By Elle Morris
photographer: Tony Gale
makeup: Jan Pedis
How many of us start out with high hopes writing for the college newspaper only to fall at the first hurdle? Not so Crossfire co-host, political writer and commentator SE Cupp. She has done what the ‘neverwozzas’ might consider impossible; and, impressively didn’t even mean to do it.
“I was always very comfortable writing, and not particularly political. I moved to New York in 2000 and very soon thereafter 9-11 happened practically in my backyard, and I think a lot of us at the time became interested in activism. After contemplating enlisting or joining the NYPD, I ultimately decided not to put my parents through that… and instead decided to do the only thing I knew how to do well, which was write. So I decided to write a book about politics out of 9-11 and some of the stereotypes that conservatives faced in a liberal place like Manhattan.”
That writing launched her into public focus in a way that she hadn’t considered. “For me [writing that book] was absolutely just cathartic. I didn’t know where it was gonna go, I didn’t know if it was going to turn into a career… so once it was out there and I started doing some television to promote it and started doing more political writing — well then it just felt natural, like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Despite now being a regular on TV programs in 2014 and having become a very polished, engaging and accomplished host, it wasn’t originally in SE’s plan. “I’m a writer by trade… so for me I’ve always pursued writing opportunities and I feel a lot more comfortable writing than anything else. But television and radio broadcasts certainly help promote my writing and promote my viewpoints. It’s just something that came to me through all of the writing opportunities that I got and snowballed and became my full time job which is very lucky and an honor.”
Very lucky indeed. In 2014, SE Cupp (it stands for Sarah Elizabeth) is a well known figure in our political sphere, and one of the few who promote a conservative viewpoint in a way that you can respect. She’s the kind of political commentator that’s fast disappearing — the kind of commentator that wants to foster conversation and real debate. “I’ve basically been on all the networks and I’ve done a lot of guest appearances on The View and Bill Maher. I guess I’ve sparred with just about everyone. Sometimes folks on the left, sometimes folks on the right.”
Wait, folks on the right? But SE identifies as being on the right; you’d think she wouldn’t want to break with the opinion talking points. It’s something that she acknowledges readily. “Sometimes the more interesting debates for me [are] disagreeing with folks in my own party. And I think allowing for that kind of disagreement is something that broadens the political experience for consumers and I think it’s important to showcase. Just putting a bunch of people in a line who agree with each other I don’t think is very interesting.” Hence, Crossfire, a show she co-hosts with Van Jones.
“Crossfire is such an incredible opportunity because you have an actual debate between four people on two different sides of an issue, sometimes unpredictably on different sides of an issue, and you get to showcase that range of opinion in a way that’s not rigged for the audience,” SE says. “No one tuning actually knows who’s gonna come out on top, or if someone’s going to win the argument the way they might on other networks. Ours is an actual, honest debate and we just wanna get all the opinions out there so that viewers can make up their minds.”
Politics have never been a unifying force and they’re not supposed to be. Especially in this country, founded on a compromise between people sharply separate in their ways of life, politics have always been a point where two sides argue for their way but manage to make something work so the country doesn’t collapse. Laws have had to be changed and rewritten over time as ignorance gives way to knowledge and values shift, but at least there was never such a standstill as we’ve seen in the last decade.
Even under George W. Bush, Americans in government, despite their division, were able to rally together and push on to get things done; and pundits were able to keep themselves from nitpicking through every word looking for the tiniest hint of scandal. Once America elected Barak Obama to the highest office, however,government came to an absolute halt. Republicans cast aside their own ideas because the President dared to say they were good ideas he’d like to pursue and pundits on (certain) networks began to berate the administration for things they weren’t doing, and then to berate them for doing exactly those things, and sought scandal in everything. And the political panel shows… well.
“I think it’s true of many of these panel shows now, is really just a bunch of experts desperate to get their point in, and no one’s really having a conversation.” SE says thoughtfully. “I think that’s why Crossfire’s so unique. We go back and forth, no one gets to run away with the show and no one gets to just read off talking points. We’re engaging two guests and we have two hosts and we’re all looking to have a conversation. And part of our job as hosts on Crossfire is not to debate the issues ourselves (the hosts) but to get our guests to debate each other and that’s an entirely different muscle, and something that I don’t know that most shows do.”
SE Cupp goes from hosting Crossfire to guesting on other TV shows very readily, and she makes the transition from host to guest look easy. But, she says, “hosting is an entirely different animal [from guesting] and it’s really flexing a different muscle and so there are definitely different modes you go into. When I’m a guest I wanna have my points ready to go and be ready for the questions that are gonna come my way. As a host, people rarely ask me questions, I do most of the asking so I want to have good questions – not questions that are just gonna make me sound smart but good questions that will actually foster debate.”
One debate SE has that she’d like to see done better, is the debate about religion. We are living in an increasingly secular society – which is not always a bad thing. Religion has long been a force of guidance for the masses, but just as much it’s been a force of oppression of the minority. SE says that the other side, the media, is just as bad when it comes to dealing with religion and may be shoving it to the side because of that.
“I think by and large the media still doesn’t have a great grasp on how to talk about faith in America, faith issues, religion and politics. I just don’t think they do a good job of it, and I think it’s a shame considering how pervasive religion is — not just in this country but around the world.”
She continues, “Over the past decade or so a lot of major newspapers have entirely cut their religion beat reporter staff. I think that’s a huge mistake… So that would be one thing, to bring back the religion beat reporter. And then there are other nuances in reporting about religious issues that are overlooked and shorthanded because there’s sort of a secular culture in the media that really misinterprets and misunderstands the way faith works in this country even still.”
So the media needs to stop oversimplifying religion and religious news, because religion is not a simple thing. Religion itself needs to be something we all step back from. This includes those politicians who are attempting to legislate in accordance with their religious faith, even though, as SE is quick to point out: “Luckily we have laws in place to prevent that from happening.”
Speaking of laws preventing things, at the time of the interview we were also looking at the relatively new legality of marijuana in Colorado state, and the debate over the decision had begun. Most conservative views seem to gear towards ‘ugh this is terrible our children will be ruined’, but SE is not among them. “I think it’s very clear, despite what President Obama says about marijuana, that the science is unsettled on just how dangerous a drug it is on its face; just how dangerous a gateway drug it might be…” she told me. “[But] I’m not a scientist so I would never be as arrogant as to say definitively what marijuana will do long term.”
But she does wonder what the new legality will do for work rights issues that may come up. “I can certainly see an evolution in labor laws where employers are grappling with how to test whether their employees are on illicit substances or substances that could impair their judgement while at work. With alcohol it’s very easy… with marijuana, [it’s] something that stays in your blood for a very long time — you could not be high, yet it’s still in your bloodstream. This put all kinds of complications for work rights issues, all kinds of issues, especially since it’s not legal federally.”
As SE succinctly puts it: “There’s a lot to do now that Colorado’s decided it’s legal in their state.”