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(Corrects first paragraph reference to Sperling. He is alive.)
Dave Cook is proud of his logo. The host of the Christian Science Monitor’s weekly Monitor Breakfast considers the cheerful yellow sun, blazing prominently behind the event’s speakers, a branding opportunity. “We’ve gotten unabashed in our marketing fervor in our old age,” says Cook, the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief. What started in 1966 as an off-the-record Q&A session between politicians and Monitor correspondent Godfrey Sperling Jr.’s journalist friends—“mostly old white guys,” Cook calls them—has grown into an on-the-record, $47-a-plate session at Washington’s St. Regis Hotel that’s often aired on C-Span. “That is, when they don’t have something else going on,” he says.
With more than 3,770 breakfasts under its belt, the Monitor has the longest-running morning lecture series in D.C. But that doesn’t give it much of an edge in the increasingly competitive rush for guests as other news organizations have come to see the most important meal of the day as great marketing. “In the last three or four years it seems like everyone has gotten in on the action,” says Cook. Politico’s Mike Allen hosts a Playbook Breakfast at the W Hotel every week, catered by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Steakhouse. The National Journal and the Wall Street Journal, among others, host regular breakfasts as well.
Some of the news organizations use the meals to boost their brands and give visibility to star reporters. Politico’s event is sponsored by Bank of America (BAC). At the Wall Street Journal’s Jan. 23 breakfast with Paul Ryan, the backdrop behind the former vice presidential candidate was festooned with the newspaper’s logo and the names of editors Gerald Seib and David Wessel, the hosts, in huge type.
“People try to turn them into must-attend events, to develop a reputational awareness that these organizations are worth your time,” says Juleanna Glover, Dick Cheney’s former press secretary and now a lobbyist, who’s been a breakfast regular for years. The most successful—and elusive—gatherings are those where the guest says something noteworthy. In the news stories that follow, the event’s host gets a mention. That doesn’t happen often: Even before they’ve had their coffee, politicians are usually on their guard.
Any news they do make at these events tends to be scripted. Like movie stars who show up on Letterman when they have a film to plug, pols use the breakfasts to promote themselves in a venue that’s much tamer than a town hall meeting or press conference. Ryan became a regular on the pancakes-and-eggs circuit when he was pushing his budget plan. In addition to the Journal’s breakfast, he’s headlined Playbook and Monitor events. Even post-election, he’s a big draw: Kevin Seifert, his press secretary, says Ryan receives about 10 invitations a month.
With so many breakfasts each week, there aren’t enough high-profile guests to go around. Over the years the Christian Science Monitor has hosted four U.S. presidents, five vice presidents, and scores of senior senators—Ted Kennedy used to attend regularly, his Portuguese water dogs Sunny and Splash in tow. Now the Monitor often settles for policy wonks and economists. Politico sometimes boasts big names such as John McCain and Nancy Pelosi, but also Henry Barbour, a Republican consultant and lobbyist who’s the nephew of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.
“I don’t remember how I got invited, to tell you the truth,” says Mike Isabella, a D.C. restaurateur and former Top Chef contestant who in 2011 appeared on a “celebrity panel” edition of the Playbook Breakfast, along with actors Tim Daly and Rosario Dawson. “It was my first time at one of those things, so it was pretty cool. I’m a big fan of Rosario Dawson, so I liked meeting her.”
Finding guests isn’t the problem, says Cook. “The good guests, the ones who will fill the room, that’s not as easy.” In January he held a timely discussion with National Rifle Association President David Keene, who called background checks for private gun sales “excessively burdensome.” This month, Cook will host the head of the National Transportation Safety Board—not quite the sexiest job in Washington. But even on days when the guest isn’t much of a draw, “there’s always a cholesterol-laden breakfast” to lure reporters, Cook says. “I call it better journalism through bacon.”
The bottom line: The competition for the growing breakfast business in Washington is fierce: Paul Ryan gets 10 invitations a month.