By Lisa Baker, BrainstormNW, Feature / October 2006, Three Amigos Russ Dondero, Bill Lunch and Jim Moore: Are they analysts or advocates?
In 2005, Russ Dondero’s blog went live.
With that, the sought-after political analyst was out of the closet…Out of the closet, down the street, running naked with a banner: “I’m a screaming liberal.”
The blog, located at www.russdonderoweb.com, is a smattering of Dondero’s personal positions on both national and Oregon political issues, which run to the Air America side of the ideological spectrum, with anti-Bush screeds and even a campaign endorsement for a Metro candidate.
RAD: On the other hand RAD dismisses the Vermont import leftwing talk jock Thom Hartmann (on your 620 AM dial) as a political lightweight when it comes to Oregon politics. Al Franken ought to stick with comedy not political commentary and the other screamers on Air America are like their right wing counterparts across the dial - propagandists reading their party line talking points.
It is an offering made surprising not by its content but by the fact that Dondero is one of a small, elite cadre of Oregon commentators called on specifically to provide apolitical, un-spun interpretations of political events and issues. On election night, you will usually find Dondero and his closest contemporaries, Oregon State’s Bill Lunch and Pacific University’s Jim Moore, providing what is supposed to be decidedly academic, background observations about voters and issues on local television and radio shows.
RAD: Again, academics are used to separating their ideology from their commentary. After all that's what the classroom gig is all about. But the other firewall there is the integrity of the journalists who frame the questions during an interview. They have their agenda - to get your take on a breaking story and they have developed a finely tuned internal spin detector system.
But Dondero, a part-time political science professor at Portland State University and professor emeritus at Pacific University who has appeared on television, on radio and in nearly every newspaper in the state, wouldn’t say he was out of the closet.
He would say he was never in the closet.
“I’m very open about what I’m about. Everyone who knows me knows where I’m coming from. I am a flaming-hearted, even bleeding-hearted liberal, and I’m honest about where I’m coming from,” Dondero says. And while journalists continue to ask him for objective analysis, they all know about his blog and about his political activism, which dates from long before the blog.
RAD: In media interviews my agenda is not ideological but adding more historical perspective. On the record, I'm seldom, if ever, asked about my personal opinion on an issue or candidate. Now if the article is on term limits - the problematic nature of that idea will come to the fore not as ideology but as fact. Having seen the impact of term limits on a GOP controlled legislature provides evidence not just opinion - even Karen Minnis has seen the light!
Indeed, it would be hard for any journalist not to know. Dondero’s blog pops up on any Internet search of his name. It is a cross reference given in high-profile political blogs that reporters often use to keep tabs on local political debates. Additionally, Dondero has appeared at publicized meetings and events as an activist for some of the same causes he is asked to comment on objectively as an analyst.
RAD: Actually my activist tendencies have been focused primarily on the affordable housing and homelessness issue. These are not partisan issues. I've worked with Ds and Rs on this issue in Salem and Washington County. People across many constituencies work on this issue including bankers, home builders, and religious denominations. Yes, on my blog I endorse people and I also lend my name in the voter's pamphlet to issues I care about. But since when was wanting good libraries or public safety a partisan issue?
Despite his willingness to be identified as an activist, even a liberal activist—“It is what what I am,” he says—journalists have chosen to describe Dondero simply as a political scientist, analyst or professor. None has ever identified him as an activist, advocate or political player, which means voters who hear him speak on political issues or who read his comments on the gubernatorial contest between Ted Kulongoski and Ron Saxton are likely the only ones who don’t know.
RAD: This is a fair point. But disclosure of this is not my job. If a radio, TV or print journalist wants to identify me as Professor RAD, liberal political analyst - no problem. Go for it. On the other hand, I've been very tough on Ted Kulongoski for 4 years in my role as an analyst and more recently on my blog.
Philip Romero, an economist and University of Oregon business professor (and former business school dean), also has experience commenting on both national and regional political issues, having spent the 1990s as chief economist to Republican California governor Pete Wilson. He isn’t surprised at the three amigos’ liberalism, but at the media’s naivete. “Liberals outnumber conservatives among university faculty by ten to one, and probably 20 to one in political science departments,” says Romero. “And Dondero, et al, are forthright about their biases: they are there for anyone to see. Shame on the media for failing to note that they are not entirely objective. I suspect that most reporters, who are equally liberal, simply do not recognize that liberalism is not synonymous with impartiality.”
RAD: Perhaps the biases of Ph.Ds in academic fields reflect their knowledge as well as their political philosophy. When one is schooled at this level - one does have some expertise the average person on the street does not have. But keep in mind, it's the political right which has fashioned major think tanks like the Heritage Foundation et al. that inform public opinion, advise key policy makers and are a recruitment tool for the Bush administration.
They are friends as well as colleagues, but Moore, Lunch and Dondero have wildly different styles.
Lunch is the most bookish of the three, couching his analysis in discourse so lengthy and thick with obscure historical facts and asides, research bits and terminology that people he insults may take several minutes to realize they were insulted at all. He’s the analyst only OPB could love.
A regular on KOIN-TV, KXL radio and KINK radio, Moore belies his ever-present bowtie with a rapid-fire wit and sound bite responses to complex questions. He is a broadcast media favorite, popularity that Dondero says is a natural outgrowth of Moore’s “sizzle… He’s more likely to make a flamboyant comment to get people’s attention. He has a way of being pithy and to the point and hitting it out of the park.”
Dondero describes Lunch as “a liberal fellow, like most political scientists,” but says Lunch tries to remain true to the goal of objective commentary. “I don’t think he treads too far into the line of his own opinion. But if you listen, you can get between the lines.”
RAD: Now just for the record, while the "three Amigos" is a nice tag line for the story, we are not the only academics on air in Oregon. My colleague at Lewis & Clark Robert Eisinger is a regular on KPAM. And I've noticed the local media is branching out to newer faculty at local colleges and universities along with long standing notables from the political consultant ranks like Len Bergstein.
Dondero himself is the most effusive, even eccentric, of the three. In his blog, he refers to himself in the third person, by his initials, “RAD.” He admits to prompting some amount of discomfort in the other two, laughingly lamenting that the two edited out particularly provocative comments he made in their shared book project, a chapter in “Oregon Politics and Government: Progressives versus Conservative Populists,” published last year.
All three claim that they’re fair to both ends of the political spectrum, regardless of how they may feel personally. Dondero tells how he obtained internships for two former students—one at the National Rifle Association and the other at the National Abortion Rights Action League. “I sound like a liberal on KXL because it’s so conservative, and on KINK, I sound conservative because it’s so liberal.”
But only Dondero is comfortable revealing his biases, calling it “liberating” and “like jumping into freedom.”
RAD: As the founder and coordinator of the Tom McCall Forum I have brought the political literati of the Bush administration to Oregon - Ralph Reed, William Kristol, Richard Perle along with other neo-con icons such as Newt Gingrich, Mary Matalin, William Safire and of course in the first Forum back in '84 William F. Buckley, Jr. One thing all my colleagues and I believe in is the marketplace of ideas. If Bob Woodward's latest book is right, this is an idea George W. Bush ought to consider!
Lunch admits to an occasional temptation to blurt something out, “but one restrains oneself. If you don’t, you lose credibility as an honest broker. In the short term, it might seem understandable, but it is a terminal approach.”
His example: Russell Sadler, whose commentaries once appeared statewide in mainstream media outlets but now tend to appear only on liberal activist websites. “Russ is well-informed, but he greatly reduced his effectiveness as an analyst by being out front with advancing his own views. I try to avoid that, to be more even-handed, balanced.”
RAD: As a personal friend of Russ Sadler his loss as a columnist is Oregon's loss. But any reader of this blog knows RS is a regular contributer as well as on the OregonBlue blog. We need the Russ Sadlers. Shame on our local mainstream media for excluding one of our brightest and best columnists.
But Romero notes, “Commentators can’t be simultaneously opinionated and impartial. Many academics try to have it both ways. The media who identify them—or me, for that matter—as simply an “academic” are doing a disservice to their audience, implying a degree of objectivity rarely present in political commentary during these highly polarized times.”
Of Dondero’s blog, Lunch says he will withhold judgment on its effects for now. “It’s a work in progress. I don’t know how much it’s going to make his standing as an analyst suspect. I hope it doesn’t endanger that.”
Dondero says he understands why his colleagues would prefer to remain in the closet. “The atmosphere in politics in this state is so poisonous that the fear is the minute you have a label, the audience will tune you out. If there’s a reluctance to be labeled, it’s because you know people may not like what you say. Maybe they’ll say, ‘Let’s go on to the sports page.’”
At the same time, Dondero does not believe the blog or any of his political activities will have any effect on his attraction as an analyst. “I don’t see any harm in being honest. Oregonians have a history of respecting people who are direct.”
Another factor: “I’m retired,” Dondero points out. “I get my share of calls, but I’m not on the Rolodex like Jim and Bill are.”
Retired or not, in the past year since the blog went live, news organizations continue to contact Dondero and use his quotes as objective analysis just as they have in the past. The Register-Guard, the Statesman Journal, the Medford Mail Tribune, and the Associated Press have all cited him as a source in recent political coverage, identifying him as a professor, a political scientist and even a “political blogger,” but not attempting to label his political advocacy.
“I think most journalists are caught in this sort of nexus of wanting to be neutral and objective,” Dondero says. “They tend to avoid that (labeling) given my academic credentials and Ph.D.”
KGW-TV News Director Rod Gramer says his station uses different kinds of commentators for different things. On election night, he says he prefers to use former players in the political game—people who have worked inside politics and can give “the inside story.” But there are times, he says, when an “independent, statistical point of view” is called for.
All three analysts say their aim is to do just that when required, but they believe their roles as analysts go further.
"A lot of what Bill, Jim and I do is educate,” Dondero says. “I don’t want to seem paternalistic, but the role of an academic pundit is to clarify the important questions. There will be entire stories where I’ve not been quoted but what I told (journalists) is in the story giving it context. The rewards of being a pundit do not always appear in quote form but in the fact that you helped shape the way journalists look at something.”
Lunch says he sees political analysis as “on a continuum” between simple reporting and editorializing. “For me, that involves filling in the blanks, giving background to a given policy choice.”
For Moore, it’s not enough to inform. “My aim is to tick off extremists on both sides,” he says. “I figure if I can say something that makes some think I’m a Republican pollster and others think I’m a Harry Lonsdale tree hugger, I’m doing my job.”
Lunch initially calls himself a “follower of James Madison,” describing Madison as an “institutional conservative but a policy liberal,” both terms less than helpful in defining Lunch’s politics on current issues. More helpful, Lunch says it is former President Bill Clinton who most closely resembles Madison’s political spirit. Lunch believes: Oregonians should pay more in taxes, in part to reflect the state’s mid-pack population density and economic strength; that it’s too easy for Oregonians to get initiatives on the ballot; and that Canada has proven that universal healthcare is worth the tax burden it would impose.
On abortion, Lunch says anti-abortion groups are led by people who simply want to “turn back the clock to a time when women were unable to control their reproductive lives…not just to ban abortion but also birth control,” he says. “They want to go back to a past in which the societal structure and rules would not allow women to do any of the things they do now. I think it’s impossible, but keep in mind, Iran is trying to do that.”
Moore is a registered independent. More tellingly, he prefers to call himself an “internationalist” whose personal politics, he says, are most inclined toward European political thought. “I prefer Europe,” he says.
He says he doesn’t mind sparring on the left side against KXL conservative Lars Larson in radio debates but explains, “Sometimes Lars wants me to be a political analyst and sometimes he needs someone to fight with.”
Moore believes that Oregonians’ ease in getting complex issues to the ballot has resulted in a “stupid Constitution.” And he loves vote-by-mail. Moore believes school districts should let voters choose a tax rate that corresponds to the level of success they want for their children. He thinks Bill Sizemore should “get a life.”
While Moore will cop to some non-litmus policy views, he doesn’t like the idea of labeling pundits, believing it will lead to more of a dueling-analyst approach seen on various cable networks. “I’ve seen it on Fox and CNN, and there’s just so much verbiage. It’s unwatchable.”
Others in academia don’t agree that shedding labels guarantees shedding biases. Says Romero, “When academics imply Olympian detachment, they can shut off debate—not coincidentally (in light of media bias) in favor of a liberal perspective, which becomes the received conventional wisdom. Working for a university is no guarantee of objectivity—quite the opposite, since activism is again in fashion. You can’t simultaneously push your line, and then retreat behind an academic title to shield yourself from dispute. Again, I don’t fault these analysts; I fault the media, which fails its audience by ignoring the partisan perspective of most of the commentators it quotes.”
In the end, Dondero says he believes the personal views of analysts don’t matter because they don’t preclude objective thought. “I don’t try to bamboozle people and make them think I’m not who I am, but I can be equally critical of both parties, both candidates. The fact is everyone has an angle and at some point, it will come out. There really is no neutral. It’s why honesty is important.”
Ross Day, spokesman for Oregonians in Action and co-sponsor of Measure 37, the property rights law, says voters should know that what they hear from some analysts is tainted by ideology even though it is presented as fact rather than opinion.
“When they cross the line into editorializing, at that point, their proclivities will influence how we view what is occurring. Let’s say Saxton spends $800,000 on television buys. One analyst will say he’s desperately trying to gain traction and another will say he’s trying to pull away. The question is, what color are your glasses?”
“The problem is that the audience thinks these guys are unbiased.”
RAD: I think the reading, listening and viewing audience attentive to political issues is smart and can detect bias of either the left or right. But is one to assume that advocates like Ross Day are the fount of objectivity and reason? Again analysts provide perspective and depth to an issue - ultimately the voter decides and the last I looked Measure 37 passed despite my critical reviews of that measure!
By Lisa Baker, BrainstormNW, Feature / October 2006, Three Amigos Russ Dondero, Bill Lunch and Jim Moore: Are they analysts or advocates?
For those who read Oregon's neo-con monthly Brainstorm - you will see RAD and two of his best pundit friends profiled in an article by Lisa Baker, Three Amigos - Russ Dondero, Bill Lunch and Jim Moore: Are they analysts or advocates? I'll post it later... My rant about Steve Duin illustrates that RAD is often more iconoclastic than ideological. Who else would take on Lake Oswego's gift to muckraking from the 'left'. But is RAD a "tax and spend bleeding heart." Yep, I agree with that great Republican Abe Lincoln that government should do for people what they can't do for themselves.
If you are a regular reader of this blog you know I've been very hard on Ds and Rs in Salem - terming them all "cowardly lions." And any bias toward the national Democrats is purely in the eye of the reader. You want proof - well I keep hanging up on the Democractic party requests for money and recycling their flyers in the shredder. I called for Slick Willie's resignation on KPTV's morning show in '98 because he had sqandered the moral authority of his presidency by his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But the ultimate proof that RAD can separate his ideology from his commentary is what RAD says in class - the most successful President since FDR's era was Ronald Reagan and Oregon's best governor since Republican Tom McCall was my good friend Vic Atiyeh - who did not bash pointy headed state bureaucrats and signed a tax increase while ramping up Oregon's business climate in the '80s... You want proof - ask my students at Pacific and PSU... But hey Lisa - thanks for the PR... Good article... For the record, I've been getting and reading Brainstorm since its inception and it doesn't go into the shredder.
Steve Duin is an excellent political columnist and savy fellow. However, his column in today's Oregonian "Legislators in all their sordid glory" belabors the obvious. Yes, it's outrageous that legislators go on junkets to Maui, Vegas et al. But it's legal in Oregon - what's not legal is the failure to report it if the price of the gift is above $144. Again, it's not the accepting the perks of office that is so bad (given the current law) - it's the implicit cover up or amnesia that has afflicted the recipients.
If Duin feels that legislators are on the take - from lobbyists - then he's barking up the wrong tree. Lobbyists refer to this as relationship building. Votes are not bought per se - they are cultivated by all manner of goodies from lobbyists and their clients - trips, campaign contributions and information sharing. But keep in mind the organizations represented by lobbyists Duin cites - the Oregon Restaurant Association, grocers, district attorneys and public employee unions - represent thousands of Oregonians.
So if Duin wants to clean up the Aegean Stables of Oregon politics - he will have to go farther than his column suggests. Yes, let's ban junkets to Hawaii et al, not merely require they be reported. But as the editorial board of the Oregonian said in today's paper reforming campaign finance laws - as Measure 47 attempts to do - creates more problems than it solves. Besides the US Supreme Court in Buckley vs. Vallejo equated campaign money with free speech. Until that decision is overturned such initiatives will be struck down upon appeal at the state or federal level.
What we need is total transparency - who is spending what and for whom? And let's require the PAC contributors be identified in the ads as well as for the record in the Secretary of State's Office. But let's not be naive. Even if junkets are banned - which they should be - unless one wants to alter the first amendment PACS and lobbyists will survive. Yes, let's bring them out into the open. But if they didn't exist, they would have to be invented because democracy is not for free as long as newspapers, TV and radio stations charge candidates for their ads.
Do lobbyists craft bills, yes. Why because they have clients who they represent who demand a hearing. Do legislators cheerfully purr - "As you wish." Not really. Duin knows better than this - he's covered the Oregon legislature in a previous journalistic life. Duin's cheap shot hits the low hanging fruit - it doesn't tell the entire story. The state's 848 registered lobbyists represent big corporations, unions, farmers, independent businesses but also church organizations, hospitals, cities, counties and even state agencies. Who does Duin feel shouldn't be heard in Salem?
Are things out of wack in Salem? Yes. But focusing on the obvious doesn't solve the problem. But it does make for a nifty column! Next time maybe Duin will talk about the public financing of elections as in Arizona? You can't take money out of politics - but you can lower the price of entry and shorten the field of dreams lobbyist play on. But playing to the stereotype of the 'evil axis' of the lobby misses the point. Duin quotes former legislator Mark Hass "...if you want to survive as a lawmaker, you don't go there..." Why not Mark?
As an adjunct professor of politics at PSU I've become a regular customer of Tri-Met and MAX this fall. Last year since my classes were in the evening one day a week, I drove into the big city. But on MWF my 'other' class is in the morning so fighting my way into town via Highway 26 doesn't make any sense, as I found out the hard way! I'm very impressed with the quality of the service on both systems and the courtesy of Tri-Met drivers who drive along the transit mall in downtown Portland. It's also obvious to me that there is a huge consumer base for Tri-Met and MAX. It's also clear that Portlanders benefit greatly from Tri-Met and depend on it a lot. Without it the congestion in downtown Portland would be intolerable - like Seattle. As a suburbanite, I've never used the system on a regular basis until now. After experiencing the traffic congestion and parking issues around PSU earlier in the term I now leave my car in a MAX lot near Oreco Station and take light rail into the big city. Clearly, the region benefits from the quality of life provided by Tri-Met and MAX. RAD just wishes that light rail came all the way to the Grove.
The Bush administration's hand ringing over North Korea's presumed underground testing of a nuclear bomb is a fabricated crisis created by this administration's own over the top rhetoric. In the post-9/11 buildup to the war/occupation of Iraq, the inclusion of North Korea in the orbit of the "axis of evil" hit that regime's paranoid trip wire.
The term "axis of evil" was calibrated to make an implicit connection of Iraq, Iran and North Korea with the "axis" powers of WW II - fascist Germany, Italy and Japan. The historical parallel is purely in the eyes of the speech writer who made up this term - it bears no relationship to real events.
The connection between Iraq, Iran and North Korea, other than they are equally odious authoritarian regimes, is an ideological fiction perpetrated by Bushites such as Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol and Richard Perle. This invented crisis could be settled quickly if the administration would engage in direct bilateral talks with North Korea, as the Clinton administration did.
But such rules of engagement are off the map for the administration because it prefers to trumpet an ideological posture as opposed to quiet diplomacy. In the process, we have elevated a petty, isolated, tin horn dictator into a major player on the international stage. We've again made the post 9/11 world a more dangerous place.
Doing so we have put at risk our regional allies Japan and South Korea who are within missile range of a loose North Korean nuke. It also risks destabilizing the region and playing into the hands of supra-nationalists throughout Asia who would like nothing more than to get their hands on nukes.
It also puts China between a rock and a hard place having to balance her desire to be a global economic power with the West and an ideological ally with a nation which she shares a border. The other irony is that our ally Pakistan gave North Korea the fissionable materials with which to make her bomb(s).
This manufactured crisis is akin to a 1950ish game of "chicken" between the pre-hippie greasers RAD shared PE classes with at RHS who preferred to engage in drag strip races on public highways rather than doing their homework. Come to think of it - that's a fitting metaphor for Dubya and his gang of mental midgets and thugs.
The trouble is that Dubya et al are not some fringe nut cases cruising the highways looking to rumble but leaders of the most powerful military power in the world. It's like a second coming of the James Dean character - "Rebel without a cause" - coming back to haunt the 21st century.
If the administration were truly serious about nuclear proliferation, Bush would engage Russia's Putin about establishing a regime to monitor the old Soviet nuclear stockpile. But that doesn't fit into this administration's ideological lens and capacity for denial as Bob Woodward has documented.