October 13, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


The Larry Sabato Show 

Virginia's best-known pundit is never on the ballot but always on the campaign trail.

And for more than 30 years, Larry Sabato has promptly called them back, from The New York Times to the Danville Register & Bee, cheerfully catering to their deadline needs for breezy observations, historical analogies, sports metaphors and campaign predictions both accurate and flawed.

He gives, as they say in the newsbiz, great quote. And he does it with what veteran Richmond Times-Dispatch political reporter Jeff E. Schapiro describes as "a welcome crispness."

Combine these traits with impeccable credentials — University of Virginia professor, founder and director of The U.Va.-affiliated Center for Politics, prolific author ofÿbooks about the dark side of American politics — and it's easy to see how this 52-year-old self-described "fancy-pants egghead from the ivory tower in Charlottesville" slipped the surly bonds of Old Dominion politics to become a fixture on Fox News.

And CNN. And "Nightline." And "Face the Nation." And "The Today Show." And "Good Morning America." He's also a well-compensated guest lecturer at certain gatherings of politicians, Realtors and "American manufacturers of anti-friction bearings, spherical plain bearings or major components thereof," to name just a few.

"I see myself first and foremost as a teacher," Sabato says. "All of my other work — the Center for Politics, my books and research, my political commentary — has stemmed from my passion for and commitment to educating people about politics."

And then he quotes Thomas Jefferson: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society than the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough … the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion."

Like cozy politics and candidates who compare themselves to Thomas Jefferson, Sabato has become a Virginia institution. How much of an institution? Two words: Shad Planking.

A day-long beer fest and fish crucifixion at which state political fortunes are said to be made or derailed, the Shad Planking is the legendary and venerable granddaddy of Virginia political rituals. As such, it attracts a huge number of lobbyists, politicians, political groupies, reporters and miscellaneous citizens.

Never, in the history of this event, has any nonpolitician been permitted to address the crowd. Never, that is, until this year.

At the 56th Annual Shad Planking sponsored by the Wakefield Ruritans in April, Sabato gave the keynote address.

The Shad Planking drill is always the same. Attendees stand around, exchange small talk and drink beer, while large numbers of the American shad population are nailed to boards and smoked. After some hours, the attendees stand in long lines, holding their paper plates, drinking beer and wondering if there will be enough shad. This goes on until the garbage cans overflow, the beer gets warm, and the requisite terrible country band starts to pack it up.

At long last, Shad Planking luminaries gather onstage with members of the Wakefield Ruritan Club, which sponsors the event. Each group commences to praise and congratulate the other.

Next comes The Speech. Although the Shad Planking, like the state legislature, has become a largely Republican event in recent years, its essential mystique remains. Think of Virginia politics as La Cosa Nostra: Only made guys speak at the Shad Planking.

Sabato showed up at this year's event with an entourage of students and aides from The Center for Politics. Many wore buttons displaying the Center's debatable motto, "Politics is a Good Thing."

Autograph seekers and well-wishers thronged the political scientist as he made his way to the outdoor stage. They pumped his hand, reminded him who they were and slipped their business cards into the pocket of his dress shirt. They introduced their friends. They asked him to autograph their napkins and Shad Planking tickets.

Some distance away from this frenzy, on the comparative isolation of the stage, sat the other Shad Planking luminaries. About half a dozen were current or former elected officials whose various deeds had been fodder for Sabato's political commentary. Some looked bored. There wasn't much to do up there. Sabato was the main event. They couldn't get started without him.

The speech that day was a rollicking riff on current events and historical anecdotes. Announcing mock plans to run for governor, Sabato told the crowd he knew he was qualified because he had "the boyish charm" of (notoriously charmless) former Gov. Jim Gilmore, the "unassuming humility" of (famously arrogant) former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and the "unpredictable spontaneity" of (excruciatingly cautious) former Gov. Gerald Baliles. He had even thought of campaign slogans: "Larry Me Back to Old Virginny." "Eat, Drink and Vote Larry." "Sabato: It Could Be Worse."

In more serious moments, Sabato lamented the state's partisan redistricting practices and their effect on the state's electoral process. He also excoriated members of the General Assembly for their inability to come up with a budget and for alienating the electorate by behaving like guests on the "Jerry Springer Show." No one should worry if Virginia legislators drink too much, Sabato told the crowd, because "you can't fall off a flat earth."

Say what you will about Virginia's Republicans, a sense of humor — especially about themselves — is not their strongest attribute. But on that day in April, Sabato made them laugh even as he insulted them. Journalists, it turns out, aren't the only ones who can't get enough of Dr. Dial-a-Quote.

Sabato's father named him after another nationally known quote machine, Yankees great Yogi Berra. Officially named Lawrence, Berra went by Larry during the short period before his fateful nickname was bestowed. None of which would be worth mentioning had Berra not once uttered words that perfectly sum up the experience of his Virginian namesake.

"You can observe a lot," the catcher supposedly commented, "by watching."

Practically since infancy, Sabato has observed politics by watching. Growing up in Norfolk, he read the newspaper every morning with his father. Nuncio Sabato was a Navy contractor, the son of Italian immigrants and a passionate observer of all things political. When John F. Kennedy came to Norfolk in 1960, he took his son out of school to watch the motorcade. That night, he took his son to a local high school to hear Kennedy speak. As the Kennedy campaign advanced, Nuncio Sabato went door to door to help elect the first Catholic president. Walking with him was his son.

The younger Sabato remembers watching the Kennedy-Nixon debate with his parents. He remembers the night JFK was elected and the day JFK was shot. And he remembers the night, five years later, when his father shook him awake. "Larry, Larry, wake up," the elder Sabato was saying, "Robert Kennedy was shot. Robert Kennedy was shot."

Sabato spent his formative years in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The draft was a random "death lottery" that he managed to win by pulling a high number. Life and death. War and deception. Hope, assassinations and civil rights. By the time Sabato left for U.Va. in 1970, he was a hopeless political junkie.

He was also an accomplished geek. First in his high school class. President of the Latin, French and math clubs. Winner of the state Latin Essay Contest and member of the Governor's Youth Council.

Sabato was named Virginia's Outstanding Teenager of the Year for 1970. He would go on to work for the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of populist Democrat and former Lt. Gov. Henry Howell and to take over the demographic research of his U.Va. mentor, Ralph Eisenberg, after Eisenberg's death.

At 23, Sabato was a Rhodes scholar. At 28, he became the youngest professor ever tenured at the U.Va.

Since then, Sabato estimates he has taught 13,000 students. Many of them, he will tell you, have gone on to influential positions in state and federal government. Naturally, they stay in touch. Add to that the long list of important personages who have participated over the years in Sabato-hosted debates, conferences and political events, and the guest list at the 2002 fundraiser held in honor ofÿ Sabato's 50th birthday begins to make sense. Wilder was the master of ceremonies. Also on hand: Gov. Mark Warner, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, and Sens. George Allen and John Warner.

No one alive knows more than Sabato about the politics of Virginia, a state that has produced eight presidents and that sits, conveniently for a pundit, right next to the nation's capital. Few commentators have better academic credentials, and even fewer have done such extensive state research. Following the lead of Eisenberg, Sabato has painstakingly gathered, analyzed and published detailed state election statistics for every year since 1969.

Unlike the commentary of say, Ann Coulter or Michael Moore, Sabato's punditry is difficult to categorize. Check the blogs, and you will find conservatives who insist he is a secret liberal and progressives who call him a Republican shill for Fox News.

Democrat or Republican? Bush or Kerry? Ask all you want. You'll never find out.

"I absolutely refuse to do it," says Sabato of party affiliation. "I won't do it. I refuse. I'm all over the lot, and I'll stay all over the lot. I don't even in my own mind decide for whom I'm going to vote until the day before the election. My job currently is to critique. And if you have a hidden choice, you are not going to do a good job of critiquing fairly."

Ask Sabato about his 1990s transformation from Virginia political expert to nationally recognized pundit and he will say it was the books. After all, who better to call about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky than the author of "Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics"? Who better to supply perspective on the 2000 Florida election meltdown than the author of "Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics"? Such topics are timeless. They will resonate forever.

Sabato now spends much of his time on the road, delivering speeches at events like The Seventh Annual Western Commercial Real Estate Finance Conference (Bellagio Hotel & Resort, Las Vegas, Sept. 27) and the 2004 American Bearing Manufacturer's Association (The Don CeSar Beach Resort, St. Pete Beach, Fla., Oct. 28). According to the Web site of one of several companies advertising his speaking services, his fee ranges from $5,000 to $10,000.

But the pundit's power base remains at home. Always a star at U.Va., he recently moved up one position to icon when the school honored him with a gift of rent-free accommodations in one of its 10 historic Lawn pavilions. And the Virginia Sports TV Web site includes a clip of Sabato on a balcony in a toga, solemnly giving the thumbs-down to a University of North Carolina ram mascot.

Virginia's politicians visit Sabato's university classes. They also make pilgrimages to his various conferences and symposia and to fundraisers for the Center for Politics, an organization Sabato founded to "improve civic education and the political process."

One of the Center's key events is the Governor's Conference, a kind of annual bureaucratic autopsy of the administration of a past governor. Typically, former officials of the administration at issue come to the Center to preserve for the historical record their views of the various shortcomings and accomplishments that marked their term. Some of these officials have then gone on to help Sabato raise money for the Center by speaking at fund-raisers. Sabato's birthday party, for example, grossed $160,000.

But the Center doesn't have to throw a party to get money from Virginia legislators — they pretty much hand it over.

Virginia's legislators started funding the Center for Politics in 1999, the year after it was founded. The practice became somewhat of an issue in 2002 when the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) pointed out that the state could save a substantial amount by curbing its payments to state university-affiliated "special purpose research institutes and public service centers."

Unlike most of JLARC's suggestions, this one apparently made an impression. This year, the Center got $368,000 out of the General Assembly, a significant reduction from years past. The same amount has been allocated for next year.

The impact of the cut is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Center also gets money from private donors. Among these have been some of the state's most influential corporations and law firms as well as various individual donors.ÿ Many are key players in Virginia politics, a fact that has gone largely uncommented upon by Virginia's reporters and politicians.

The reason for this, says Newport News Daily Press editorial writer Gordon Morse, is that very few people are willing to risk alienating Sabato. Morse, says Morse, is among those few.

Once a graduate student of Sabato's, Morse wrote speeches for Baliles and then worked briefly at The Virginian-Pilot. According to Morse, he and Sabato were friends for 20 years until Morse wrote a column that said, among other things, that Sabato had "stopped discussing politics and started playing politics."

The column was provoked by the Center for Politics' 2003 Governor's Project focusing on the Wilder administration. Morse is not a Wilder fan. In his view, the 2003 Governor's Project was a pandering lovefest rather than "the sober and objective critique that this state needs and deserves." After he said as much in his column, the Center's then-chief of staff, Alex Theodoridis, submitted a response.

Of all the Center's Governor's Conferences, the Wilder conference, Theodoridis wrote, had been the "boldest in terms of criticizing its subject." "One wonders if Morse's critique stems more from a negative predisposition towards Wilder than from disinterested observation of the conference."

As for Morse's contention that the Center's approach and analysis is colored by the interests of its financial backers, Theodoridis was curt and emphatic. "At no point do we or financial backers ever limit the ability of our participants to express their views. The Wilder Conference was no exception."

After he wrote his column, Morse says, Sabato cut him off. But a year later, the columnist is unrepentant. "Larry is the most talented and celebrated political analyst in this state," he says. "But what he's doing raises questions in my mind about what the hell it's all about.

"A 'Center for Politics' that is substantially supported by politicians and political interests is almost a contradiction in terms. How the hell are you supposed to get objective analysis when you're analyzing the same people who are bankrolling you?"

Morse is not alone in such thoughts. Some other observers of Virginia politics have voiced similar questions. Some even express admiration for what they view as Sabato's strategic brilliance in the way he has managed to position himself. Few will talk publicly. But even fewer seem to be losing any sleep over the issue.

"The whole ball of wax can be a touch incestuous," concedes Barnie Day, a Patrick County Democrat who spent four years in the House of Delegates before being redistricted out of his seat in 2001.

"The press depends on the legislature for news," Day says. "The legislature depends on the press for coverage. Sabato depends on the legislature for money. The legislators depend on Sabato and people like him for good will. But I'm not sure anyone is actually being ill-served because it's all participatory. Let the buyer beware."

Sabato responds to the allegation that he plays politics by observing that the allegation itself is political. "Look," he says, "The Center for Politics is supported by people both in and out of government who care about educating people about politics and civic engagement. It's that simple. …

"Because we teach about and analyze politics and politicians, depending on the observer's political persuasion, he or she may agree or disagree with the lesson or the analysis we offer at any given event. That's OK. That's part of politics."

Politics. Is it really such a good thing? And is "Politics Is a Good Thing" really a winning slogan?

Absolutely, says Sabato.

"You have to look at the results. It's the results that matter. The process is always ugly because that's the democratic way. Democracy is our substitute for riots in the streets." S

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com



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