If there’s a Russert formula beyond just being the Hack in Chief of the Beltwaystocracy, it’s this: Tim plays a news quote of some kind, then relentlessly goes after the guest for a reaction. Of course, the guests know by now that they can just give a non-answer answer and Tim will move on. But today, even the shtick was gone.
Maybe what they say about D.C. lacking a nightlife isn’t true, and Tim Russert really tied one on Saturday night. Or maybe the first three installments of RussertWatch took the wind out of his sails. But, whatever the reason, on Sunday morning Tim looked more spent than Tom Cruise’s publicist. And so did the show, with Russert’s trademark use of quotes completely out of control. They poured forth faster than the chocolates on the I Love Lucy conveyer belt. And they were the TV equivalent of War and Peace, sometimes three and four screens long. Watching was like taking a SAT reading comprehension test -- without the tension. (We have reproduced them in all their Russertian glory at the bottom of the post. Warning: do not operate heavy machinery for at least an hour after attempting to read them.)
Here’s a production tip: TV is a visual medium, Tim. If there’s video of the quote you want a reaction to -- as, god knows, there is of Hillary and Dean -- show the video! Giving us endless quotes to read through makes absolutely no sense… and leaves us wondering how Meet the Press got its rep as the Beltway’s sharpest political show.
Oh, yes, and the content itself?
First up was Congressman Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania who has a new book out called Countdown to Terror, and just returned from a trip to Iraq with the show’s other guest, Senator Joe Biden.
Russert puts up a quote of a Washington Post article (did I make it clear that it was the first of many, many more to come?): “Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) ...said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others are misleading Americans about the number of functional Iraqi troops.”
RUSSERT: Who's misleading the American people and how?
Good question. Weldon gives an answer, only not to the good question that was asked.
WELDON: Well, Senator Biden and I and the six-member delegation I took with us to Iraq were concerned because the level of training of the Iraqi troops has been represented to the American people as being much more competent than it is today. Senator Biden and I probed this issue aggressively with our generals and they agree with us that you have to define what the level of training, in fact, is. And if you look at those troops that have a level one capability, which mean they can operate totally on their own without backup of U.S. support, it's not the size the numbers that are being reported back home here in America.
So Russert, of course, realizing his question wasn’t answered, and, being the pitbull that he is, goes right back at Weldon, right? Wrong. You see, all you have to do is the rhetorical equivalent of jingling a few shiny keys in front of Tim and he forgets all about what he wanted to know seconds before. So here is his “follow-up” question:
RUSSERT: How many would you say it is?
Well done, Congressman. You’re off the hook. You don't have to actually say on national television that the administration is misleading the American people.
BIDEN: The problem they have now is they're beginning to think this is a black hole, they're beginning to think they're not being told the truth. And you saw for the first time, Tim, 52 percent of the American people now think that the war on terror is not being helped by our actions in Iraq. They feel no safer relative to terror because of what we're doing in Iraq. They figured it out.
Figured what out? If what they’ve figured out is that the “war on terror is not being helped by our actions in Iraq,” does that mean Biden believes the war in Iraq is actually making us less safe at home? And if he does, why does he want to send more troops to Iraq?
But instead of seizing this opportunity to probe the contradictions in Biden’s position, Russert seizes the chance to sleepily move on and throw up more quotes for us to read.
The low point of today’s low energy show comes in an exchange during the roundtable with Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, John Harwood, and David Broder, the Dean of the Washington Press Corps. Russert runs through a litany of numbers showing how badly the president is faring right now, including on Iraq and the war on terror. Broder’s response is an incredible piece of Washington-think:
BRODER: This president tends to go straight ahead, and he can do that, I suppose, on Iraq, because there are very few options for him. But he really needs to think about the domestic side.
And Russert lets him get away with the preposterous claim that Bush doesn't need to think Iraq! Broder and Russert don’t have to agree with alternative options, but shouldn’t Russert at least have put on the table the options being discussed on the Hill? Including what is real news, that a conservative Republican, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), the very man who was so gung-ho for the war, he got “French Fries” rechristened “Freedom Fries” in the congressional cafeteria, will be introducing a bill next week calling for a withdrawal date. (To find out more about it, watch the video of Walter Jones’ interview with George Stephanopoulos. I’ll link to the transcript as soon as it becomes available.)
So here's what Tim came back with instead:
Neither Russert, nor Broder, even though it was after all front-page, above-the-fold, in his own paper, made a single mention of the Washington Post story, which details how the administration has been fabricating terror convictions. Though the president claimed on Thursday that more than 200 terrorism suspects have been convicted, “an analysis of the Justice Department's own list of terrorism prosecutions by the Washington Post shows that 39 people -- not 200, as officials have implied -- were convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security.” Obviously, not as important a roundtable topic for Tim as Dean’s temper and Hillary’s positioning for 2008.
He closed with the announcement that on next week’s show, he will put The Mill on the Floss on the screen in its entirety, and read it aloud for our edification.
UPDATE: Digby has more here.
1 : MEET THE PRESS QUOTES -- THE UNEDITED VERSION
RUSSERT: Congressman Weldon, let me show you something that you said I saw in The Washington Post that was of interest to me, picking up on Senator Biden's point. "Bush's Optimism On Iraq Debated. This disconnect between Roses Garden optimism and Baghdad pessimism, according to government officials and independent analysts, stems not only from Bush's focus on tentative signs of long-term progress but also from the shrinking range of policy options available to him if he is wrong. ... Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) ...said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others are misleading Americans about the number of functional Iraqi troops and warned the president to pay more attention to shutting off Syrian and Iranian assistant to the insurgency. `We don't want to raise the expectations of the American people prematurely,' he said."
RUSSERT: Let me show you both another article. "Insurgents Flourish in Iraq's Wild West. U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad agree that Al Anbar province -- the vast desert badlands stretching west from the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi to the lawless region abutting the Syrian border --remains the epicenter of the country's deadly insurgency. Yet U.S. troops and military officials in the embattled province said in recent interviews that they have neither enough combat power nor enough Iraqi military support to mount an effective counterinsurgency against an increasingly sophisticated enemy. ...`Basically, we've got all the toys, but not enough boys' . . . said Maj. Mark Lister, a senior Marine air officer in Al Anbar province. ... `[Commanders] can't use the word, but we're withdrawing,' said one U.S. military official in Al Anbar province ... `Slowly, that's what we're doing.' ... Some Pentagon officials and experts in counterinsurgency warfare say the troop shortage has hamstrung the U.S. military's ability to effectively fight Iraqi insurgents. ...[a] counterinsurgency expert at the Pentagon ... said he expected it would take years to finish the job. `If we can win this thing in six years, we're setting new land speed records,' he said."
RUSSERT: Let me ask you both about a growing problem, and that is, how do we keep the number of troops in Iraq on the ground at that level? "After Lowering Goal, Army Fell Short on May Recruits. Even after reducing its recruiting target for May, the Army missed it by 25 percent. ...The shortfall would have been even bigger had the Army stuck to its original goal for the month. ... Just over 5,000 new recruits entered the boot camps in May. ... Last month, the Army...lowered its long-stated May goal to 6,700, down from 8,050. Compared with the original target, the Army achieved only 62.6 percent of its goal for the month, [a shortfall of 40 percent]."
RUSSERT: But, Congressman Weldon, you have a new book, "Countdown to Terror: The Top- Secret Information That Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America and How the CIA Has Ignored It." You write on page one, "This book is an act of desperation. I bring it before you, the reader, because I could not get our intelligence community to act on it, though my source has proven his credibility, and though the information he provides predicts a major terrorist attack against the United States."
Now, the CIA and former members of it are hopping mad about your allegations. This was from Thursday's New York Times: "Mr. Weldon's allegations have infuriated CIA officials, including a veteran case officer who said he had met with the congressman's source four times in Paris. `He's never given us any information that was the slightest bit credible,' said Bill Murray, the CIA station chief in Paris when he met Mr. Weldon's source, an elderly Iranian who once served in the government of the shah of Iran. `This guy was a waste of my time and resources.'"
RUSSERT: You talk about--and here we get to The New York Times on Thursday: "Mr. Weldon's strongest argument is Ali's report from May 17, 2003, that Iran planned to hijack an airplane in Canada and strike a nuclear reactor in the United States whose name began `Sea.' Mr. Weldon said the plant was later identified as Seabrook Station in New Hampshire. He contended that the August 2003 arrest of 19 Muslim men in Toronto on vague suspicions of terrorism proved the prediction was correct. The congressman said the arrests might have prevented the deaths of `hundreds of thousands' of Americans. But Canadian officials later dropped all security-related charges against the men, leaving only routine immigration charges. And Alan Griffith, a spokesman for the Seabrook nuclear plant, said the alleged plot `was never deemed a credible threat' by federal officials."
RUSSERT: The American Prospect, a liberal magazine, has been reading your book and analyzing it and talking to people. "The Prospect has learned that the true identity of `Ali' is Fereidoun Mahdavi, formerly the shah's minister of commerce and, more importantly, the close friend and business partner of Ghorbanifar, legendary arms dealer, infamous intelligence fabricator, and central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal that almost brought down the Reagan administration. It was `Gorba,' as he was known back then to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the rouge National Security Council officer, who lured the Reagan administration into secretly selling U.S. missiles to the Islamic regime in exchange for the release of Western hostages. ... `Mahdavi says that he has this network in Iran that he gets information from,' says Akbar Etemad [a former minister in the shah's government.] `Each time, he says his information will come true in two months' time. But all that information is fake. Ghorbanifar and Mahdavi work very closely together. Ghorbanifar is unreliable. In that sense, he might be dangerous. The CIA shares that harsh assessment of Ghorbanifar. If the intelligence had any clue to Mahdavi's association with Ghorbanifar, it is scarcely surprising that its officials rebuffed Weldon's overtures on behalf of `Ali.' Many years ago, the CIA issued an unusual `burn notice' on Ghorbanifar, instructing its personnel not to deal with him and warning that he was known to spread false information to advance his own interests."
RUSSERT: One more point on the book. "`Many information that I have given to Weldon is coming from Ghorbanifar,' said [Fereidoun] Mahdavi, who was reached in Paris by telephone on June 6. `Because Ghorbanifar used me, in fact, to pass that stuff because I know he has problems in Washington.' ... `Someone is using me for their purpose,' he raged. `How is it possible that something like that book comes out and the people who publish it don't inform me?'"
RUSSERT: Hillary Clinton Monday in New York at a fund-raiser had this to say: "There has never been an administration, I don't believe, in our history more intent upon consolidating and abusing power to further their own agenda. I know it's frustrating for many of you. It's frustrating for me. Why can't the Democrats do more to stop them? ... I can tell you this: It's very hard to stop people who have no shame about what they're doing. It is very hard to tell people they are making decisions that will undermine our checks and balances and constitutional system of government who don't care. It is very hard to stop people who have never been acquainted with the truth."
RUSSERT: Here's one thing she did say about the press corps...: "Abetting the Republicans, [Senator Clinton] said in some of her sharpest language, is a Washington press corps that has become a pale imitation of the Watergate-era reporters who are being celebrated this month" among "the identification of the anonymous Washington Post source, Deep Throat. `The press is missing in action, with all due respect. Where are the investigative reporters today? Why aren't they asking the hard questions? It's shocking when you see how easily they fold in the media today. They don't stand their ground. If they're criticized by the White House, they just fall apart. I mean, come on, toughen up, guys, it's only our Constitution and country at stake. Let's get some spine.'"
RUSSERT: Here was Dean on Monday: "You know the Republicans are not very friendly to different kinds of people. They're a pretty monolithic party. Pretty much, they all behave the same, and they all look the same. ...It's pretty much a white Christian party."
RUSSERT: And yet someone like Harold Ford, congressman from Tennessee, wants to run for the Senate, told "Imus in the Morning," "I won't have him down so many times in Tennessee on the campaign trail with me. He has made some comments as of late that really speak to a lack of understanding I think, of the country, a lack of understanding of faith and values. I'm a Democrat and I'm a God-fearing one. I grew up in church. Christianity is not reserved for white males. I think perhaps Governor Dean sometimes gets a little excited at the mouth, and says things that are simply not true. It may reach a point where if he can't find a way to kind of control some of his comments, and temper his comments, it may get to the point where the party may need to look elsewhere for leadership..."