02/05/2006 08:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Russert Watch: Let the Games Continue

This is the first-ever Russert Watch/Super Bowl Sunday extravaganza. And Meet the Press and the Super Bowl share a common bond: it's all about the game.

A perfect example of this was the segment with today's lead guest, new House majority leader John Boehner. Here is a broad sketch of the pre-game analysis: Are the Republicans -- now awash in scandal -- going to make wholesale reforms and change the culture of Washington, or will they put on a few meaningless Band-Aids and continue wringing the system dry for as long as they can?

Of course, if you knew anything about John Boehner, you'd already know the answer. Indeed, calling Boehner the reform choice for majority leader -- as many in the media have been calling him -- is like calling Jeffrey Skilling a reform CEO just because the other guy was Ken Lay.

All Boehner's reforms are about changing a few rules within the game -- the equivalent of changing the penalty for a personal foul from 15 yards to 20 yards. There was nothing on the show about the need to change the game. Indeed, there wasn't even the slightest question about the fundamental premises of the game.

Welcome to Meet the Press.

But we did get a gem from Boehner. When asked why he had to go to plush resorts to have meetings with industry executives, Boehner replied: "These industry meetings occur in nice places. And -- and that's where the -- that's where the events are, that's where the speeches are. And if you get invited, you got to decide whether you can go or not go, or whether it's worthwhile."

As Willie Sutton said -- or others said he said -- when asked why he robbed banks: that's where the money is.

And here are some of Boehner's "reform" ideas: "pre-approval of these trips," not by an independent board, mind you, but by the same ethics committee he's already been checking with before going on these trips.

So the answer is crystal clear: no real change, just, as he put it, bringing "more transparency to this relationship between those who lobby us and members, more transparency with what members are doing on trips, I think let the public decide." So the public can decide -- or at least those willing to dig five levels deep on various government and election websites for the post-facto evidence of this "transparency."

Tim also asked about the budget just approved by the House that cut $12.7 billion from student-loan programs. Here are some facts Tim failed to mention:

  • The private student-loan industry has given Boehner's PAC $220,020, with a quarter of that coming from Sallie Mae officers.
  • In the 2003-2004 election cycle alone, nearly 40 percent of the total contributions made by the student-loan industry were from Sallie Mae to Boehner and his PAC, totaling around $100,000.
  • Boehner is a big fan of Sallie Mae's corporate jet (who isn't?), and likes to go to golf outings in Florida with Sallie Mae's board chairman, Albert L. Lord. (It's just easier to "learn about" this industry with a three wood in your hand.)
  • Boehner's daughter, Tricia, is employed by the General Revenue Corporation, which is owned by... Sallie Mae.

And then Russert might have juxtaposed those facts with various other facts from Boehner's career, including the fact that "Boehner has sponsored legislation strongly supported by private student lenders to restrict the ability of the U.S. Department of Education to make government student loans less expensive by cutting fees."

It was laughably clear from the interview that all those who consider Boehner a reformer are completely and utterly out of their minds.

On the war, Boehner offered a novel theory of delayed gratification: "This is a long-term commitment," he said. "The effort here is meaningful... it may not benefit our generation, but for our kids and theirs, this may be the greatest gift that we give them." A few moments later, he repeated it: "it's our kids and grandkids who will be the big beneficiaries."

Just like that, the Republican majority leader gave up on us getting any benefits -- including, presumably, in terms of increased security -- for an entire generation. And Russert just let it go!

So what's going to be the next claim? "I know Iraq looks like a mess, but it's really going to be a great thing after humans evolve into something else." (Oops, I forgot, evolution's just a "theory" and doesn't really exist -- unlike the benefits of this war.)

Here is Russert's follow-up on this stunning concession from Boehner: "If the situation in Iraq in November of this year is like it is today, will Republicans pay a price at the polls?"

Ah, yes, the Republicans' standing in the polls. Is that what the game is all about, Tim?

A last note on Boehner: he certainly had his game face on today. He's known in Washington for being perpetually tanned, and today was no exception. Once it was clear that no real reforms would be discussed, the questions I really wanted Tim to ask were: "Do you use self-tanner, and, if so, is it Clarins? Or do you use a tanning bed? Or is your tan from a 'fact-finding trip' to Scottsdale? And do you start with a SPF 8 and work up, or just go with a flat SPF 4? And, finally, have you accepted any money from the tanning lobby ('Big Tan')?"

The second segment featured Arlen Specter on the NSA/FISA controversy. Here the game was to listen to Arlen promising to really get to the bottom of this, hold the president accountable, have real hearings, etc., etc. The rules of the game forbade Tim from mentioning what we all know about Arlen Specter. He talks a good game ("I'm pro-choice"), but in the end, he always toes the line ("I love you, Justice Alito"). With Specter, really challenging the administration, real follow-through, are always, well, a specter. Always looming, always in the air, but never there.

How else do you explain Specter answering Russert's question about whether he would be calling John Ashcroft and his deputy, James Comey, to answer questions at the hearings about why they opposed domestic wiretapping by saying "I'm considering it"? Considering it? Shouldn't those two have been the first to be called if any real investigation of what is going on was intended? Instead, the day before the hearings are due to begin, Specter is "considering" whether to call them at all.

I actually have to admit that I gave in to the specter of sleep during Specter's interview and was jolted awake only by the mention of Judy Miller's name. But then Specter went back to his "very serious" hearings, and I nodded off again.

The final segment was the roundtable, which was different from the first and second segments in that, instead of having politicians on to discuss politics like it's all a game, Tim has journalists on to discuss politics like it's all a game.

Today the journalists were Ron Brownstein from the LA Times and John Harwood from the Wall Street Journal. Here is the one notable exchange:

BROWNSTEIN: ...Democrats aren't winning any popularity contests either, but as the party in power, holding all the branches of government, Republicans clearly have the most to fear from that kind of tide.

RUSSERT: But Democrats get hopping mad if anyone suggests that this is anything more than a Republican scandal.

Hopping mad? Tim must have been referring to the kerfuffle between bloggers and Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, who called the Abramoff scandal "a bipartisan scandal." You see, the GOP wants the public to believe that the Abramoff scandal is bipartisan. But it simply isn't. To turn it into a bipartisan scandal, they've created the term "Abramoff-related money," a meaningless designation that, once internalized, can be used to make all distinctions about money and politics meaningless. If this is successful, the game continues. Because it's all meaningless.

But I remain optimistic. Facts may not matter to Russert and Boehner and all the rest on the cocktail/golf/nepotism gravy train, but they will one day matter to their kids and grandkids. Until then, let the games continue.