The President’s Analyst

Portsmouth native Bill Schneider’s personal journey through politics

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“It’s interesting,” he says. “Chris Christie got a third of the Democratic vote in New Jersey, but do you know how much Ken Cuccinelli got in Virginia? Just 2 percent!”

To most of us, those are just stats. But Schneider sees more. “It shows us the difference between the two wings of the Republican party.”

Politics came early in life for the Aristotle. Born in Portsmouth in 1944, an only child, William “Bill” Schneider vividly remembers coming of age in a segregated Virginia under the Harry F. Byrd political machine. “Even the ferry boats were separated,” he says. “White on one side, colored on the other.”

 The civil rights struggle was what spurred him to start following the news closely as a teenager. “This was a time when civil rights were broiling the atmosphere in Virginia,” Schneider says. “And I can say that I witnessed complete social and moral revolution before my own eyes… I saw a complete social change in the universe. Things that had been assumed, like the caste system between blacks and whites, which had been rigidly imposed not just in Portsmouth but all over the south, had been overthrown.”

The debate even created divisions in the Jewish community where he was raised. “I think the rabbi at the time was a strong supporter of civil rights, and some members of the community were upset about that. It was an issue that divided everybody.”

Schneider attended Portsmouth’s Woodrow Wilson High School, the same school his mother Dora attended (a few years ago, he was given a distinguished alumnus award from the school). Although his father Joel passed away in 1984, the political scientist beams as he informs that his mom is still alive and kicking at age 101. “During the Depression, she took some government jobs when she got out of school. One of them was to register voters for the Byrd machine.” He chuckles as he adds: “Some of whom were not quite living.”

It was no surprise to mother Dora that her son became active in journalism. “I worked for the local paper [The Portsmouth Star],” Dora told CNN in 2004 when she appeared on TV with her son during a special Mother’s Day segment. “I almost gave birth to Bill in the newsroom. I [was] sure he would come out yelling: ‘Read all about it!’”

Schneider owes his career path, in part, to Norfolk’s now-defunct The Ledger-Star newspaper, which awarded him a university scholarship. “It enabled me to go to Brandeis University, where I majored in political science.” It was a heady time for a young man fascinated with government—one month after he got there, in 1962, the Cuban missile crisis began.

“The day I arrived at college, there was a meeting of the orientation students,” he remembers. “The purpose of the meeting was to sign up people to go on Freedom Rides to Mississippi. It was just that political then.”
The POLITICO website once asked Schneider to describe his level of ambition. His answer: “It will be written on my tombstone: he made things clear.”

After graduating from Brandeis University, Schneider got his Ph.D. in political science at Harvard University, where he ended up teaching for a decade. After Harvard, he went to Stanford University and co-authored an influential book with Seymour Martin Lipset, The Confidence Gap: Business, Labor and Government in the Public Mind. “I decided not to go back to academia after that,” he says. “I was offered a fellowship in Washington [D.C.] from the Council on Foreign Relations, and I was assigned to the office of a former colleague of mine from Harvard, [Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan.”  

The author of several books on politics, Schneider is working on a new one, for Simon & Schuster, scheduled for next year, that references the different sides of his life—as teacher, TV personality, policy maker and political scientist. “I call it Journey to the New America. I talk about growing up in Virginia.” In the book, he will also document something he calls “The New American Coalition,” the third big consolidation of voters to show strength in the last 100 years.

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