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With All Due Respect

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
Mark Halperin (left) and John Heilemann. Photo courtesy the Miller Center.

I consider myself something of a political news junkie, but I can’t stand political talk shows on cable television – with one exception. Sadly for me, and for cable news too, that exception is about to go away.

“With All Due Respect,” co-hosted by political analysts John Heilemann and Mark Halperin and affectionately known by its staff (and nobody else) as WADR, airs weeknights at 5 p.m. Eastern on Bloomberg TV and online. It is rebroadcast one hour later by MSNBC and, two hours after that, it re-airs on Bloomberg’s cable channel. This will not be true much longer, however. Bloomberg executives broke the news to staff last week that the final nightly broadcast will be on December 2. The WADR staff will then prepare four special broadcasts leading up to the Trump inauguration and will cover the inauguration itself. After that, WADR is history, along with the Bloomberg Politics website that Heilemann and Halperin helped launch.

Bloomberg’s entire New York-based politics operation is being folded back into the company’s Washington bureau, although with the somewhat dissonant note that it will henceforth focus more on global politics and economics – which, unlike the recent U.S. elections, is more logically covered from New York.

Heilemann and Halperin literally wrote the book on the rise of the Obama administration. It was called “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.” Released in 2010, the tome chronicled 2008’s primary showdown between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, John McCain’s emergence as Obama’s general election opponent, and McCain’s decision to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate, along with the travails that followed. The book was a big success, and the McCain-Palin subplot became the basis of an acclaimed 2012 HBO film that starred Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Ed Harris.

I’m not sure Heilemann and Halperin would still call the 2008 contest the “race of a lifetime” after the election campaign that just ended. But it certainly earned them the gig of a lifetime, in the form of a generous contract from Michael Bloomberg to launch a new political side to his data and business news operation in Manhattan.

WADR launched in October 2014, not coincidentally just in time to cover the mid-term congressional elections. My daughter Ali and I both viewed that election season as a dry run for the presidential campaign that would get underway almost immediately afterward.

From the beginning I found Heilemann and Halperin’s approach refreshing. For one thing, they did not populate their show with party hacks from either side whose job was to try to tilt the discussion in a predetermined direction. Of course most of their guests came with a clear agenda, but the hosts themselves, as well as other Bloomberg staffers who appeared in occasional segments, were appropriately skeptical and scrupulously fair.

The partisans hated that. True believers distrust anyone who is not prepared to drink their favorite flavor of Kool-Aid. WADR never imbibed. Even though I suspect that Heilemann, at least, would identify and sympathize more with Democrats, he and Halperin always maintained appropriate professional distance. In other words, they behaved like journalists in the way I was trained as a journalist, and which has fallen distinctly out of fashion in today’s newsrooms and studios.

They also did not take their subjects or their guests too seriously. On one of the early shows, the hosts served several flavors of ice cream to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and asked her to identify her favorite.

Frivolous? Some critics thought so. But you could argue that almost everything most Americans see about politicians, especially at Pelosi’s level, is focus-group-tested, stage-managed and planned. (The president-elect is both a glaring exception and Exhibit A as to why this is so.) WADR tried to break through the packaging and force guests to show something about what was inside – even something as trivial as an ice cream preference. It let us see who they are as people. It’s the sort of information we might get from an elevator attendant at the U.S. Capitol, if the Capitol staff was allowed to tell us which legislators bother to learn their names, or at least acknowledge their existence.

The show stayed true to this format throughout its brief life, but things changed at Bloomberg Politics in the interim. One of the early hires, David Weigel, who is a talented and prolific reporter, left for The Washington Post. After finishing his stint as New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg returned to an active role at the company that bears his name, and I quickly got the impression that he was on a back-to-basics mission to re-emphasize the highly profitable data terminals and de-emphasize what he might have considered peripheral ventures, including Bloomberg Politics. The website was redesigned to reduce the length and number of in-depth articles and emphasize brief, rolling updates of the sort that busy securities traders might favor. I doubt many traders made a point of watching Halperin and Heilemann.

I’m going to miss WADR, though, and so will television journalism. As the hosts liked to say at the end of every broadcast, sayonara.

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