John Harwood’s Been Questioning Candidates Since 1968

By Chris Ariens 

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

In 1968, Washington Post reporter Richard Harwood took himself off Robert Kennedy’s campaign bus because he had become too enamored with the candidate.

Four decades later, his son, CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood, says such a thing would not happen today — despite the gravitational pull of Barack Obama.

“There’s been a cultural shift in this business,” says Harwood, who will co-anchor CNBC’s inauguration coverage.

“When you’ve been doing this long enough, you feel a certain detachment from it.” (Chris Matthews and his leg tingles notwithstanding.)

Harwood, 52, has been around Presidential campaigns since he was 11. No joke.

Before his dad was re-assigned to George McGovern in ’68, young John appeared in a TV spot for RFK. Volunteered by his mother, he and several other youngsters chatted with the candidate about education. It was filmed at tony St. Albans School.

“I remember being cooped up under these hot lights thinking it was a special thing,” recalls Harwood, a public school kid. “In the ethical culture of today’s journalism, the idea that one of my kids would be in an ad for a candidate is preposterous.”

(video after the jump)

Harwood had no idea what happened to the RFK footage. In 2000, at the suggestion of the late political operative Bob Squier, Harwood combed Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and “son of a gun, there was a master reel of all [RFK] campaign ads from 1968.”

A print guy at heart, Harwood does a weekly column for the New York Times and reported for the Wall Street Journal full-time from 1991 until joining CNBC in ’06. Maintaining a newspaper presence was a deal-breaker for him.

“It’s important to me, in terms of my identity, to continue to work for a newspaper,” he says. “I get a lot of psychic income from that. Sometimes TV can be shallow, superficial. Being able to have my hand in a deeper part of the business is rewarding.”

Serving two masters can be a tricky business, however. Once, Harwood outscooped…himself.

A few years ago, he got a tip that Hank Paulson was about to be named Treasury Secretary. He immediately phoned CNBC’s news desk. Simultaneously, he emailed WSJ, for whom he continued to work part time.

As Harwood tells it, CNBC was about to go into a commercial break. While discussing the story, an editor told Harwood: “The Wall Street Journal is reporting it, so let’s go with it.”

Not enough irony for you? It gets better. Later, Harwood says his CNBC bosses scolded him for “giving the story” to WSJ.