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On the air 17 hours a week, Wolf Blitzer keeps other anchors on defense

   Always intensely focused and calm, even after long nights in a crazy election cycle, Wolf Blitzer appears the epitome of aplomb. But it wasn’t always that way.  An American history major who never studied journalism, Blitzer ended up in Tel Aviv in 1972, working for Reuters News Agency and surrounded by hardened British journalists who’d seen it all. It wasn’t pretty, recounts Blitzer, who not for the first or last time thought he might be in the wrong business.
   But time proved that he was right for the job. Blitzer, 60, hosts CNN’s “Situation Room,” a three-hour political news show that runs five days a week, and anchors “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer,” which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and is seen in more than 200 countries and territories. Taking time out from his hectic schedule, the anchorman, who moderated five of the primary presidential debates this political season, talked about the 2008 election, his political blog and life as a White House correspondent during the Bill Clinton presidency (hint: it was a wild ride).

You’ve been reporting news for more than 30 years. Do you ever feel burned out?
   When you love what you do, it keeps being interested.  I wake up every morning knowing that I am going to learn something interesting that day. And I would have been a political junkie even if I had gone into my dad’s home building business.

You’ve said that your first experiences as a reporter in Tel Aviv weren’t easy. How so?
   I was only 24-years-old, and it was almost like going through a fraternity hazing. I remember once going out across the Sinai to the Suez Canal—it was, like, a 12-hour drive.  The Israelis were transferring bodies of Egyptians who were killed on the other side of the Sinai.  It was a long complicated story, but I wrote what I thought was a pretty good color story when I got back. One thousand words of drama. I handed it to one of the editors. He looked at the hard copy and started cutting out paragraphs. He took a thousand-word story and made it into a little one paragraph brief that he moved on the wire and just zipped it out, no by-line.

When did you know you were going to be a success?
  When I became a punch line on “Johnny Carson” and then a guest.

What was it like covering the Clinton White House?
   It was like seven dog years because Bill Clinton packed a lot into a year. It was the equivalent to, like, 45 years of so-called regular presidents. I remember one trip leaving Washington on a Friday morning on Air Force One. Clinton wanted to show his support for the troops in Trebinje, Bosnia. But it was just before the election, so he couldn’t just go to Trebinje. We flew to Nashville, Tennessee, first for a luncheon. Clinton did the luncheon. Then we flew from Nashville to the Aviano Air Base in Italy to change to a C-5 Galaxy, a military transport plane. Then we flew into Bosnia,  but it was foggy and we couldn’t get in, so we had to go to Hungary. Then we flew back to Trebinje, then to Zagreb in Croatia and from there back to Andrews Air Force base in D.C., landing there late Saturday night.  It was like a day trip to Bosnia, and that was typical of Clinton.

How do you stay energized in an election year?
   I try to keep a balanced life. I try to get seven hours of sleep a night, but if I get five or six, I’m doing great. I run on the treadmill every morning for five miles.

What caught you off guard this election cycle?
   Last summer John McCain was toast, and it was mostly assumed that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. This one was extraordinary because you literally had to wait until every state had their say. It’s been an amazing process.

It seems that your network is often able to predict the winner of a state primary as soon as the polls close. How does that work?
   The exit polls are very good. The polls going in even one day to two before the election have not been as good, but with exit polls, you talk to someone as they’re leaving the voting place.

You’re now a blogger. How has that changed the work you do?
   I respect our viewers and the people who post on the blog. I like the blog because I’m dialoguing with our viewers. These are people who have a lot of knowledge about the political process. Our staff goes through all the posts, and then they bring the best to me. If someone takes the time to write to us, we’ll read it.

Published: August 09, 2008
Issue: Fall 2008 Politics Issue