New York – In the inner sanctum of CNN, high above Lincoln Center, Kathleen Parker’s office is tucked in the back, a few steps from the outer rim of newsroom cubicles. Inside, she keeps a neat workspace, with political histories on the bookshelf and framed pictures of her family on the windowsill. A stray pair of heels lie on the floor.
As Parker settles into her chair, she folds up a packet of research, pulls her blind poodle Ollie onto her lap, and tosses me a Diet Coke.
Minutes earlier, Parker, best known as a Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper columnist, wrapped a taping of Parker Spitzer, the primetime program she co-hosts with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned from office in 2008 following a prostitution scandal.
Their talk show, which debuted earlier this month, has struggled in the ratings. Its main timeslot competitors, Bill O’Reilly on Fox News and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, have easily kept their spots atop the heap, even though CNN poured large sums of money into a promotional campaign for its new evening keystone. Scathing reviews from numerous outlets have also rattled its initial run.
Parker, however, tells me that she is unfazed by the tepid beginning. “I’ve been amused by all of these critiques,” she chuckles. “I haven’t read the reviews, but every now and then I get a note from somebody saying, ‘Keep your chin up.’ And I think, why? Is there a problem?”
Parker swats away the idea that her show cannot compete with the big dogs of cable news: “I haven’t yet seen anybody ask, well, how did O’Reilly do on his sixth day? How did Olbermann do on his sixth day? Wouldn’t we call that journalism? I don’t think anybody comes out of the gate with millions of viewers.”
No word on how long the broadcast has to pick up an audience. Jon Klein, the CNN/U.S. president who recruited Parker and Spitzer to the network, was fired a few days before the show premiered. According to the Wall Street Journal, CNN executives remain supportive. “We weren’t in this for the first night,” Bart Feder, senior vice president of programming, told the paper. “We’re in this to launch and to let it grow. And we’re confident it will.”
So is Parker. “All I can do is focus on doing the kind of show that I want to watch, in the same way that people write the book they want to read,” she says. “If it’s not what people want to watch, I suppose we’ll find out. But I just know from my 20-plus years as a columnist that there is an appetite out there for civility and solutions rather than sensationalism and gossip.”
Her experience as a columnist has also endowed her with a thick skin. “I’m used to criticism,” she says. “I’m used to craziness and people saying really rude things, and I don’t take it personally. I just dismiss them.”
Parker, who for years was based in Camden, S.C., is still adjusting to a new life and job in the Big Apple. “It’s an enormous amount of work,” she says. “I get in a car at 7:30 in the morning and don’t get home till close to twelve hours later.”
In recent days, Parker realized that not only the show, but also her own schedule, needs a little tinkering. “At the moment I can’t really attest to what it’s like to live here because, for now, I live at CNN,” she laughs. “I look forward to the day when I have a little more time to be a New Yorker.”
So far, Dick Armey, Bernard Henri Levy, Arianna Huffington, Aaron Sorkin, Andrew Breitbart, Ralph Reed, Andrew Sullivan, and Oliver Stone, among others, have sidled up to the show’s roundtable. This week, Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, is their big “get.”
Yet the show’s success — and survival — will likely hinge on more than its booking prowess. Parker, who began her career as a reporter before becoming a syndicated scribe, acknowledges that sustaining a compelling on-air chemistry with Spitzer is instrumental. On the show, she notes, she wears many hats: southerner, sometime conservative foil, mother, writer. “I represent those different perspectives,” she says. “I can only be myself, and I am all of those things.”
Indeed, one aspect of the show that won’t change is Parker’s political sensibility. She knows that some conservatives view her with suspicion, especially after she panned Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential nomination. Still, playing the part of ideologue is off the table. To clear the air before Parker Spitzer debuted, Parker described her politics to Larry King as only “slightly to the right of center.”
Parker’s continued lack of interest in espousing an ideology has already roiled some on the right. Conservative activist Richard Viguerie, for one, has written that Parker, “pleasantly wishy-washy, mostly plain vanilla,” is doing too little to combat Spitzer’s lefty arguments.
Parker promptly invited Viguerie on the show late last week, where the two argued over the prominence, or lack thereof, of conservative commentary at CNN, a network that tries mightily to bill itself as a centrist, nonpartisan organization. “I’m not a partisan, and I’m certainly not an ideologue,” Parker explains in our interview. “I got labeled a conservative by the marketplace. I’ve never actually declared myself a conservative.”
Parker adds that rough-and-tumble partisan fights, despite being proven to win cable viewers, will not be injected into Parker Spitzer in coming weeks. But, I wonder, can the political center, with its tendency toward the bloodless, be entertaining? Yes, she nods, it can. As she gazes out at the Manhattan skyline, Parker says that she would like to see her show rise above talking points and political zingers, to be like “one great dinner party where guests steer clear of the obvious and mix it up.” Fun, she says in her soft southern drawl, is the “operative word.”
For now, it’s unclear whether Parker will succeed. Aiming to blend the kind of in-depth, intellectual conversation seen on PBS’s Charlie Rose with the sharp banter of MSNBC’s Morning Joe is a challenge. “We are just seven days out of the gate, for heaven’s sake,” she laughs. “Every day gets a little smoother.”
Though unfazed by critics, Parker remains open to advice. “We are absolutely open to altering different aspects of the show as we move along and we decide what works and what doesn’t, what we like and what we don’t like,” she says. The question, though, is whether people will start to tune in.
– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.