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Happy 4th

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First of all, a note to NBC: It was bad enough that Meet the Press started three hours early--5:00 a.m. out here on the West Coast--because of Wimbledon. But then you have a substitute host, Andrea Mitchell, without even announcing it until the show starts. (Perhaps Tim was busy making strawberries and cream for the men’s final today). It’s pretty hard to do a Russert Watch without a Russert, and it’s even harder to do it bleary-eyed.

Maybe because it isn’t her show, or maybe just because she’s from the same Washington establishment club as Tim, Andrea seemed the host more of a collegial Georgetown dinner party than of a hard-hitting political news show.

Meet the Press opened with Senators Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy, the ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, talking about the upcoming Supreme Court fight. And the concern that was uppermost in Andrea Mitchell’s mind was not what sort of justice would replace Sandra Day O’Connor, but what sort of rhetoric would be employed in the process.

Everyone seemed to agree that Washington needs to "take it easy" and that the rhetoric should be "toned down." Ah, the ongoing Beltway love affair with comity. Of course, what that really means is: the club functions so much better if everyone just gets along and nobody, you know, believes anything very strongly and does anything ill-mannered like...tell the truth.

And it’s not hard to see why Andrea, and Tim, and all their Beltway buddies have such an aversion to what Mitchell described as “heated up” rhetoric. It makes their failure to point out the truth and challenge the deceptions much harder to hide.

The show was a preview of how the Washington press is going to cover the nomination fight--as a story about rhetoric and process rather than about the rights and freedoms at stake.

But pray tell me, if Bush picks a right-wing zealot, is anyone going to be saying in five years, “Sure, Justice so-and-so has been a disaster for the country, but at least the rhetoric during his nomination wasn’t overheated”?

The question should not be whether the rhetoric is overheated, or heated up, or whatever word Andrea chooses to use, but which rhetoric is truthful and which isn’t.

During the civil rights movement, there was a lot of overheated rhetoric--some of it from those struggling for equal rights and some of it from those fighting to maintain Jim Crow. It wasn’t all the same then, and it’s not all the same now. It turns out one side was right and one side was wrong.

Nowhere was this Washington obsession with rhetoric, and the belief that rhetoric is reality, more obvious than in the show’s segment on the war. For the Iraq course of the dinner party, Andrea hosted Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, along with Senators Chuck Hagel and Chris Dodd.

The revealing moment came when Andrea questioned Hagel over his statement that, on Iraq, the administration is “disconnected from reality.” “Both Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney,” she said, “took you to the woodshed.”

So challenging the administration’s claims about Iraq is a childish, immature thing to do -- something for which naughty senators should be punished by being taken to the woodshed for a spanking.

Someone should have reminded Andrea that the Senate is a coequal branch of government and that it is its job to exercise oversight over the executive branch and point out when it is disconnected from reality. Hagel’s response only confirmed his status as the true grown-up with a clear understanding of how insignificant ruffled feathers are compared to what is at stake in this war.

Christopher Dodd, by contrast, was the perfect dinner party guest. “The president began a dialogue the other night,” he said, referring to Bush’s speech, “which I commend him for.” Then he urged him to “speak with the American people more frequently.” Please spare us. The solution to the morass in Iraq is hardly more dishonest rhetoric, more frequently.

In today’s dinner party atmosphere, Dodd played perfectly the role of the loyal opposition, and that’s why he’ll be invited back again and again, like an old society beard -- the comity of the Senate floor being used to cover up any meaningful discussion of a war that has everything but comity. To paraphrase Carol Burnett, comity is tragedy plus establishment journalism.

And when this is your M.O., you tend to miss opportunities to challenge absurdities. The most egregious of these missed opportunities came when Duncan Hunter, agreeing with the President’s absurd claim that Iraq is central to the war on terror, said: “If we don’t change the world, the world's going to change us.”

I’m pretty sure the American people are not yet aware that changing the world is the latest iteration of our mission in Iraq and might appreciate a little elucidation on this point.

If they do, they didn’t get it here. Mitchell just changed the subject: "Now, the political debate here at home has certainly heated up," she said. "Take a look at what John Kerry said on the Today show on Friday."

By the time this dinner party was over, I was thankful to watch Wimbledon, which was actually less genteel than Meet the Press (although Andy Roddick needs to get to the net a bit more). In the booth, of course, was John McEnroe, a guy with actual opinions who’s not afraid of overheated rhetoric.

Next time Tim needs a sub--or even if he doesn’t--I’d like to go off the menu, drop the lukewarm vichyssoise and bring in the Big Mac.