A Man for This Season: Larry Sabato Has the Nation's Attention

PART II

October 27, 2008 — Not many politics professors could pull this off: Hillary Clinton and Larry Sabato, on stage at Old Cabell Hall on the eve of the 2007 Virginia primary, linking arms and swaying to "The Good Old Song."

Clinton's appearance was another coup for Sabato, Robert Kent Gooch Professor and a University Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, director of the University's Center for Politics and an internationally known analyst of American politics.

He has developed a reputation for attracting big names to address his class. Former Presidents Reagan, Ford and Carter have all spoken to his students as has an array of governors, senators, congressman and other public officials.

Sabato's government classes are memorable in part because of the variety of guest speakers he invites, said Bob Gibson, a former political reporter with the Charlottesville Daily Progress, who now directs the Thomas C. Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership.

"The guests talk a little and then the students ask them questions," he said. "There is a lot of interaction. Students ask better questions than the media, more policy-oriented and less trivial. And the speakers don't give stock, campaign answers. The students get a lot out of it."

In addition to granting Sabato prestigious faculty housing on the Lawn, the University has recognized his teaching with significant awards over the years and in 2001 bestowed upon him its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award, for best representing "the ideals and objectives of Mr. Jefferson," the University's founder.

He teaches a small Campaigns and Elections seminar, as well as the popular "Political Science 102: Introduction to American Government," which routinely draws hundreds of students. Outside the classroom, Sabato has spent considerable time conducting and publishing his research.

Sabato has published more than 20 books on American politics, elections and government. Titles include "Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism and American Politics," "Divided States of America: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election" and "The Sixth Year Itch: The Rise and Fall of the George W. Bush Presidency."

His books have helped solidify his academic reputation and are used in college courses around the country. Sabato's writings are "topical, full of insight and predictions — most of which are right on target," noted former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, a friend of Sabato's for more than 20 years and the current director of  U.Va.'s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

"Many people are prolific but repeat themselves," Ruhi Ramazani, emeritus professor politics, said. "Larry's scholarship is original."

Sabato's most recent book, "A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country," provided the basis for a conference in Washington, D.C., last October. Sponsored by the Center for Politics, the conference drew prominent speakers who explored the wisdom of calling a new constitutional convention to fix what Sabato sees as outdated elements of this country's 200-year-old founding document.

Sabato argued in favor of change. "Our constitution is a document that was written with a quill pen," he said. "Our country has changed since then."

Geraldine Ferarro, former U.S. representative from New York and the country's first female vice presidential candidate, disagreed with Sabato at the conference but remains a fan of the man himself.

"Larry is a person of considerable substance, which political commentators frequently are not," she said. "Whenever I see him comment on TV, I always listen to what he says."

Over the years, Sabato has built an informal network of more than 14,000 former students who span the political spectrum and work throughout the country in politics, the media and academe, enhancing his understanding of people and campaigns nationwide by sharing the inside scoop.

Despite his early years campaigning for Democrats, Sabato tries to be nonpartisan in his teaching, research, political analysis and commentary.

"What I've always admired about Larry is the way he is able to keep his objectivity," said Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS who moderates the television network's Sunday morning public affairs show, "Face the Nation." "Republicans and Democrats alike respect him."

Bob Tata, a Republican delegate to the Virginia General Assembly from Virginia Beach who has known Sabato for years, is a little more reserved in his view. "Even though I think he's a Democrat, he's pretty close to being fair — as fair as somebody who has a slight bias can possibly be," he said.

Still, Tata believes that Sabato's visibility as a political commentator has been good for Virginia, a view seconded by L. Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia, the current mayor of Richmond and a longtime Sabato friend.

"He's put Virginia on the map for the presidential candidates," Wilder said, referring to Virginia's status as a swing state in the 2008 presidential campaign for the first time since 1964.

"Larry's national visibility also gives luster to the University and to the state," Wilder said. "His proximity to the nation's capital means that he's often called on and has become a national player."

Outside the University, Sabato is best known as a political observer, analyst and commentator who is widely quoted in the media. During presidential campaigns, he receives dozens of phone calls a day on topics ranging from congressional races, to polls and polling, presidential campaign issues and media coverage of political campaigns. By mid-October this year, he had already made 300 national TV appearances.

"He knows politics and he knows the press," Gibson said, "and he knows what each needs from him. Reporters need a quick and lively understanding of what is topical, expressed well, in bites small enough to eat."

Schieffer appreciates the preparation that Sabato puts into his dealings with the press. "Larry does his homework and has become a valuable resource for all of us who cover politics."

But can there be too much of a good thing? Some observers, both in the media and in academe, believe Sabato is overexposed.

"Our editors think he is," said Tyler Whitley, who covers politics for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "They think we rely too much on him. So we go away for a few months, but we always come back because he's so good."

Gibson said Sabato also faces ostracism from politicians because his comments aren't always flattering. "Chuck Robb called him 'Dr. Dial-A-Quote' after they had a falling out, and Chuck wasn't happy with what Larry said to the press," Gibson said. Robb is a former U.S. senator and Virginia governor.

Some academics criticize Sabato's broad exposure in the popular media, which they see as tarnishing his credibility as a serious scholar. Gibson thinks that says more about the critics than about Sabato. "Larry is able to explain issues to the general public in simple, understandable language when many of his colleagues lack that ability."

Sabato reaches out to the public through the Center for Politics at U.Va. as well as through his contact with the media and his books. Founded by Sabato in 1998, the center provides political expertise to the media, nurtures civic education in secondary schools, supports national symposia on provocative topics, and sponsors conferences on American democracy.

As part of its civic education programming, the center runs a Youth Leadership Initiative designed to strengthen an understanding of American government and boost participation in the electoral process among students in middle school and high school. More than 1 million students from all 50 states have participated in these programs, which include electronic mock elections.

The center also publishes "Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball," a weekly newsletter with commentary, updates, analysis and predictions. In 2004, the Crystal Ball correctly predicted 99 percent of the gubernatorial and congressional races it covered as well as the outcome of the Electoral College. In 2006, it was recognized by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Charitable Trusts' Project for Excellence in Journalism as the best political predictor in the country.

Despite decades of observing the American political scene, Sabato still believes that "politics is a good thing."

"Some people are cynical," Sabato said. They feel like all politicians are crooks. But that's not true. I know very fine people in both parties and others, in both parties, who, if they lived on Mars, Earth would be a better place. It does matter who's elected."

In 2005, Sabato announced a $1 million gift to the University, the largest gift ever from a faculty member to U.Va. It created an endowment to support the work of the Center for Politics and provide it with a permanent home at a restored Birdwood Pavilion just west of Charlottesville.

The gift is particularly fitting, said Gibson, as "politics and U.Va. are Larry's passions."

— By Charlotte Crystal