Melissa Seckora: Profile of a rising star

By LOU MARANO  |  June 27, 2002 at 11:19 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 26 (UPI) -- Melissa Seckora is a rising conservative media star who has taken on the New York Times and the academic establishment and won.

Blessed with brains, beauty, talent and drive, Seckora, 26, does double duty at the Washington bureau of National Review magazine. As editorial associate, she provides clerical, research and administrative support. She also is developing into one of the magazine's most incisive young reporters and a television and radio presence of note. She has covered Congress, higher education, abortion and the controversy over RU-46.

"One of the first stories that I broke was the Boy Scout case," Seckora said in a recent interview.

On June 28, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the forced inclusion of an avowed homosexual as a scoutmaster would significantly burden the Boy Scouts' freedom to express the viewpoints embodied in the Scout Oath and Law, particularly represented by the terms "morally straight" and "clean." On Aug. 29 2000, the New York Times ran a front-page story asserting that local scout troops in Chicago, San Francisco, and San Jose, Calif., had been told that they no longer had access to public parks, schools and municipal sites.

Seckora recognized this as "totally unconstitutional. ... I don't know where this woman (reporter Kate Zernike) got this story, because I called all the sources that she named, and they all said it wasn't true." The New York Times issued a correction on Sept. 6, 2000.

"(Matt) Drudge picked it up, and I got radio interviews, and that was sort of an exciting first thing," she said.

Seckora's next big story came after Al Gore named Sen. Joe Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate. She reported that the Connecticut Democrat, sometimes called the "conscience of the Senate," had engaged in "old-fashioned political gamesmanship" in the vote to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. At first Lieberman "gushed" over Thomas's qualities, Seckora wrote. Then came Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment. The senator was "delighted" to find "not even a hint of impropriety" expressed by women who worked with Thomas at the EEOC and the Department of Education. But rather than simply voting "yes," Lieberman quietly assured the Bush administration that he would vote to confirm if it would make the critical difference. At the last minute, after it became clear that Thomas would win confirmation, Lieberman voted "no."

"That was picked up by Rush Limbaugh, and everybody was running with it that week," Seckora said. "This was a big deal. My editor, Rich Lowry, said he was totally behind me. He was basically teaching me how to be a reporter. I always want to do more commentary, but Rich says I should focus on sharpening my writing skills by reporting."

National Review Washington Editor Kate O'Beirne called Seckora's next big story "one of the more important pieces we published last year." But because it appeared on Sept. 11, it is not as well-known as it otherwise might have been.

"I really wanted to get a piece in the magazine (as well as online) and knew I needed a big story that no one else was thinking about," she said. A friend made her aware of Northwestern University Prof. James Lindgren's paper "Counting Guns in Early America" and the controversy over Emory University Prof. Michael Bellesiles' Bancroft Award-winning book "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." Bellesiles' thesis, that firearms were few and unreliable in the United States before the Civil War, was hailed by gun control activists well in advance of the publication of "Arming America" in 2000. However, Lindgren and co-author Justin Lee Heather found that in colonial probate inventories, "gun ownership is particularly high compared to other common items."

After talking to Lindgren, Seckora started calling historians of colonial America. "My story came together, and I pitched it to Rich, who thought it could be really good." Lowry liked it, and Part I was published in the magazine. Two other online articles followed.

"Some of the most significant statements in 'Arming America' are 'based' on data that do not exist," Seckora wrote. For example, documents Bellesiles told her he reviewed at the San Francisco Superior Court were actually destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

Wayne State History Prof. Don Hickey peer reviewed Bellesiles' earlier work. Seckora quoted Hickey as saying that criticisms of Bellesiles' research "have convinced me that Bellesiles misread, misused, and perhaps even fabricated some of his evidence."

As a result of these stories, Seckora has been invited to be a guest on Fox News, CNN and National Public Radio.

The petite brunette with the porcelain complexion has obvious star quality. She has been asked to comment on subjects as diverse as what the shaving of Al Gore's beard portends politically to the fighting at Tora Bora. Her role as a National Review researcher prepares her for these challenges.

"We basically have to know about everything," she said. "I read five papers a day plus the electronic media." When she is called for a TV appearance, she gets on the phone and does her homework. "It's like reporting. You have to be informed no matter what your venue is. You have to make sure you have your facts straight."

Seckora is a native of Frankenmuth, Mich., population 5,000. "We're actually the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state," she said. "So I grew up working in ice cream shops and fudge kitchens." Her mother's family is of Sicilian origin, and her father's is Irish-Czech.

She graduated in 1997 with a degree in political theory and German from James Madison College at Michigan State University.

All through college, she worked in the office of Dean William B. Allen. When she was a junior, in the fall of 1995, Allen asked her if she wanted to be a "guinea pig" for a program where students would work at think tanks. She was sent to work for a semester at the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Dayton, Ohio, where she worked on small-business development issues and vouchers in the Cleveland school system.

During her final three semesters at Michigan State, she was an intern in the speechwriting office of Gov. John Engler. Between her junior and senior years, she was at the Institute for Justice, a pro bono conservative Washington law firm.

After her graduation from Michigan State, she studied for a year at the University of Freiburg in the Black Forest of southwest Germany. Then, for two years, she was a publications editor at the Federalist Society in Washington, a nonprofit public policy organization of attorneys, law professors and students. This experience helped her decide not to go to law school, although she is interested in the law.

When Seckora interviewed at National Review, O'Beirne tried to talk her out of taking the job because it was a step down in responsibility from what she had been doing at the Federalist Society.

"I'll just have to prove myself," Seckora recalled thinking. "I was encouraged to write, but I wasn't assigned stories. I basically had to come up with my own ideas." Her first piece appeared online her first week at the magazine, and she has been publishing online ever since.

"I'm really interested in the arts," she said, and enjoys doing her weekly column "D.C. Art Beat."

If she tries to write a story on a subject she is not interested in, "it just doesn't happen." But she can be choosy because, "I wasn't hired to write."

A forthcoming National Review magazine story, which will appear in early September, is about the censorship of conservative student newspapers on American campuses. "It's mostly about cases of theft, and how entire press runs are stolen. ... There's a free-speech double standard because administrators don't protect these kids. Conservatives are not protected by administrators on campus. They play lip service by press release, and then they don't do anything."

A piece that's scheduled to appear in the August-September issue of Policy Review is about historians charged with various impropriates, including Bellesiles, Stephen E. Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Joseph Ellis."

Last week Seckora was named one of the Claremont Institute's 10 Lincoln Fellows for 2002.

"I'll be in Newport Beach, Calif., for a week in August," she said. "It's a seminar-based program, and apparently we have lots of reading, so books are on the way. The 10 of us will sit around discussing the books and applying the original principles of the founders, and figuring out ways to apply what we discuss to our jobs. I think I'm the youngest on the list."

Seckora is particularly interested in developing ideas about what conservatives are for rather than what they are against.

Other Lincoln fellows own companies, work in the Justice Department, the Office of Management and Budget, and on Capitol Hill. "There's even a dentist in the group," she said. "I'm very much looking forward to going."

The observant Catholic finds it difficult to date in Washington. "I've dated non-Catholics, and it's very hard to do," she said. "And it's hard to find people in this town with interests outside their careers."

She likes music, art and travel, and she just got back from Madrid. Seckora likes Washington, but "I like to get to get out of D.C. as much as I like to stay here. I don't like just to go to work and come home."

"Friends and family need to look out for people more than they do," Seckora said. "They need to help you out. You can't expect that you're going to go into a bar and have a drink and find your husband."

But she's not in a hurry.

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