Norman Ornstein Always Has the Last WordROBERT M. ANDREWS , Associated Press
Jun. 16, 1990 11:50 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AP) _ If snappy quotes sold for a buck apiece, Norman J. Ornstein would be a wealthy man.
A political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of- center think tank, Ornstein is hardly a household name. But he happens to be one of the most widely quoted people in Washington.
At the ring of a telephone, he spouts expert opinions on just about any topic, from perestroika to peanut subsidies, from ethics to ethnic restaurants.
He's the ''King of Quotes,'' the sultan of sound bites, the imam of instant analysis, the titan of talking heads. He's the darling of TV producers and the garrulous savior of quote-hungry newspaper reporters battling a deadline.
''If I have an opinion, I'll give it,'' he says.
Jo-Ann Moriarty remembers her introduction to Ornstein in 1986, when she was a rookie Washington reporter for States News Service and needed some quotes for an election-year story she was writing about Rep. James Broyhill, R-N.C.
''The guy at the next desk said, 'Have you called Norm Ornstein yet?' I said, 'Norm who?' He said, ''He's Mr. Congressional Comment.' So I phoned Ornstein, and he returned my call immediately.''
She felt flattered, then astonished.
''I asked him about Broyhill, and it was like pressing a button. He just spit it all out, everything I wanted to know,'' said Ms. Moriarty, who was grateful for Ornstein's punchy one-liners but a bit embarrassed that she'd never heard of him before.
''I just didn't realize he was such a big cheese,'' she said.
Journalists praise Ornstein for his insider's savvy, his accessibility and his ability to cut quickly to the essence of a complex subject in lively, easy-to-understand language.
''He's a master of the pithy quote,'' says Peggy Robinson, senior political producer for public TV's ''MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour,'' where Ornstein frequently appears as a guest commentator.
''I try to restrain myself and not quote Ornstein too often,'' says Helen Dewar, congressional correspondent for The Washington Post. ''But when I'm analyzing a situation, I'm frequently curious what he thinks. And he will unfailingly say something I just have to quote. It's too good to pass up. No one puts it so concisely or so well.''
How did Ornstein become Washington's most quotable man?
''I was sitting in a Laundromat a couple of blocks from near my apartment on Capitol Hill in the early 1970s, twiddling my thumbs while my clothes were in the dryer,'' he recalled.
He'd just finished reading a book about former Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, and thought it would make for an interesting book review.
''I had a yellow pad and a pen, so I just dashed off a review in an hour, and sent it to the Post. They printed it on the front page of the Style section with a picture.''
A short time later, he talked to a feature writer about his favorite country inns. His quotes popped up in a Page One story in the Wall Street Journal. ''I was thunderstruck,'' Ornstein said. And bitten by the media bug.
He started writing reviews and Op-Ed pieces for the Post and The New York Times, which led to stints as a commentator and documentary editor for public television, which led to appearances on network TV talk shows.
As his visibility grew, reporters started calling him for quotes to lend an authoritative ring to their stories. Ornstein happily obliged.
''I had a pretty good feel for what journalists were looking for, and I found frankly that it served my own interests,'' he said. ''I could learn an awful lot by talking to reporters who were working on stories in ways that I didn't have the time to do myself. There could be a pooling, a sharing of information.''
To keep abreast of things, Ornstein, 41, reads voraciously - at least five newspapers every day plus stacks of magazines and academic journals. He goes to Capitol Hill three days a week to roam the corridors. He spends about two hours a day talking to journalists.
He attends luncheons, seminars, receptions and speaking events to ''schmooze and pick things up.'' He even quizzes fellow airline passengers and fathers on the sidelines of neighborhood soccer games.
Spoofing Ornstein's supposed omniscience, the irreverent New York magazine Spy peppered a special Washington edition last month with no fewer than 17 opinions from Ornstein on everything from taxi fares to sex scandals. President Bush ranked second with 14 references.
''One of Spy's editors called to say they'd gotten hundreds of letters,'' Ornstein said with a chuckle. ''Most of them asked, 'Who the hell is this guy Norman Ornstein?'''