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Russert Watch: To Watch or Not To Watch


Tim has finally done it -- the King of Conventional Wisdom, the Baron of Borderline-Hysterical Banality came out like a pit bull today and demanded accountability. The only problem is whom he demanded accountability from.

At the risk of giving Tim too much credit, inspiration for today's show must have come from Hamlet, or rather from Tom Stoppard's play in which the bit players Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end up taking the blame (in the form of execution) for a crime they didn't commit and for the purpose of taking the heat off one of the main players.

Basically it breaks down like this. If you're a local official with very little power or resources, you're on notice: Tim is comin' after you. If you actually do have power, if you are, say, the President, the Vice President, or a columnist with a tremendous amount of influence -- like roundtable participant Tom Friedman, for instance -- i.e., a person who might be sharing a D.C Martini (two parts gin, one part vermouth, four parts received wisdom) with Tim, no need to worry: Tim's got your backside.

Playing the part of Rosencrantz today was the President. Not the President of the United States, of course, but the President of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Aaron Broussard.

In Tim's interview with Broussard, we saw a classic illustration of the Russert M.O.: the obsessive focus on small, meaningless detail in an effort to distract attention from much larger and actually meaningful points. It's such a Tim staple, I'd be surprised if he hasn't patented it.

You may remember Broussard from his appearance on MTP three weeks ago, in which he emotionally illustrated the disastrous incompetence of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina with the story of the 92-year-old mother of one of his staffers who died before help arrived.

Russert replayed the clip. And leaving aside the fact that it was clear from Broussard's reaction that he hadn't been told the clip was going to be played, the only point of replaying it was because Russert had found some discrepancies in the timeline of the woman's death. And this was worth a third of Meet the Press? More time than dozens of discrepancies from people at the top with the power to actually make life-and-death decisions?

Act Two featured no less than three columnists from the New York Times. If you've balked at subscribing to Times Select, here was your chance to get a little for free.

In this segment were Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, and Tom Friedman (see the video here at Crooks and Liars). Friedman is, of course, the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. As such, he's in a hugely powerful position to influence foreign policy. Which he did, by giving Bush and Cheney intellectual cover for a disastrous war.

Friedman has had almost as many rationales for the war as the administration, but his distinguishing characteristic is his sunny optimism that things are gonna be just fine over there. Whether this is attributable to what occasional Huffpo blogger David Rees calls Friedman's "Mustache of Understanding" or just simple intellectual confusion, it's hard to say.

In any case, if Tom feared Tim might pull up a few of his past columns about Iraq that have turned out to be embarrassingly wrong, well, Tom needn't have worried. Here are some statements that Russert could have brought up and some questions he could have asked, but didn't:

"This is no time to give up -- this is still winnable." (New York Times, 6/15/05)

How is "no time to give up" different from Bush's "stay the course"?

"One senses, though, that liberals so detest Mr. Bush that they refuse to acknowledge the simple good that has come from ending Saddam's tyranny -- good for Iraqis and good for America, because it will inhibit other terrorist-supporting regimes. Have no doubt about that." (New York Times, 5/4/03)

Do you still "have no doubt" that the war "will inhibit other terrorist-supporting regimes"? Do you really believe Syria and Iran are chastened because they believe Bush has the resources and support to whip up another 150,000 to 300,000 troops, and another $200 billion, and do this all over again?

"It was still the right war and still has a decent chance to produce a decent outcome." (Slate, 1/12/04)

How has the chance for a "decent outcome" weathered the past 20 months?

"The real reason for this war—which was never stated—was to burst what I would call the 'terrorism bubble,' which had built up during the 1990s." (Slate, 1/12/04)

Did we burst the "terrorism bubble"?

"Maybe it is too late, but before we give up on Iraq, why not actually try to do it right? Double the American boots on the ground..." (New York Times, 6/15/05)

Do you still think we should "double the American boots on the ground" and send another 140,000 troops to Iraq?

But there were no challenging questions. Just Friedman, again and again, driving the discussion into cul-de-sacs of cute little phrases ("drive-by politics") and cute little theories like this: “Well, I believe 9/11 truly distorted our politics, Tim, and it gave the president and his advisers an opening to take a far hard right agenda, I believe, on taxes and other social issues."

The opening 9/11 gave the president, above all else -- as Friedman surely knows -- was to invade Iraq. Bush was always going to be Bush on taxes and social issues. Tax cuts for the wealthy didn't require 9/11. Expensive, calamitous wars of choice did.

But because it's now impossible to make a case for the war -- even with the Mustache of Understanding -- Friedman kept pivoting to domestic issues, where he hasn't soiled himself.

Both Tim and Tom want to rewrite history so that everybody was wrong on the war. First, Tim: "George W. Bush said there were [weapons of mass destruction]. Bill and Hillary Clinton said there were. The Russians, French and Germans, who opposed the war, said there were. Hans Blix of the U.N. said there were."

So according to Tim, there was unanimity of opinion on WMD. As if nobody had spoken out with doubts and questions. As if no intelligence was cherry-picked and sexed up.

But here is Tom topping Tim: "Well, I think there was a huge amount of projection after 9/11. We really wanted to believe, you know, that the president knew what was going on ... [Katrina] has really ripped the curtain away and we see the guy back there behind the curtain like in "The Wizard of Oz," and I think there's a lot of people now stepping back and saying, "Oh, my God. Maybe he doesn't know what's going on."

Maybe? MAYBE? What level of failure would it take for Tom to move from "maybe" to "probably"? Not to mention "certainly"?

And, second, no, Tom, the curtain on the Iraq failure wasn't ripped away by Katrina. The country came to the conclusion that you seem to be fighting off with all your might before Katrina, with 57 percent of respondents saying the war wasn't worth it back in May.

But Friedman was still speaking in the future tense about the possibility of a "fiasco" in Iraq. We're two and a half years into this war. At what point will Friedman jump to the present tense and declare it a "fiasco" now? Enough time has elapsed. Enough data are in. And the American people have started drawing some conclusions, even if Tom Friedman hasn't.