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On Sunday talk shows, a familiar cast of characters

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WASHINGTON » In mid-February, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went on the NBC program "Meet the Press" to explain his unhappiness with President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary. A week later, he took to "State of the Union" on CNN to chat about sequestration (bad) and the attack in Benghazi (worse).

In May, he was on "Fox News Sunday," talking about Middle East politics with Chris Wallace. Last week, McCain, who was in California for his oldest son’s wedding, hit "Face the Nation" on CBS, via satellite, to discuss his trip to Syria.

McCain is not his party’s most recent presidential nominee. He is no longer the highest-ranking Republican on any major congressional committee. And as party spokesmen go, these days he is just as often speaking against congressional Republicans as with them.

Yet on many given Sundays – over 60 of them since 2010 – McCain repairs to a television studio in Washington to hold forth. On "Face the Nation" alone, McCain has appeared more than any politician in the program’s 60-year history.

His Sunday ubiquity has set off some grumbling in Washington that producers give him too much airtime. It also tends to solidify the impression in living rooms across America that he remains the spokesman for, and titular head of, his party.

"Really?" McCain said with a soupgon of glee when informed of his record-breaking Sunday showiness. "Well I enjoy them. I find it is the best way to communicate with the American people."

In many ways, the Sunday morning talk shows are like ID lanyards and BlackBerrys. While much of the nation has lost interest in them, they hold a big – some would say disproportionate – sway in Washington.

The programs’ producers and members of Congress – and, to some degree, White House officials – collaborate in a weekly seduction ritual in which producers try mightily to get the most powerful guests and newsmakers of the moment, as the guests’ staffs weigh the risks of stepping before some of the toughest questioners in Washington.

When it comes to a dream guest, program hosts say, McCain checks almost every box: a senior Republican senator who can speak authoritatively and contemporaneously on many issues, flies secretly to Syria, compares members of his own party to deranged fowl and yet is a reliable opponent of most Obama administration policies.

"What makes a good guest is someone who makes news," said Wallace, the Fox host. "To make news, you have to be at the center of the news and willing to talk about it in a noncanned way, someone who always come to the shows ready to play."

He went on: "I sometimes think to myself, ‘Gee we’ve had McCain on a lot,’" not to mention Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. "But the fact of the matter is they are good guests."

And good guests become frequent guests. The programs tend to be dominated by a handful of predictably quotable politicians. Others make only rare appearances when a pet issue rears its head. And still others, by choice or by elimination, never make the cut at all.

"I usually go where I’m asked," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who has not been on a Sunday talk show in the last few years. "I did Greta the other night," Isakson pointed out, referring to the Fox News program "On the Record With Greta Van Susteren."

Isakson, like several other Republicans, says McCain does not serve as a spokesman for them or their party. "We all speak for ourselves," he said.

Critics of the Sunday programs argue that the words spoken on them are at once too calculated and overly interpreted, simply by virtue of where they are delivered. "You can go on Charlie Rose midweek and have a long conversation that ends in a game of strip poker and no one will pay attention," said Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "You go on a Sunday show, and everyone is looking for the slightest change, a new syllable, some new nuance."

The prominence of guests with strong points of view can give viewers a false sense of proportion to certain sides of policy debates. This is most clearly the case with McCain, whose advocacy for military intervention in Syria and criticism of the administration’s policies there might create a sense that there is a robust policy debate over the matter in Washington when there really is not.

"In order to deal with complexity but also create a basis for entertainment," said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center, "you need someone who knows what they are talking about who is pursuing daylight between themselves and the administration."

Many guests believe that the talk shows also contribute to the partisan disharmony in Washington, though that may be like blaming a speck of pepper for the flavor of a 10-gallon pot of soup. Even the highest-rated programs attract fewer than 2.5 million viewers, a tiny audience by the standards of network television.

"There is a tendency on the Sunday shows to look more toward partisan polarization," said David Gergen, a senior analyst for CNN who has advised four presidents. "They seek out people who are further out on the spectrum," Gergen said, adding that "more than one senator" has told him the story of being bumped for a more partisan guest when they expressed moderate positions on issues in pre-interviews, something producers and hosts say is untrue.

"We aren’t looking for someone because of their ideological view," said Bob Schieffer, the chief Washington correspondent for CBS and the moderator of "Face the Nation." "We are trying to move the story forward."

Many congressional staff members, when faced with the weekly talk show requests, apply the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. One misstatement or shading can hurt a campaign and damage a career, as Susan E. Rice, who is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and is about to become Obama’s national security adviser, learned when she went on a series of shows in September to discuss the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

The term "talking points" will now follow her into retirement.

Clinton avoided the Sunday talk shows for most of her short Senate career and wisely avoided the cameras after the Benghazi episode; Obama also stayed away when he was a senator, recalled Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, until Hurricane Katrina.

"That was around an event and a message," Vietor said. "It made sense to do it. To go on as a lawmaker and play pundit minimizes you as a lawmaker."

Some of the hosts complain that the White House sends out far too few high-level officials, a contention underscored by Schieffer’s thinly veiled contempt for White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer when he appeared on a recent Sunday to address a variety of scandals that have bedeviled the administration.

"They tend to send out people who don’t seem to have direct knowledge of the story," Schieffer said, noting that Vice President Joe Biden was a frequent guest when he was a senator but rarely appeared now. Schieffer added that Clinton would have been preferable to Rice after the Benghazi attack.

Despite their low ratings, the Sunday talk shows make headlines, and they are closely watched by Washington power brokers. Even the programs’ critics concede that they are a rite of power passage for politicians making their way to the top.

They can also be entertaining. Wallace remembered asking former President Bill Clinton a question that sent him into a paroxysm of rage. "My first thought was, ‘How am I go to handle this?’" he said. "Second, I thought, ‘This is great television.’"

Finally, because Clinton carried on at such length, Wallace thought of the South Carolina senator waiting in the wings. "We had to call and bump Lindsey," he said.

–Jennifer Steinhauer / New York Times

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