonnell was the former governor of Virginia who may be going to the slammer this year,” Crowley said. “And Chris Christie just endorsed Donald Trump, who didn’t appear on any card I ever had.”

According to The Roanoke Times, McDonnell requested that the U.S. Supreme Court overturn his corruption convictions from 2014. Meanwhile, Christie endorsed Trump on Friday, Feb. 26, according to Fox News.

Additionally, Crowley discussed the significance and impact of Super Tuesday, which fell on Tuesday, March 1. Crowley said Super Tuesday was designed to provide a little clarity during the election season, which helps voters and candidates see the direction the election is headed.

According to Politico, Super Tuesday is when the most states hold caucuses or primaries, and the candidates earn delegates based on the results. The website said 12 states and one territory held caucuses or primaries during the 2016 Super Tuesday.

Crowley said Trump had an advantage going into Super Tuesday, especially since he had several people endorsing him, including Christie and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)

While Crowley said it’s becoming more difficult to figure out how the Republican candidates come together on issues, being against Trump is one thing they have in common.

“The only thing they are talking about is how they can stop him,” Crowley said.

Crowley said the Republicans are split into two factions: for and against Trump. She said she believes the party members are unable to figure out why Trump has been so popular among voters.

Crowley said she believed Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Ben Carson would receive pressure to exit the race after Super Tuesday.

“Post-Super Tuesday, I suspect that there will be huge pressure again on Kasich to get out of the race,” Crowley said. “I don’t believe he will. Carson, I haven’t seen Carson in it. Now, I’m not watching 24-7, but I mean, he’s still in the race, I know that. But I think there will be pressure on Carson to get out.”

According to a statement by Carson on the Ben Carson for President 2016 website, Carson chose to drop out of the 2016 presidential race on Friday, March 4, and he has decided not to endorse a particular candidate. Instead, he said he will stand for all Americans.

In addition to discussing the Republican presidential candidates, Crowley discussed the Democratic candidates in detail.

Crowley said she doesn’t think Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), who describes himself as a Democratic socialist, will win the Democratic nomination because he leans too far left.

“I know for sure that he didn’t think, ‘I’m going to be the Democratic nominee,’ Crowley said.

Also, Crowley said leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton could be the Republican Party’s unifying force. She said Clinton could bring the party together more than anything or anyone, because the party members would be against her.

However, Crowley said she is unsure if Clinton can turn out the coalition that elected President Obama twice. She said Clinton will need to attract the young and minorities.

“At Harvard, I was stunned by how so few people were excited for Hillary Clinton,” Crowley said.

Crowley said people think Clinton is smart, but she believes politicians need to be more than just smart. She said they have to connect with voters.

“You have to reach,” Crowley said. “You have to touch people.”

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