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-Sentinel and 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 Times since 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-Sentinel story 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-Constitution this 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.
The king of MacManus mania is William March, senior political reporter for the Tampa Tribune, which is in USF's backyard. He's used her in 59 stories during the past nine years or so, according to a search of Nexis, a news database service. One of the professor's princes is Mark Silva, a former Miami Herald reporter who is now the Orlando Sentinel's political editor. He's floated her words of wisdom 37 times.
Locally, the Sun-Sentinel's Nevins is the chief purveyor of the prof, with 27 mentions since 1996. At the Herald, a special distinction goes to Tom Fiedler, the current executive editor, who quoted MacManus 19 times from 1995 to 1998.
One of the chief perpetrators on the national level has been Knight Ridder's Thomma, who has misspelled her name in at least 12 stories during the past four years. Those articles have been shipped to KR's 31 daily newspapers and account for 92 of the misspellings.
When I called Thomma, he said he couldn't talk about MacManus because he was "knee-deep" in the Ronald Reagan funeral. He said he'd call me back but didn't. (Remember, that's R-E-A-G-A-N; gotta watch that pesky first A. )
When I brought the issue up with Nevins, whom I know and respect, he conceded he should have mentioned that MacManus was a Bush appointee, at least in stories related to the governor and his brother. "I think it's a good point, and I'm going to do it in the future," he said. "Frankly, the reason she's used so much is that she has a facile tongue -- she's good with a sound bite, and a lot of professors aren't."
The Tampa Tribune's March, who has been that newspaper's senior political writer for ten years, put up a bit of a defense. "I've known Susan for a long time, and her goal is to deliver even-handed, neutral analysis," he said.
Had he noticed her GOP tilt?
"If I had to speculate, I would speculate that she's a Republican," March conceded.
He said his newsroom has had many discussions about her ties to Bush and the frequency with which she's quoted. "I agree that it's good to identify MacManus as a Bush appointee when writing about either Bush," he said. "And I'm sure you'll find an instance when I didn't do that."
There are several, including one just a couple of months ago. On April 18, he quoted MacManus on the upcoming presidential election saying that independents are leaning "Republican on big issues... that are most likely to be decisive in the campaign."
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There she goes again.
Not to single out a few reporters. Just this past Tuesday, the New York Times' Abby Goodnough quoted MacManus predicting that Gore's recent fiery rhetoric about Senate candidate Alex Penelas would damage the Democratic Party's chances in 2004 at a time when "the Republicans are becoming more cohesive." Gotta wonder what scientific formula she used to come up with that one.
The next day, the Associated Press' Brendan Farrington reported MacManus' belief that the Republicans were embarking on "absolutely brilliant politics" in the presidential election.
Like hundreds before them, neither mentioned the professor's Bush appointments. It's bad enough that omnipresent political analysts like MacManus pervade the culture until their pronouncements seem like the truth. Or, perhaps worse, until the inane cacophony of political background noise becomes so loud that the truth is impossible for most people to hear. Such conditions allow bad things -- unnecessary wars and such -- to happen. So the least we all deserve is to really know who is adding to the clatter.