Representative John Boehner has just wrapped his weekly Washington, D.C., press conference at the Capitol and Dana Bash, CNN’s chief congressional correspondent, is positively giddy. Unfortunately for the Speaker of the House, her glee has nothing to do with Boehner’s remarks: During the briefing by the Republican from Ohio, Bash received a Twitter direct message from Donny Osmond, whom she met the previous night after Donny and Marie’s holiday show here.
“That’s my inner dork,” says Bash, a New Jersey native, admitting a crush on Osmond that goes back to 1979, when Bash was eight and she and her younger brother, David, saw Donny and Marie in concert. “They’re so talented,” she gushes. “Both of them are in their 50s and they both moved, sang and danced for three hours. I’m not going to dis on Springsteen, on my Jerz guy, but they were doing choreographed dance moves.”
Bash, 43, may have traded pop stars for politicians and N.J. for D.C., but she hasn’t lost her passion for the Garden State. Her father, Stu Schwartz, was a senior broadcast producer for ABC News—at both Nightline and Good Morning America—and his work led the family (her mother, Frances, is an author and Jewish educator) to relocate to Falls Church, Virginia, from Teaneck when she was six. They moved back to New Jersey—Montvale this time—when she was 13.
“My formative years were in Jersey and I’m kind of Jersey at heart,” she says, recalling her days working at the legendary Van Riper’s Farm in Woodcliff Lake (“It’s now an A&P,” she laments), as well as at the Paramus Park Mall, while attending Pascack Hills High School.
Stu Schwartz was one of his daughter’s early mentors, in part because his busy schedule often meant going to his office to see him. “Every Friday night, my brother and I would go to work with him and we’d jump up and down on the couch and we would play with Ted Koppel’s kids,” she says.
Put off by her father’s always on-call status—“The Pope would die, we’d come home from the beach,” she remembers—Bash vowed to stay away from journalism, but she caught the bug while studying political communication at George Washington University in D.C. “I just stopped fighting my DNA,” she says.
Bash began freelancing for CNN her senior year at GW, was hired full time after she graduated, and has been at the cable news channel ever since. She started as a producer for specialty programming, working her way up to a producer on Capitol Hill and then, in 2002, to on-air talent, covering the White House, Congress and presidential campaigns. “Oh my God, it was horrible,” she groans of the transition from working behind the scenes to appearing in front of the camera. “It’s hard to be on TV, it’s really hard. When someone tells you to be yourself, what do you do? You’re not yourself. My first live shot in my life was on the White House lawn. I thought I was going to throw up.” Since 2006, Congress has been her primary beat; she also covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
These days, Bash strides through the Capitol like she owns it, in her “big-girl shoes”—the high-heeled pumps she switched to from the flats she wore at CNN’s Washington bureau earlier in the day—and a midnight blue fitted dress with spikes on the collar. She stops Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) to ask a question for a colleague’s story. She chats with outgoing Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) about his retirement. “It’s their natural habitat,” Bash says, pointing out members of Congress as they happen by, but it’s clearly hers as well. She easily navigates the Capitol’s maze of back stairwells, hallways and underground tunnels, playfully revealing the secret code used by members of Congress to call the underground subway that whisks them to their offices in nearby buildings. “They know how to haul ass,” she says with a laugh.
Bash, whom Elle named one of the 10 most powerful women in D.C. last year, is on a first-name basis with many Capitol employees, including security guards and lower-level Congressional staffers. It’s part friendliness and part journalistic smarts: “Cops are some of my best sources. They have so much information,” she says. “I have text relationships with people who tell me things who aren’t press secretaries. You have to.”
Bash is renowned for her tenacity and dogged commitment to a story. In 2011, when she was nine months pregnant, she broke the news of Representative Anthony Weiner’s resignation. “That’s a perfect example of a case where my gut told me he was full of it. Maybe it’s the Jerz in me,” she says. “He was so media friendly and all of a sudden he clammed up and I just sparred with him. You’ve got to give as good as you get in those situations, particularly when I’m Jerz [and] he’s New York. Let’s go at it.”
Google Bash’s name and there’s video of Ron Paul’s spokesman cutting off her 2012 interview when she asked the presidential contender about his ability to connect with voters. Or check out the 2013 footage of Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) trying to ditch Bash in the bowels of the Capitol as Bash questions her on alleged falsehoods in a speech. The same year, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) called Bash “irresponsible and reckless” when she pressed him on why his Democratic caucus did not pass a bill put forth by Republicans.
Bash wears each dust-up like a badge of honor. “It is our job to ask the questions that make everybody uncomfortable,” she says. “Because I’m comfortable here and I’ve been doing what I do so long, if they’re not going to answer my question or they get mad at me, it’s okay.” She adds that off camera, both Bachmann and Reid are exceedingly pleasant to her.
Her persistence has paid off: She’s a three-time recipient of the prestigious Dirksen Award, an honor presented by the National Press Foundation for distinguished reporting on Congress. Her first award came in 2002 for breaking news of the government’s secret intercepts of Al Qaeda messages on Sept. 10, 2001, but failing to act on them before the 9/11 attacks. She won again in 2010 for her reporting on Congressional earmarks and for a third time in 2012 for her stories, with producer Deirdre Walsh, on a loophole in an act that allowed legislators’ family members to benefit from insider information. The law has since been changed.
In a frustratingly partisan Congress, it’s Bash’s job to stay impartial. Objectivity is so important to her that when queried on her favorite politician, she immediately asks if she can name one from each party. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina gets the nod on the Republican side “because he always tells it to me straight.” The late Senator Ted Kennedy is her pick among Democrats. “You’d see him in the hallway and walk up to him and say ‘What’s going on?’ and he’d give you the real deal. He wouldn’t bullshit. He was a real legislator.”
She fears those days of true legislating are gone. “Unfortunately I’ve seen it change for the worse a lot over the 10 years,” she says. “It’s just so incredibly toxic. When I first started covering Congress, we used to stand in these hallways for hours outside rooms where they were negotiating in a bipartisan way. Now there’s no standing in hallways, there’s no bipartisan meetings and there’s no dealmaking. [Mississippi Republican] Trent Lott used to have people from the Clinton White House camped out in his office. It just doesn’t happen now.”
As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, Bash will segue from Capitol Hill to covering the Republican field, handling the beats in tandem for as long as she can. That could mean plenty of time reporting on Governor Chris Christie, should he declare as a presidential candidate. Bash has found Christie “fascinating” to interview. “He talks like a person, he doesn’t talk like a politician,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I have the Jersey thing, I get him. The fact that he can thrive as a Republican in a very blue state with a very blue legislature is just very unique in today’s times.”
She cautions that Christie may need to tone down the belligerence he has often shown reporters once he hits the national campaign trail—“when he goes to the reporters that matter in primary states, like Iowa or South Carolina, where they don’t talk to people like that,” she says. “I’m guessing, if I’m him, I have to balance not being rude with doing something that doesn’t feel authentic. The appeal of Christie is that he does appear authentic at a time when nobody trusts any politicians.”
While covering the Republican field in 2008, Bash lived in Iowa for six weeks, “which I’m not going to do again. I’m going to be very judicious with when I travel,” says Bash, wary of spending too much time away from her son, Jonah, whom she had in 2011 with her second husband, CNN chief national correspondent John King. The pair divorced in 2012 and share custody of Jonah. She calls working with her ex a “non-issue…We knew each other as colleagues before we got married, and now we’re colleagues and we’re not married. We talk every day as parents because we’re co-parenting our son. There’s no drama, so it’s nice.”
Bash, who parted with first husband Jeremy Bash in 2006, is now dating actor Spencer Garrett, best known for his TV roles on Satisfaction and House of Cards. “Somehow it works,” she says, calling the Los Angeles-based Garrett “one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and very kind. He is also a political junkie. Sometimes he knows more about what’s going on in this town than I do.”
As a working single mom, Bash has found solidarity with her fellow female journalists. After Boehner’s press conference, she chats with NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell and CBS’s Nancy Cordes, whom she refers to as “my girls.” “We get each other on so many levels…being a woman in television; in Nancy’s case, juggling the kids,” Bash says. “There’s a whole different level of weird when you work in TV news.” The affection is mutual. O’Donnell jokingly offers to throw rose petals in Bash’s path if it will help her impress this reporter.
Bash’s D.C. support system now extends to her parents, who recently moved to the area to spend more time with their grandson, but she has no plans to abandon her roots. “My brother is in New York and we’re thinking about maybe doing a Jersey Shore house because it’s in the middle,” she says. “I grew up going down the Shore” to places like Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant, as well as Ocean City, where a good friend’s family had a house.
Plus, she returns to visit school chums and for high school reunions. “My 20th was at the Holiday Inn in Secaucus. It was so classic Jersey, it was awesome. I have such great memories of New Jersey and I still consider myself a Jersey girl,” she says, even joking about the requisite huge hair during her teen years. “If you saw pictures of me when I was in high school in the ’80s, you would have no doubt of where I grew up.”
Melinda Newman is the Hollywood correspondent for New Jersey Monthly.