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Russert Watch: Meet the Republicans

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Today on Meet the Press it was Meet the Republicans, as Russert's well-rounded lineup included Republican Senator John Warner, Republican Congressman Peter King and Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Perhaps the phone lines are down on the other side of the political divide.

But I have to admit, it's not unenjoyable watching Republicans disagree, as their party continues to implode while being led by a lamer-by-the-day-duck President.

Unfortunately, the only thing Warner and King -- featured together in the first segment -- disagreed on was the Dubai port issue. On the major story of the week -- Iraq on the brink of civil war -- they were in total Roveian sync: Iraq, despite having hit a few speed bumps this week, is doing just fine and dandy.

It was not only the partisan imbalance that was troubling. It was the fact that after such an extraordinary week in Iraq, we were in greater need than usual of a guest -- or two -- who actually knew something about Iraq and was able to talk about it in something other than RNC cliches. Isn't it this contempt for real knowledge and expertise that got us into this mess in the first place?

So how bad does the situation have to get in Iraq before Tim has someone on who will acknowledge the truth of what's going on over there?

In the first segment, the only civil war Tim's guests seemed concerned with was the one within the Republican Party. The "debate" featured Warner as Chief White House Water-Carrier, and King comically trying to, on the one hand, express opposition to the White House on the deal because he has to politically, and, on the other hand, remind Bush how much he's still in the club. But King is finding out the hard way what happens when you question Bush -- he turns around and questions not your facts but your motives.

KING: When the president suggests that people are questioning this because it's an Arab nation or because it's a Muslim nation... that was wrong. And nobody has more regard for President Bush. I've supported him down the line, but on this issue it's really wrong. And I thought it was inappropriate to say that a person like myself -- who lost over 150 friends, neighbors and constituents on September 11 -- is questioning the United Arab Emirates because of its past record, and instead implying that I'm doing it because they're Arabs and Muslims. That's wrong. There are real issues here, and the White House should realize it...

It's not so much fun to have your motives questioned, Mr. King, is it? Where were you when the same was happening to Max Cleland, or Jack Murtha?

And then there was Warner parading his concern for our standing in the Arab world without ever once being questioned by Russert about a few other incidents that have done a lot more damage to our standing in the Arab world than the cancellation of the UAE port deal would: Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, or today's story that the US is expanding a prison in Afghanistan to slowly take the place of Guantanamo -- a prison that holds prisoners in "more primitive conditions, indefinitely and without charges." But, in fairness to Russert, that story was hidden on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold.

Since Tim was apparently unable to reach any Democrats to be on the show, he decided to channel them: "I -- gentlemen, the Democrats have -- are saying very loudly that they have tried repeatedly to put more money into port security."

King's non-answer isn't even worth going into, but it's notable that Tim's channeling skills were put to use only on the port issue, and not the war, where the lameness of his booking choices became even starker.

Instead of hearing from someone who could actually elucidate what's going on in Iraq, we got this:

WARNER: I believe that there is not at this time the civil war that one would envision that meets the traditional definitions.

Thanks, Senator. That kind of expert insight from the head of the Armed Services Committee will no doubt be major comfort for the parents of soldiers in Iraq.

But it got worse:

WARNER: We have trained 200-some odd thousand of these forces today. There's a hundred battalions of Iraqi military. Over 50 of those battalions are able to take the lead in a fight with minimal U.S. support. So there's in place today, I think, sufficient military under the control of the Iraqis with certain limited support from us.

You might think that Tim immediately countered with yesterday's news that the number of Iraqi battalions that are fully capable of operating without the Americans has gone from one to zero. But of course he didn't. Instead he went into a prepared question for King. Indeed, if Tim knew anything about this fairly major story, he kept it carefully hidden.

And just how pathetic was King, desperately trying to get back into the good graces of the White House after sticking his toe off the reservation on the port issue? Pathetic enough to still be making the claim that Saddam is somehow, someway, linked to 9/11 -- a claim even Shoot-Em-Up Cheney is too embarrassed to still make.

We may have learned exactly nothing about the war on today's show, but one thing came through: we are making great progress in shifting blame for the approaching civil war to the Iraqi government. "You've got to get your act together," was Warner's admonition to them.

So the sage and wise senator surveys the situation in Iraq, and comes to the conclusion that the reason for this mess is that the Iraqi government hasn't gotten its act together and is acting instead as if they have "an open ticket to sit there and dither around."

Oh, and I almost forgot. Congressman King also got a chance to show off his own foreign-policy credentials: "The Iraqi people may realize it's time now to not go to a civil war but instead form a government."

Hear that, Iraqis? You need to stop making civil war. And also you guys in Darfur, Ivory Coast, and Georgia stop killing each other, too.

Another home-run segment on the war, Tim!

But that was only half the show. The best was yet to come: a thirty-minute campaign commercial for Arnold Schwarzenegger (against whom, let me remind you, in the interest of full disclosure, I ran in 2003). Thirty minutes of airtime that had absolutely no journalistic purpose whatsoever -- just Tim kicking back with his good buddy Arnold.

Indeed, the segment gave me an idea: Why doesn't Tim just do a spin-off show and maybe call it, "Meet My Friends, Cronies, and Business Associates." Then he could have on all his friends, like Arnold, and people his son is in business with, like James Carville. And then Tim would be relieved of even having to go through the pretense of "hard-hitting journalism." They could talk sports, yuck it up and tell old drinking stories.

Before we get into substance -- actually this is no less substantive than the interview -- I must ask: what's with the hair? On both of them. Arnold's appears to be turning a strange shade of orange, as if he's perhaps acquired not just the charming flirting techniques but the actual hair of Strom Thurmond. And Tim's just seems to be getting darker. Or perhaps it's just my mood as I watch the show every week. Fair warning: Russert Watch will be tracking these important developments in the future.

How useless was the actual interview? Here was the first question:

RUSSERT: Let me take a few minutes and talk about some of the issues the congressman and the senator were talking about. Ports. Do you believe that this deal should go forward to allow the United Arab Emirates company control six American ports, operate them?

SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, first of all, Tim, let me just say that California is not affected by that, which is good.

Great use of airtime. In fairness, Arnold did go on to say how "wise" Bush was in delaying the decision. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. That Bush will no longer make good decisions has become the given, so now he gets credit for at least delaying his bad decisions.

The next part of Arnold's answer, however, can't be summarized (or even logically parsed) and needs to be enjoyed in its entirety:

SCHWARZENEGGER: And it's a very complex issue, because, you know, we have the globalization, we want to do trades with everyone all over the world, but at the same time, globalization crosses with terrorism now, and there's that whole fear. And then we have villainized the Arab world also so much that now Arab country -- or company taking over our ports and maybe have some influence in our security, it freaks everyone out, and rightfully so.

Okay. Sure. Moving on.

How about the war?

RUSSERT: Do you think the Iraq war was a mistake?

SCHWARZENEGGER: No, I think it's always easy in hindsight to go and say maybe if we wouldn't have gone in, we wouldn't have had all this hassle.

All this "hassle"? I know English is Arnold's and my second language, but can't we come up with a better word than "hassle" to describe the carnage going on in Iraq?

The rest of the segment was basically Arnold trotting out his campaign catchphrases. In keeping with the journalism charade, Tim kicked this part off with a tough-sounding question: "But if war is an issue in this year, 2006, you're up for re-election in November. Are you concerned you could get swept up in an anti-Republican tide?"

Yes, Democrats are polling ahead of Republicans right now. But in the last Survey USA poll, only two governors polled lower than Arnold, whose approval rating is at 32 percent. Which might lead one -- not Tim, of course -- to conclude that the reason Arnold is tanking is not a general "anti- Republican tide," but the lousy job he's done for California.

Then came Arnold's barrage of campaign bromides:

My job is how do I do the best job for the people of California

I am going to do everything possible to go and do everything I can in order to make the state of California better

Californians are much better off today than we were four years ago

We're doing all kinds of wonderful things

It's the greatest job I've ever had

I was elected by the people of California to fix the broken system

You can't put me in a box because I'm just there trying to do what is best for California

I think California is doing great

I am as determined to fix California

I made it very clear that we have to recover, reform and rebuild

There's all kinds of wonderful things that are happening

I think that we did an incredible job for the state

I enjoy fixing California

I have very strong principles

We are investing in the future

We are now economically strong enough to build and rebuild California

I think that we have a great state, we have the greatest state in the nation, there's without any doubt

I continue on with my mission, Tim, which is to rebuild California, reform California

It's the greatest job I've ever had

Got the picture?

And when Tim brought up a quote from the past, Arnold clearly knew that he could say whatever he wanted without Tim challenging him with the facts.

RUSSERT: You said when you ran at first, "I don't need to take money from anybody." But you're going to be raising thousands and thousands of thousand dollars from people who do business and have contracts with the state government.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I want to correct you. I said I would never take money from unions, that I would never take money from Indian gaming tribes. I take money because you need to take money.

In fact, what Arnold had said is exactly what Tim said he had said: "As you know, I don't need to take any money from anybody. I have plenty of money myself."

But God knows, holding a friend accountable is not what good friends are for. And Tim and Arnold and Maria are good friends indeed. (Check out a charming anecdote about dinner with Shriver, Russert and Big Russ at Spago.)

It's great for Russert and Shriver to have a close friendship that includes dinners at Spago with Big Russ. But it's quite unacceptable to extend the perks of friendship to half of Meet the Press on one of the most significant news weeks in American politics.

Last time Arnold was on Meet the Press, he was quite effusive, reminding Tim how long he's known him, telling him he loves him, and praising his physique: "I mean, look at your deltoids and your six-pack. It's amazing, so congratulations on that."

This is apparently some kind of theme between the two of them. This is from today's show:

SCHWARZENEGGER: By the way, you look nice and trim. Your abs look good. Keep up the good work.

In the words of a character from a certain Oscar-nominated film, Tim and Arnold don't know how to quit each other.

If there's one thing that can distract from the travesty of journalism Meet the Press was today, it's being forced to think about Tim's abs. I wish I knew how to quit that image.