In the Year of Our Pundits, 2002

For the weekend pundits, 2002 ended as it began, with a multi-faceted scandal providing rich partisan fodder.

In January, pundits obsessed over Enron and other corporate scandals. By December, the obsession was Trent Lott’s ill-advised tribute to Strom Thurmond.

In between, they pondered such weighty topics as the axis of evil, scandal in the Catholic Church, tariffs, a bloated farm bill, Iraq, and congressional elections.

Herewith, a few flashbacks to the pundit year that was:

That Old Enron Magic

By Jan. 19, Bob Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times and Capital Gang had enough of his colleagues’ flogging of the Enron issue:

"A lot of people look upon Enron as the silver bullet. It is the magic elixir. It creates everything. It kills privatization of Social Security. It kills market enterprise and schemes. It kills capitals gains cuts. It kills everything in the world, the scandal. And it might even elect a Democratic Congress."

She Didn’t See It Coming

Here’s what Margaret Carlson of Time magazine had to say in February about Enron’s Sherron Watkins, the woman who would become Time’s Co-Person of the Year for 2002:

"She didn't blow that whistle loud enough for anyone who wasn't on the take to hear it. So I don't know, there's going to be no movie made about her. And she kept a paper trail. She showed some moral indignation to her colleagues, but did nothing to help the people who were going to lose money."

A Debate Only Pundits Could Love

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WVa., and Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill engaged in a bizarre debate over who grew up poorest, prompting NPR’s Mara Liasson, on Fox, to comment:

"It's always unseemly when politicians compete for sympathy over the lack of indoor plumbing."

O’Neill went on to be fired as Treasury Secretary; Byrd landed a movie role portraying a Confederate general.

Low Point

Pundits mourned the murder in Pakistan of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, with distraught colleague Al Hunt saying on Capital Gang, "He leaves a very, very special, a very special legacy."

Rethinking Their Specialty

David Brooks of The Weekly Standard, on The News Hour, best expressed pundit dismay over the Catholic Church’s response to their sexual scandal:

"This scandal is about sin, temptation, remedy. I mean, this should be the Catholic Church's core business. They should know how to handle this sort of thing."

Most Frequent Refrain

Various pundits, all year: "The president has not made the case on Iraq."

Wrong From the Start

With 93 days to go until the mid-term elections, Democratic strategist Bob Shrum predicted on Meet the Press that Democrats would regain control of the House and keep the Senate. On Sept. 1, Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, appearing on Fox, predicted Democratic gains of 2-3 Senate seats and "at least six house seats."

Pundit Guest Lament

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, appearing on Fox to explain his position on Iraq, expressed what many guests probably would like to say:

"Where I am is a little bit confusing."


Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts left ABC’s This Week, making way for George Stephanopolous to host the show solo.

Contrarians Finish Last

Nell Minow, editor of, appeared on Capital Gang in July:

"I'm a bit of a contrarian on Harvey Pitt. I do feel good about him. I think he knows exactly where the bodies are buried and wants to do the right thing."

SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt resigned on Election Day in November.

The George Will Standard

When Congressmen Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and David Bonoir, D-Mich., criticized U.S. foreign policy from Baghdad on This Week, the Washington Post’s George Will called it, "The most disgraceful appearance in my lifetime."

Maybe If He’d Tried This ….

As outrage over Trent Lott grew and the Mississippi senator began an "apology tour," Brit Hume of Fox offered a suggested itinerary:

"On Tuesday, crawl on broken glass; on Wednesday, lie on a bed of hot coals; on Thursday, submit to a public flogging."

The Punditwatch 2002 Awards

Best Interviewer: Tim Russert, Meet the Press. At his best when the stakes are high.

Most Annoying Shtick: Tie. Tim Russert’s Buffalo Bills shtick; Russert’s shameless book plugs for guests.

Best Duo: NPR’s Juan Williams and Brit Hume on Fox News Sunday. Williams’ passion challenges Hume’s calculation.

Worst Duo: Three-way tie. Bob Novak and Al Hunt; Bob Novak and Margaret Carlson; Bob Novak and syndicated columnist Mark Shields. The name-calling and insults on Capital Gang got old long ago.

Most Underrated: George Stephanopolous. Beginning to hit his stride.

Pundit We’d Like to See More Often: Peter Beinart, The New Republic, occasional guest on This Week.

All-Star Panel: Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek and This Week; Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard and Fox; Michele Martin, ABC and This Week. Not always predictable, but always interesting points of view.

Issue of the Year: What will it take to make President Bush’s approval rating really drop? It was the unspoken backdrop to every issue the pundits discussed, but it never happened.

Pundit of the Year: David Brooks. Always well prepared, civil, witty, and insightful. His only bad call: musing in summer that Republicans might lose 30 House seats.

Will Vehrs is an economic developer in Richmond, Va. Unable to obsess on golf, fishing or a weed-free lawn, he chose to stalk the weekend talk show pundits and their syndicated print brethren. His "Punditwatch" column appears in Tony Adragna's Quasipundit.

Respond to the Writer