Tim Russert: leader of the D.C. pack


May 19, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Leave aside the fact that U.S. troops in Iraq have not yet found the expected caches of weapons of mass destruction, the existence of which the American media largely failed to question adequately before last spring's invasion. Forget, too, the press' oversight in its weak pursuit of sketchy early reports - months ago - of abuse of Iraqis prisoners by Americans.

Tim Russert thinks the media has done a pretty good job in covering the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. But then, Russert gets to think that, because he performs his job so skillfully. Officially, he's the Washington bureau chief for NBC News and host of the Sunday morning talk show Meet The Press. That means he's the ringleader of the inside-the-Beltway media circus, a status that he has attained through winning top ratings and playing no favorites.

"As much as I can, I study the person and take the other side," Russert says. "You have to let people talk - to finish their sentences. When I asked George Bush whether the war was one of choice or necessity, his answer was very instructive."

Russert has won a reputation as a bulldog during interviews, but that's probably not quite right. He is respectful, while forcing his subjects to confront carefully calibrated questions on delicate issues. He famously prepares for his interviews by reading everything he can gather on the topic. Many of his queries are taken from past statements of the guest's opponents - or past statements of the guest himself.

And he recognizes that the verbal contortions his questions cause, and the subject's physical reactions, can prove as revealing to viewers as any specific information yielded by his interrogation. It's yoking of journalism and performance art. Nicholas Lemann writes in this week's New Yorker, "Week in and week out Russert probably holds the distinction of being the journalist whose work Washington talks about most obsessively."

Here's how the president responded during that painful Feb. 9 interview: "I think that's an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit." Long pause. "A war of choice or a war of necessity? It's a war of necessity."

It was telling, too, that President Bush turned to Russert for a full-hour interview when he sought a public forum to address growing concerns about the absent weapons of mass destruction and the economy.

New testimony to Russert's clout arrived on Sunday, not that we needed it, when a State Department press aide attempted to cut off an interview Russert was conducting by satellite with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was in Jordan. Powell, angered, demanded that the interview continue. Russert ran the full taped exchange unedited. Russert says Powell called him later to apologize.

Russert is speaking by cell phone from Detroit, a recent stop in his packed media tour this month to pump up sales of his new book about his father. (A note: It's unbelievable just how much time NBC News has devoted to Russert's book, including interviews on NBC's Today Show, Dateline NBC and at least three separate interviews on sister cable channel CNBC.) On Friday, Russert is scheduled to deliver the commencement address for the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Some critics, repelled by Russert's near-mythic status in Washington, argue that he sometimes fails to go in for the kill, generating the impression of toughness rather than its substance. David Corn of the left-of-center magazine The Nation complained that Russert was "more enabler than interrogator" in his February interview with Bush.

But in general, the transcripts suggest a different story.

Here's an exchange from an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney in mid-March 2003, before the invasion:

Cheney: I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.

Russert: If your analysis is not correct and we're not treated as liberators but as conquerors and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

Cheney: Well, I don't think it's unlikely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators.

In mid-September, when Cheney returned to the program, Russert replayed that clip, and declared pointedly: "We have not been greeted as liberators."

As complaints about the media have mounted, Russert says he reviewed his pre-invasion interviews with senior Bush administration figures such as Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. To his relief, Russert found that he did challenge, repeatedly, what are now seen to be overly optimistic projections of progress in Iraq.

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