Pundits of Montclair: Familiar faces talk elections
BY GWEN OREL
Lately it seems as if there’s a Montclair face on every cable news show.
Tim O’Brien, Jonathan Alter and Jeh Johnson have all been appearing on television news shows for years. And you can expect that to continue, they say.
“It’s a privilege to try to help viewers sort through the confusion and the chaos,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien wrote a biography of Donald J. Trump, “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald,” published in 2005. He had covered Trump on and off since 1990, and his inside knowledge led to TV work.
Currently a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, he spent much of his career at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He wrote “TrumpNation” while at the Times.
Trump sued him — O’Brien had stated that Trump was not a billionaire, but was only worth about $250 million — and lost. (The suit was dismissed. Trump appealed, and lost.)
He appears on both MSNBC and CNN regularly.
While he cannot go into as much detail on TV as he would in a print piece, he likes the straightforward, organic nature of TV.
“I’m seen as the Trump whisperer,” O’Brien said. “I’ve spent more time with him than any other biographer, and more than most reporters. I’ve covered him over such a long period of time that I think I bring some institutional and historical perspectives to who he is and what he does, and the times that he’s lived in.”
When he spoke to us last week, O’Brien had already received many requests for appearances on Nov. 4, the day after Election Day. “We may not know on election night who the winner is unless there’s a landslide, and no one should panic about that because it’s typical for it to take a few days and up to a month for all the votes to be canvassed and certified,” he said.
That will create a big opening for Trump to insert litigation into the process, and Nov. 3 to Jan. 20 has the potential to be a brittle period, he added.
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But, O’Brien said, secretaries of state and election commissioners in swing states tell him they are prepared. “Did you know that in almost every election cycle, someone intentionally rams their car into a polling place to try to protest? It’s like a joke among the people who run elections,” he said.
The officials are preparing for cyber hacking and public health issues, and they are also working with law enforcement, while bracing for litigation.
It might be good to think of it as election month, rather than election day.
“I think I’ll be busy until January, frankly,” O’Brien said with a laugh.
HOMELAND SECURITY SPECIALIST
Johnson moved to Montclair in 1997, “one of the smartest things my wife and I ever did,” he said.
His first presidential appointment, from 1998 to 2001, was as general counsel of the Department of the Air Force during the Clinton administration.
His second was for Barack Obama. He actually met Obama in Montclair, at the home of Bobbi Brown, at a 2006 fundraiser for Sen. Robert Menendez. Obama was a freshman senator, and he asked Johnson to work on his presidential campaign.
“I was in it from the beginning,” Johnson said.
As general counsel for the Department of Defense during Obama’s first term, from 2009 to 2012, he rarely appeared on television, because senior lawyers lay low, he explained. But as secretary of Homeland Security, from 2013 to 2017, he was on often.
“Now that I’m a private citizen again, and I didn’t anticipate this, I probably do even more TV,” Johnson said. Much of what has been happening during the Trump presidency touches upon Homeland Security, whether it’s immigration or cyber security or the behavior of law enforcement personnel, he said.
Since the beginning of the year, he thinks he’s done in excess of 100 TV interviews.
While he spends a lot of time on MSNBC, he also appears on CNN and Fox. “I strongly believe in talking to all audiences,” he said.
With the election, whatever happens, half of the country will be upset and distressed, Johnson said. “I think it’s important for us, those of us who have a public voice, to remind Americans that the peaceful and orderly transfer of power and the preservation of our values is more important than the outcome.”
Alter broke the news about the butterfly ballots in Florida in the election of 2000.
People had voted for Pat Buchanan, believing they were voting for Al Gore.
“At about 2:30 in the morning, I went on YouTube with Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert and said it was all going to court. I was the first one to say it.
“Conservatives got really upset with me. They thought the election was over. Gore had conceded, then withdrew his concession,” said Alter, who also serves on the advisory board of Montclair Local.
He’s had a contract with NBC News since 1996 and is a political analyst at MSNBC, a term he prefers to “pundit.” Alter, who worked at Newsweek for 28 years and had a political column for 20, now works primarily as a book author. His biography of Jimmy Carter, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” came out this past September.
Alter does not expect to be part of election night coverage: The talking heads will be the anchors of the shows, he said. After the election, if Biden wins, he expects to be busy, as he’s known Biden and the people around him for a long time.
Some people bring legal analysis or other specialties to shows; he brings his knowledge of politics. “I have covered a lot of campaigns and administrations. This is the 10th presidential election I’ve covered. I’ve seen certain things before. Other things that are new, I can identify why they are new.”