Marty Plissner, who shaped and directed CBS’ political election coverage for decades until his retirement in 1997, died last week in Washington. His knowledge of electoral politics in this country was, as various tributes to him have pointed out, encyclopedic.
He not only studied numbers and personalities, but he knew and liked just about everyone in politics on both sides of the partisan divide and never hesitated to interrogate any of them for information that others might miss.
Marty covered every presidential race from 1964 to 1996. He knew the candidates and their operatives. More importantly, he knew the country and the dynamics of presidential politics.
I worked for CBS News as a consultant and analyst during two Republican conventions while Marty was in charge, and I still have the briefing books he and his staff prepared for CBS reporters and analysts. They were more detailed, more informative and accurate than those of the candidates themselves.
Marty was the man who invented modern political coverage and developed a formula using sample precincts, and later, he created sophisticated exit polls to “call” elections even before the votes were counted and, more controversially, sometimes before the polls had even closed.
He argued that candidate debates didn’t matter that much, and he defended what self-proclaimed “serious” print journalists condemned as too much coverage of electoral “horse races” rather than serious issues.
He supported abolishing the Electoral College and took some of the blame for making the historically marginally important New Hampshire primary into what it has become today.
Politics is serious business, of course, but it is also a game, and it is a game that Marty Plissner loved in the way that someone like George Will loves baseball.
He knew the players, studied their idiosyncrasies and the parks in which they played. He was, among other things, a great fan, and the game — when played well — made his day.
For many years, Marty and his wife, Susan Morrison, hosted parties at their home that brought together operatives who before and after the always enjoyable get-togethers found themselves facing each other on the political battlefield.
The good fellowship they enjoyed at the Plissners’ never diminished their willingness to tear each other apart on that battlefield, but neither did the battle lessen their desire to get together again at the next such party.
Marty, liberal though he might have been, was a consummate professional and admirer of those who practiced the craft he studied and loved. Susan was the family warrior, fighting in the trenches on behalf of candidates as diverse as Frank Church and George H.W. Bush.
They were a great match and a wonderful team. They were both outstanding at what they did, and had loads of fun doing it.
In 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos, then president of the Philippines, was under fire and facing an election, the networks still had money. Marty used the expertise developed here to put a “sample”-precinct reporting system together in the Philippines to track that country’s election.
In the midst of the contest itself, Marcos and his associates panicked, stole the election by stuffing ballot boxes around the country and altering the reported results in certain areas. It got out, and Marcos was forced from office, fled to Hawaii and lived there until his death.
I don’t think it was ever revealed, but Marty told me rather gleefully afterward that Marcos had no reason to panic, but like most incumbents, didn’t have much faith in people or truly free elections.
“When the Marcos forces decided to steal the election,” Marty said, “we had him winning by a healthy margin.” It was the sort of information that he craved, collected and enjoyed whether it was ultimately reported or not.
Those who watched CBS never saw the network’s executive political director, but what they did see during an era when CBS dominated the broadcast political world was the result of Marty Plissner’s work and creativity.
Anyone involved in politics at the national level knew that and admired his mastery of his craft. They missed him when he retired, but many of us kept in touch over the years, called him for his opinions, and will miss him even more now that he’s gone.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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