5 Questions For… Wolf Blitzer

By Alissa Krinsky 

Alissa Krinsky
TVNewser Contributor

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer anchors The Situation Room and Late Edition, and serves as the network’s main anchor for its 2008 election coverage. He joined CNN in 1990 after stints with The Jerusalem Post and Reuters. The author of two books, Blitzer has a bachelor’s degree from SUNY-Buffalo and a master’s from Johns Hopkins University.

1. TVNewser: 2008 marks my 10th anniversary anchoring Late Edition. Of all the interviews I’ve done for the program, my most memorable was:
Blitzer: It was with the then-new President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. It was 1998, and I was covering President Clinton’s visit to Africa.

A day before the interview, Clinton toured Mandela’s old prison cell where he had spent some two decades in virtual isolation as a political prisoner. The next day, I was invited to Mandela’s presidential residence in Capetown for the exclusive sit-down interview.

It was an amazing contradiction. Mandela was such a powerful leader. Because of his leadership, South Africa had moved peacefully to end the apartheid regime. During our interview, he was so soft-spoken and decent. I remember telling my producer, Sam Feist, that there was no sign of bitterness or hatred even though he was certainly entitled. In short, I was totally impressed.

2. TVNewser: Moderating five debates during this presidential campaign season — more than any other anchor — was an experience I’d describe as…
Blitzer: Very exciting. I remember the first debate on June 3, 2007 in New Hampshire. There were eight Democratic candidates on the stage. Two days later, I moderated a debate on the same stage with ten Republicans. I was very aware of the history, and I was grateful that I not only had a front-row seat, but was actually on the stage with the candidates.

For a reporter who also happens to be a political news junkie, it doesn’t get much better than that. We spent a lot of time working on the questions. We had a great team that included our Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman, our Political Director, Sam Feist, and my Situation Room Executive Producer, Eric Sherling. We wanted to focus on the substantive domestic and foreign policy divisions. It was a lot of hard work preparing those questions, but I will confess it was a lot of fun, too.

3. TVNewser: Politicians often offer ‘spin’ and try to avoid answering questions when they’re interviewed by TV journos. My strategy to try and get real answers to my questions:
Blitzer: I listen very closely to their answers, and if they don’t answer the question, I follow up and press. During the debates, by the way, we summarize the question at the bottom of the screen so viewers will remember what the question actually is.

Politicians have a tendency to try to squirm out of answering tough questions by changing the subject. A good interviewer won’t allow that to happen. I will press with a follow-up or two, and if the politician is still refusing to answer, I will point that out to the viewers politely, and then move on to the next question. That strategy often works because they are embarrassed, and politicians don’t like to be embarrassed.

4. TVNewser: Having reported over the years from locations such as Lebanon, Israel, and the Gulf — all during wartime — looking back, the most dangerous situation I found myself in was…
Blitzer: It was back in 2002. I had been invited to interview the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, at his office in Ramallah on the West Bank.

He was a night owl and the interview was set for around midnight. Driving from Jerusalem through the Israeli military checkpoints wasn’t a problem. Driving back to Jerusalem from Ramallah around 3am was a problem, though neither my Late Edition executive producer, Linda Roth, nor I realized it right away.

Just outside Ramallah, we stopped at an Israeli checkpoint and waited for the soldiers to check our vehicle and our papers. We waited and waited and nothing happened. Finally, our driver opened the door and walked out. All of a sudden the spotlights came down on us and it became tense. It seems the soldiers had been shouting at us with their bullhorns for about five minutes to get out of the vehicle with our hands up. But we could not hear anything because we were in an armored vehicle. The windows could not be lowered, and we heard nothing.

The soldiers later told us that had we not opened the door and emerged, we would have had about 30 seconds before they fired into the vehicle. They feared it was a car bombing in the works.

That was about as close as I have been to being killed while on assignment. My 2005 trip to Iraq, even while the fighting was underway in places like Fallujah and Mosul, was not as dangerous as that night outside Ramallah. David Bohrman was on that trip to Iraq with me, and he agrees. Late Edition‘s senior executive producer, Lucy Spiegel, who herself was based in Beirut during the Civil War in the early eighties and knows what it’s like to be shot at, was very happy when we got back to DC.

5. TVNewser: I turned 60 this year, which was…
Blitzer: It was hard to believe because I feel a lot younger. I actually am in better physical shape now than I was when I was 40 or 50. I exercise every day, and watch my diet. As my viewers probably also realize, I love what I am doing. I’ve been pretty busy lately so I didn’t have too much time to sit back and reflect around my birthday.

But let me just say this: I truly appreciate what I am doing every single day and am very grateful to have this opportunity. Working at CNN is fun. As you know, we have the Best Political Team on Television. But more important, we also have the nicest team.