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A Long-Time Capitol Hill Reporter on the Art of the Hallway Interview

A Long-Time Capitol Hill Reporter on the Art of the Hallway Interview

By JENNIFER STEINHAUER

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Members of the news media interviewing Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, near the Senate subway before votes on Capitol Hill last month.

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Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency

WASHINGTON — One of my earliest memories of a journalist using a creative method to talk to a politician is fictional, yet resonant. In a 1991 episode of “Murphy Brown,” the lead character, craving a quote from President George H. W. Bush on the latest health care debacle, decides to catch up with him on his morning jog by furiously pedaling a 3-speed bike.

After Secret Service agents return her to her office, Ms. Brown, played by Candice Bergen, replies to her bosses’ tongue-lashing by noting gleefully: “If you can’t have fun doing your job then there’s no point in having it!” Indeed!

Reporter access to those we cover has changed much since 9/11. But Capitol Hill, where I toiled for the better part of the last seven years, remains one of the few places in Washington where journalists are still able to chase after officials in search of a quote, largely unfettered, nearly every day.

Some reporters who cover other branches of the government find the hallway chase demeaning, but most Hill reporters find it the best part of the job.

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Long interviews with lawmakers do happen — I am talking with Senators Bob Corker and Mark Warner about bipartisanship tomorrow night on stage at the Newseum here — but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule, especially when it comes to shagging quotes, as we say, for a spot news story.

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Want to talk to the author of the tax bill? Just follow him down the hall as he goes to vote, makes his way to a policy lunch with his colleagues or leaves a committee hearing (where you have been standing by a back doorway waiting for him to emerge).

I have chased members of Congress down hallways in high heels, rain boots and, once, because a shoe fell off, sock-footed. As more news organizations send more reporters into the Capitol Hill fray, getting to lawmakers away from the swarm that envelops them as they emerge from the Senate subway can be more challenging.

Like my colleagues, I learned which elevator they preferred to use in their office buildings, and at what time and where on the Capitol campus they tended to eat breakfast. I memorized their walking patterns to and from office buildings, and tried to track them midday.

Some lawmakers, like Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, seem to enjoy the stalking, and are happy to talk to reporters in hallways at just about any hour of the day or night. Others, like Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, and Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, almost uniformly refuse to talk when approached, march straight ahead barking “No comment” or look up at a spot on the ceiling that suddenly seems fascinating.

Many simply repeat talking points honed in the aforementioned policy lunches. Others, like Mr. Corker and Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, speak quite candidly — and often eloquently — when unscripted. Some will speak only on a very limited number of topics, to a very specific set of reporters (sometimes home state writers, sometimes those whom they have known for years, sometimes only conservative or liberal media); others pretend to be talking on a cellphone when approached. This is quite transparent, and yet the technique lives on.

While most of our hallway pursuits are in the interest of Murphy Brown-like quote fulfillment, there are plenty of other types of reporting that can go on in halls, especially when a reporter gets a senator or House member alone.

Lawmakers will confirm rumors, provide tips and offer guidance as to what other people in Washington — White House officials among them — are up to. Many can unpack a policy goal, unravel the politics of a specific bill and tell you who said what in a meeting. Hallway interviews are also a very good, if painstaking, way to figure out how a bill that appears to be too close to call is going to turn out.

As I noted on Twitter in 2015 when I was trying to figure out whether a national security bill had the votes in the Senate to pass: “I have stalked Republicans like a crazy ex girlfriend for a week, and my best guess is there are 57 votes in the Senate for USA Freedom now.” 57 it was.

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All praise be to hallways, and their backbreaking tile floors.

To livestream Jennifer Steinhauer’s conversation about bipartisanship with Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, and Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m., click here.

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