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UT experts on the presidency make it a point not to play politics

Presidential politics experts Dr. Bruce Buchanan and Dr. Roderick Hart have made it a policy not to have a “dog in the fight” during political campaigns.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Presidential politics experts Dr. Bruce Buchanan and Dr. Roderick Hart have made it a policy not to have a “dog in the fight” during political campaigns.

That’s one reason why the two University of Texas at Austin professors have become media darlings in the last several years — precisely because they are non-partisan in their viewpoints. As the 2000 presidential election between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush kicks into its final days, Buchanan and Hart are quoted almost every week in newspapers ranging from The New York Timesto the Lubbock Avalanche Journal.

Reporters, who believe the two UT Austin faculty members can deliver the “straight talk” about a political issue, track them down between classes, at home and even at a recent national conference in Washington, D.C. Buchanan and Hart are asked to comment on numerous topics, including vice presidential candidate picks, gun control, education issues, health care, foreign policy, the death penalty, voter turnout and oil prices. They are, of course, also asked to comment on controversies or gaffes that may pop up — such as the statement Bush made about a New York Timesreporter (who ironically has spoken to Buchanan’s class) or Gore’s stretching of the truth during the first debate regarding his trip to Texas after destructive flooding.

“Being non-partisan actually makes us more useful to reporters,” said government professor Buchanan, who teaches courses on the American presidency. “Many times a reporter is looking for someone without an ax to grind. Other times, a writer already has a point of view and is looking for someone with a Ph.D. to validate it. But a lot of the time, I disagree.”

Buchanan has been quoted hundreds of times in publications around the world since the Bush campaign started in March 1999. The UT Austin scholar admits that although he is the author of several books — The Presidential Experience, The Citizen’s Presidency, Electing a President, Renewing Presidential Politicsand the forthcoming Presidential Campaigns and American Democracy— being in the same town as Bush has something to do with his popularity as a pundit.

Hart, a professor of communication studies and government and a member of the University’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers, said he gives his students two promises on the first day of class: “There will never be a day when you think ‘I don’t want to be here’; and you will have no idea at the end of the semester what my political views are.”

Hart believes that talking with and being quoted by reporters is an extension of the University’s mission to teach. “By doing this, we are reaching a totally different audience. I consider it part of my job,” he said.

Hart often is asked to comment on the role of the presidential debates and, in particular, Bush’s appearance a few weeks ago of trying to duck the traditional debate schedule and format.

“The traditional debates are characterized by speed and specifics and neither are Bush’s ideal circumstances,” said Hart, who used computerized language analysis of more than 400 presidential speeches for his 1984 book Verbal Style and the Presidency. “Bush likes to cast a broader net and talk about the big picture. He doesn’t respond well to the traditional debate format.

“When Bush came up with an alternative plan for the debates, he said that this was his final word on the matter. But we should all remember that there are no final words in politics,” he said. Bush later agreed to the traditional format set out by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Hart, who also is the author of The Sound of Leadership, The Political Pulpit, Seducing America, How Television Charms the Modern Voterand Campaign Talk — Why Elections are Good for Us,said during the “debates debate,” Bush looked like he was afraid and was trying to shrink the audience. “I can’t see a way for a candidate to avoid the commission-sponsored debates without hurting himself,” he said.

Both Hart and Buchanan said they tend to catch news “on the fly” with lots of hits on Web news sites. They also said new data still shows that people are getting most of their news and information from television. But the positive side, Hart said, is that newspapers are, consequently, writing longer and more thoughtful stories.

To Editors: A high resolution, downloadable photograph of Hart and Buchanan is available at www.utexas.edu/admin/opa/news/00newsreleases/nr_200010/politics2.html

Or via email to marsha@opa.wwh.utexas.edu