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She's a first-rate sound-bite slinger, a newsroom Rolodex regular, and as accessible as 411. When reporters need a quick political quote, they call Susan MacManus at her office, home, or cell. If she doesn't pick up, she'll almost surely phone back before deadline.
MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, is quoted in newspapers so much that her name has been misspelled more often -- about 400 times as "McManus" -- than most professional political observers get in print. Her name's been spelled right thousands of times, more than 200 of them in the Sun-Sentineland the Miami Herald.
MacManus, a 56-year-old self-described Florida cracker, has appeared in every major newspaper in America -- including 30 times in the New York Timessince 1995 -- and been on every cable news network. But her home turf is the Sunshine State, where she's the undisputed queen of punditry. The St. Petersburg Times, which has quoted MacManus some 400 times, dubbed her the most quoted Floridian during the 2000 election. Her name's been in more than 1,000 stories that mention Jeb Bush.
Problem: MacManus has served as an adviser to the governor and was a member of his transition team. Jeb Bush also appointed her to the Florida Elections Commission, which she chaired until 2003. Currently, she's a member of the Governor's Council of Economic Advisors.
That's right, she's a Bushie. Nothing wrong with that, as long as it's disclosed in the stories. But it almost never is. Instead, reporters routinely identify her only as USF political scientist or professor, which implies an Ivory Tower neutrality.
Now, MacManus wouldn't admit she's a Republican when I caught up with her last Wednesday morning. As if to prove her accessibility, she promptly returned my call while preparing to board a flight to Washington from Tampa International Airport. When I asked about her personal political persuasion, she replied: "I don't really say, but I'm pretty much like a prototypical Floridian: I vote on the person and the issue."
Uh huh. So what about her service to the governor?
"I worked on an advisory task force for [former Democratic Gov.] Lawton Chiles too," MacManus offered. "My attitude is that I'm a Florida employee, and if an elected official asks for my help, I do it. I don't give campaign contributions, and I don't campaign for people."
This gave me an idea. After we had our chat, I clicked onto the state's Internet political campaign database and punched in her name. There, I found only two contributions, dating back to 1996, one for $25, the other for $100, both to -- drum roll, please -- the Republican Party.
Now there was smoke to go with the gun. But is she really all that biased? Her analysis is often benign, the simple handicapping of various races based on poll numbers. But after reading dozens of her quips, I detected a clear political bent toward the GOP. The Republican spin is sometimes heavy, other times light, but it's often there.
Some examples of the MacManus magic:
During the contentious 2000 presidential recount, she basically called for Al Gore to give up. MacManus criticized the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of a recount, for its "partisanship." In a column by political writer Buddy Nevins in the Sun-Sentinel, she said, "The more litigious this gets... the more angry people will become. People will feel their votes are being turned over to lawyers." Then she said one of the candidates should throw in the towel -- and that candidate, of course, was Gore. To borrow a Nevins' literary ploy, hmmmm.
In a 2002 Sun-Sentinelstory about Jeb Bush's inaction regarding scandals at the Department of Children and Families, MacManus threw a spitball. Sure, you could see him as a poor leader, our USF pundit was paraphrased as saying, but the governor might also be regarded as "a patient man who gave his appointee plenty of time to fix DCF. Even the most patient person can run out of patience," she was quoted as saying. That's some sweet, sweet spin coming from a Bush appointee.
Her apparent love of all things Bush doesn't end with Jeb -- it permeates her comments about the president and his war. When Saddam Hussein was captured, she was quoted by Knight Ridder's chief Washington correspondent, Steven Thomma: "This is a real punctuation mark for the president... There's nothing like success to make the cost [of war] seem palatable." There's one rotating observation that didn't stand the test of time.
In the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionthis past August, she downplayed the effect of constant troop deaths and bombings in post-invasion Iraq on the president's popularity: "What these stories do is simply rekindle in the back of a lot of Americans' minds that the same thing could happen here and we need to be proactive about it." Nice.
She routinely takes a negative spin on Democratic candidates. When Janet Reno was seen as Jeb Bush's chief rival in 2002, MacManus spoke in article after article about how Reno's Parkinson's disease made voters uneasy, as if she were repeating a mantra from Republican headquarters.
The list could go on and on. But MacManus isn't really breaking any rules. It's the reporters who rely too much on her and pass off her sprinkles of wit and wisdom as nonpartisan commentary that are in the wrong. And that's a long list of journalists.