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Getting the 'get' [Commentary]

In the highly competitive news business in this ultra-political town, a constant battle goes on among reporters to obtain interviews with the most knowledgeable governmental insiders from the White House to Congress. This is particularly so among television anchors vying to bag superstars for their shows.

The acquisition of such targets is called a "get," as the word clearly conveys. The high-powered networks employ aggressive off-air staffers to identify, locate, cajole and besiege the brightest lights in the political firmament to appear on their "air" in the never-ending quest for the highest viewer ratings.

The competition is especially fierce among the Sunday morning television talk shows, on which other reporters and political junkies depend for their own version of a wake-up cup of coffee each new week. From the NBC News pioneer "Meet the Press" a small army has grown of copycats on the networks and a string of new cable television gabfests, with reporters and insiders querying the acquired guests.

For a long time, the NBC show ruled the roost, particularly under the late Tim Russert, a former political operative with a knack for putting guests at ease while posing direct and productive questions. But his most recent successor, the knowledgeable and polished reporter David Gregory, has remarkably been obliged to occupy a virtual psychologist's couch to explain the show's slippage from the top of the Sunday heap.

After years of playing second banana to "Meet," the CBS News counterpart, "Face the Nation," now chaired by the genial old shoe-leather reporter Bob Schieffer, has risen to the top. His lack of bombast, solid grounding as a straight-shooter and determined fairness likely make it easier for his staffers to "get" the most desirable on-air guests.

Today's Washington reporters themselves, print versions as well as TV luminaries, have become celebrities or at least wannabes. For the two most prominent annual journalists' dinners, the Gridiron Club and the White House Correspondents Association, the latter occurring last Saturday night, the "get" game is also played to bring the hottest political figures to their tables.

When I was a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Sun in the 1980s, a young and imaginative colleague, Michael Kelly, ignited a competition by escorting Fawn Hall, the winsome secretary who spirited incriminating classified documents in the Iran-Contra scandal from the White House under her dress and shredded others.

A subsequent year, Mr. Kelly, a crack reporter who was killed in 2003 on combat assignment in Iraq, corralled Donna Rice for the dinner, the blond bombshell who sat on the knee of Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart aboard the Monkey Business yacht. Mr. Hart thereafter found himself out of the running.

Since then the competition for scoring the most publicity-grabbing "gets" has turned the annual White House Correspondents' dinner into an East Coast version of the Academy Awards. Lavish and semi-exclusive post-dinner parties follow, thrown by lobbyists in swanky venues from private homes to former embassies.

The much more exclusive Gridiron dinner, limited to 65 club members of reporters and editors and their guests, requires all attendees to appear in formal white tie and tails, with club members present and past spoofing the leading lights of officialdom.

The White House Correspondents' bash merely dictates tuxedos and gowns, and it is more of a brawl, with the chief entertainment some TV comic flavor of the month, and wholesale table-hopping and eyeballing of who's bagged whom. The president is supposed to be the honored guest at both affairs, but sometimes he sends a stand-in. These days there are plenty of other attractions for the invited oglers.

Just as life imitates art, the Washington political social world has come to imitate Hollywood. It offers a combination of political and entertainment celebrity "gets" to acquire what passes these days for status for the town where running the country is supposed to be the principal occupation.

In one sense, it's all harmless fun. Which can't said about the partisan squabbling that continues to dominate a community that features its own political entertainers of both parties, in a running competition to "get" the national spotlight for their personal aggrandizement.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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