The Grand Inquisitor

Tenacious interviewer Tim Russert is rady with the facts if his 'Meet the Press' guests start the doublespeak

October 30, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- It was classic Tim Russert: On yesterday's Meet the Press, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was talking about the United States Supreme Court and Clarence Thomas, one of its most conservative justices. Steele has called Thomas a hero but yesterday said he disagrees with him on a number of issues.

Like what?

"I strongly support affirmative action," Steele said.

Russert saw an opening. "You haven't always supported it," he said.

"No, I've always supported affirmative action," Steele replied.

"Well ..." Russert said, drawing out the word with the timing of a comic, signaling to his audience that the hammer was about to drop. "If we go back to 1991," Russert continued, then quoted Steele saying that affirmative action "doesn't work" and has devolved into "a race-based quota formula."

The rumpled Russert -- whose pre-air primping consists mainly of running his fingers through his shaggy hair -- has made Meet the Press the No. 1 Sunday morning interview show for 10 years running. The fun of watching is seeing him snare politicians in moments of hypocrisy and doublespeak. His method is simple: Research the hell out of his guests and let them hang themselves.

Both Steele and U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin were tripped up by their own past statements yesterday. Cardin had trouble explaining remarks earlier this month when he said he would cut off funding for the war in Iraq and also a vote he cast last year against a bill that would require minors to get parental consent for an abortion.

It's no surprise that two U.S. Senate candidates -- Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey -- declined to participate in Meet the Press' series of Senate debates. As for Cardin and Steele, they both agreed to the appearance more than a month ago. But neither was under any illusions about who was the star of this show.

The son of a garbageman, Russert, 56, has reached the height of inside-the-Beltway celebrity by speaking plainly, asking tough questions and projecting a Middle American charm and sensibility. (He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y.)

The first in his family to go to college, Russert is now the first reporter politicians turn to when they have something to say. Vice President Dick Cheney has appeared on the show a dozen times. President Bush has stopped by, along with anyone else who wants to be taken seriously in Washington.

And Russert's tenacity consistently ferrets out news. Last week, he was on the front page again when he got U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to acknowledge that he was considering a presidential run in 2008. Obama had been on Oprah, Larry King and other shows -- but no one could get him to say what Russert did.

Russert's trick? He showed Obama a clip from Meet the Press in January, when Obama said he "will not" run for president in 2008, and asked if he stood by that statement. "He had nowhere to go," Russert said in an interview yesterday in the chilly Meet the Press studio on Nebraska Avenue.

He said he first used the interviewing technique that has become his trademark -- showing politicians clips and quotes of their previous statements, and finding inconsistencies -- in 1992, one year after he took over Meet the Press.

"It's a technique that holds politicians accountable, and that's what we need," Russert said. "My simple view is that if you can't answer tough questions, you can't make tough decisions."

A devoted football fan, Russert says his goal is to be the John Madden of politics. "He takes a complicated game of football and makes it meaningful and understandable to a casual fan. That's what I try to do with politics and political debate."

Russert says his style is to be civil, to allow guests to finish their sentences and complete their thoughts. But he is also persistent -- zeroing in on an issue and not letting go. In a series of questions to Cardin about cutting the budget, Russert asked twice, "Would everything be on the table?"

Perhaps fortunately for Cardin, the hour was up before Russert could ask him a third time. In a similar fashion, Russert pinned Steele down on the issue of abortion, asking him this series of questions:

"Would you hope the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade?"

"But you hope that the court keeps Roe v. Wade in place?"

"But what's your position? Do you want them to sustain it or overturn it?"

"Is it your desire to keep it in place?"

Finally, Steele said yes, he would keep Roe v. Wade in place.

Once again, Russert had wrangled an answer from a reluctant politician. Russert joined NBC News in 1984, after working as a lawyer for Democratic U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and was named Washington bureau chief in 1988, a position he still holds. Russert says Moynihan taught him the importance of consensus and being open to solutions from unexpected places.

"I don't think anyone has a monopoly on the truth," said Russert, a registered independent. "And somewhere the answer lies when people come together and learn to find common ground."

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