Poised Wolf Blitzer stands up to, backs down Gingrich in CNN debate

Former speaker tries to bully moderator, and gets shown up in showdown

January 26, 2012|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

Yessssssss. God is in his heaven, and for a couple of minutes Thursday night during CNN's  GOP debate, the relationship between the press and grandstanding TV politicians was finally back in balance.

When moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Newt Gingrich if he would like to repeat a criticism he had made earlier this week of Mitt Romney for not being transparent enough about his finances, Gingrich put on his best headmaster face and told the veteran journalist in his most condescending tone, "... This is a nonsense question."

In November, I advanced one of CNN's  debates with a piece hoping aloud that Blitzer would not let Newt Gingrich bully him as the the former Speaker of the House had been doing to other debate moderators.

Here's some of what I wrote in November and then last week after the CNN debate John King moderated:

And so it is that I will come to TV tonight hoping to see one of the few anchors who has the stature and the credibility to call out Gingrich take the candidate of bluster on for his phony game of pounding the press by telling moderators how "stupid" (one of his favorite words) or "wrong" (another favorite word) their questions are.

Blitzer is a journalist who prizes civility and even-handedness in his handling of interviews, which is another reason he might be one of the few who can challenge Gingrich to answer the questions asked of him instead of trying to use the stage to direct a dishonest attack on the press.

... Gingrich played nice that night, but he was only saving his mock-outrage game for a bigger stage like the one he had  in South Carolina, which he used to go after ABC News, CNN and moderator John King hammer and tongs.

I walked away from the TV after the South Carolina debate so outraged I knew I shouldn't write until I was able to think more dispassionately about what I saw.

And then, amazingly, I saw Gingrich patronize and lecture King again earlier this week in an interview on "John King USA." I was screaming at the TV for King, one of the finest journalists in any medium, to call Gingrich out. And while he did push back a little on facts, it wasn't nearly enough for me.

But last night in Jacksonville, Blitzer took the bully on when Gingrich called his question "nonsense."

Gingrich tried to double down and then lecture Blitzer by telling the veteran journalist that something said about Romney "on a TV show" is not worthy material to be brought into a presidential debate.

But Blitzer wasn't backing down a bit. Poised, deliberate and professional, he came right back at Gingrich.

"But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, 'He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.'  I didn't say that.  You did ... if you make a serious accusation against Governor Romney like that, you need to explain that."

Gingrich tried one last rhetorical bit of tap dancing as the noose tightened, suggesting he and the three other candidates were united in wanting what he disingenuously tried to characterize as a more serious, substantive discussion than the one Blitzer was seeking.

But Romney wasn't playing the "let's-eat-the-press" game, and he said that actually he would rather have the man standing next to him do just what Blitzer suggested -- explain what he said about him and his Swiss bank accounts elsewhere.

And I can't swear to it, but at that moment, it looked like the gray-haired gas bag next to Romney actually started to shrink.

I don't care what anyone says, that was one of the most important moments in all of the 20,000 GOP debates we've had in recent months. It was important because of what it represented symbolically for the Press - capital P.

A member of the press stood his ground in the face of one of the most-compromised, calculating, dishonest, anti-press, lying politicians since Spiro Agnew -- and the bully backed down just as such characters always do when confronted with courage and honesty.

For a moment, Blitzer did all of us who are part of that battered, beleaguered, dazed and confused, but absolutely crucial-to-democracy institution proud. We need to remember what we represent in this country and quit letting ourselves be kicked around by the likes of Gingrich.

Let's hope this is the last we see of Gingrich's dishonest press bashing.

Here's the transcript of the portion of the debate in which Gingrich tried to bully Blitzer:

BLITZER:  We're continuing the debate here in Jacksonville, Florida.

Let's get to the issue of transparency, because voters out there, they want to know as much about you four gentlemen as possible before they vote.

Tax returns -- let me bring this to Speaker Gingrich.

Earlier this week, you said Governor Romney, after he released his taxes, you said that you were satisfied with the level of transparency of his personal finances when it comes to this.  And I just want to reiterate and ask you, are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as his personal finances?

GINGRICH:  Wolf, you and I have a great relationship, it goes back a long way.  I'm with him.  This is a nonsense question.

(APPLAUSE)

GINGRICH:  Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America? 

BLITZER:  But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, "He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts."  I didn't say that.  You did.

GINGRICH:  I did.  And I'm perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show.  But this is a national debate, where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.

BLITZER:  But if you make a serious accusation against Governor Romney like that, you need to explain that. 


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