The Odd Couple
How two political commentators became the unlikeliest of friends
Stu Rothenberg, left, and Charlie Cook share breakfast—along with a friendly rivalry. Photo by Daniel Bedell
“We’re like an old married couple,” Stu Rothenberg says about his friend Charlie Cook. “I know all his jokes, he knows my shtick. I know we’re supposed to be rivals—people assume we’re rivals—but I think there’s plenty of room in town for two political analysts.”
They make an odd couple.
Rothenberg, 63, is a slender, sharp-talking New Yorker who grew up in a kosher home on Central Park West and earned a doctorate in political science. Cook, 58, is a rotund, easygoing Southerner who learned politics on the streets of Shreveport, La., when he was still in high school. But from different directions they’ve arrived at the same place.
Both raised families in Montgomery County (Cook, three children in Chevy Chase; Rothenberg, two kids in Potomac). And they share a special niche in the media marketplace as the capital’s most influential, and independent, campaign commentators. Sure, they compete for business and attention, but their mutual respect far outweighs any resentment.
“If you’re doing anything worth anything you’re going to have competition,” Cook says. “The question is: Do you want competition from someone that you like and trust, or from some snake in the grass?”
A presidential year is their Christmas season. Both men run personal newsletters that will analyze hundreds of races by November (The Cook Political Report and The Rothenberg Political Report). Both write columns (Cook for National Journal, Rothenberg for Roll Call). Both appear frequently on TV, get quoted in the newspapers and make lucrative speeches to trade associations, corporations and colleges—sometimes together.
More significantly, they share an outlook and a value system. In the overwrought, under-thought culture of modern campaigning, they provide fact-based, fair-minded analysis untainted by partisan spin. Cook says his audience is asking, “What’s this all about?” Rothenberg agrees: “I feel that I’m back in that role of educator, the college professor. ‘Hey, I know there’s a lot of information you’re going to be bombarded with. Here’s the important stuff. Don’t overreact.’ ”
Cook first came to Washington in the early ’70s, attending a high school debate camp and catching a raging case of Potomac fever. Back home he worked for a young Democrat, J. Bennett Johnston, in his longshot campaign against an entrenched incumbent, Sen. Allen Ellender. (A classic Cookism: “Ellender hadn’t had a race since Moby Dick was a guppy.”)
When Ellender died of a heart attack on the eve of the election, Johnston won and Cook’s career was launched. With the new senator’s help, he found work running an elevator on Capitol Hill while attending Georgetown University.
A variety of political jobs followed graduation, but by 1984, “I was a swing voter, and I was trying to figure out: How do I stay involved in politics but not work for either side? So I came up with the idea of maybe a political newsletter.”
One person he called for advice was Rothenberg, who had left a teaching job at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., a few years before to help run a newsletter for the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank. They barely knew each other, but Rothenberg was candid: “You’re nuts, you can’t make any money doing it. But go ahead.”
Rothenberg ignored his own warning, eventually starting his own publication.
In the early days both men depended on their wives to pay the bills. Elaine Rusinko was a college professor, and Lucy Cook, a trade association executive. “I could tell when Lucy was getting nervous,” Cook says, “because she would go out and buy a lot of meat and freeze it. It was like a squirrel collecting nuts.”
Rothenberg cites a “seminal moment” when their fortunes turned upward. It was a wintry Sunday morning in 1987 and a producer from John McLaughlin’s One on One show called in a panic. Their guest was snowed in. Could Stu and Charlie get to the studio right away?
“I was in my pajamas,” Rothenberg recalls, “and I remember running upstairs and putting on my suit. I was so excited, and trying to do this so fast, I put my foot right through the crotch, destroying the suit. I only had two suits at the time, and I was more careful putting the other one on.
“I remember driving down New Hampshire Avenue and just saying to myself, ‘No matter what, give an answer, no dead air.’ So Charlie and I got there, the show went on, I thought it went really well. That changed the way I looked at myself and my options looking forward.”
In the years that followed, more TV appearances led to greater visibility, better-paid speeches and healthier incomes. But as they grow older, Cook and Rothenberg are increasingly unhappy with the trends and temperament of the world they cover. Both are pragmatic moderates who deplore what Cook calls the “hostage-taking” mentality of lawmakers who block even sensible legislation if it’s proposed by the other side.
After 9/11, he recalls, lawmakers from both parties gathered at the Capitol and sang “God Bless America,” a brief moment of bipartisan goodwill that quickly dissipated.
“You think, my gosh, if a 9/11 doesn’t do it, what the hell can?”
Rothenberg is equally critical of the media for emphasizing conflict and simplifying issues. “I find I get more fatigued with the coverage,” he says. “I’m just sick of all the yelling.”
He now turns down TV invitations where an outspoken host—on the right or left—wants argument and advocacy instead of analysis. “I have just drawn the line,” he says. “I’m an ornery son of a bitch. I’m just not doing that.”
Charlie and Stu, Stu and Charlie. They’re old-fashioned. They believe in detail and data. They don’t call each other names or spew sterile talking points. This odd couple still plays it straight. And that’s why everyone in the political universe who depends on knowing the “important stuff” listens to them.
Steve Roberts has lived in Bethesda for 35 years and teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Send him ideas for future columns at email@example.com.