Welcome to the latest installment of RussertWatch. This week "Meet the Press" viewers were afforded ringside seats to a short, but punchy, face off between Senators Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch over the U.S. attorney firings and the subsequent controversy surrounding the Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. After which, the show switched gears entirely and moved into a half-hour, candid, somewhat Oprah-like heart-to-heart with New York congressman (and recent author) Charles Rangel. A transcript can be found here, (but don't get your hopes up folks, there was no mention of the thirteen British soldiers currently being held captive by Iran).
After a long hard Thursday spent searching for a Republican who would be willing to appear on the show to defend the Attorney General, Russert was finally able to rustle up Senator Orrin Hatch to stand in as cheerleader for the beleaguered and increasingly suspect, Gonzales. And cheer he did — Senator Hatch was so unwavering in his support of the attorney general, that at one point Patrick Leahy paused to comment that "it's almost like he's aware of the fact that today's April 1st."
For the most part there was not a great deal of discussion between the two Senators, beyond some intermittent sparring followed by words of affection; the segment involved little more than Russert going over, in somewhat specific detail, the finer points of the investigation whilst both Leahy and Hatch kept to their talking points, which can be basically summed up thus:
Leahy: I don't want any more of these closed door meetings, closed door briefings. I want it under oath, before the public. Let both Republican and Democratic senators ask the questions, let the truth come out.
Hatch: "My experience with General Gonzales is that he is a very honest man...This was not well-handled. I think anybody with brains would, would admit that, and they are admitting that. And the Justice Department is admitting it, and the White House pretty well has admitted it."
Leahy also made it quite clear that the Judiciary committee would not consider moving up Gonzales' testimony date from its April 17 appointment.:
"In fact, we got a call yesterday afternoon saying, "Could we come earlier." You know, we had offered a much earlier date to the attorney general, and they flatly turned it down. We offered a number of dates. They flatly turned them down, and they picked the date of April 17th. As a result, we went ahead and did our--planned our other hearings. Of course, the Sampson hearing, we're doing. We're, in effect, interrogating a number of people leading up to it. The 17th is now the time. Everybody has set their schedule according to that. It's the date that the attorney general originally picked. It's the date the hearing will take place."
Gonzo, you had your chance. Also, a move, one imagines, that only leaves the AG more time to twist in whatever further revelations there are to come (and at the rate they are coming it is no surprise Gonzales has requested an earlier court date), but will also most likely insure that MTP line-ups leading up to the 17th will probably be minor variations on Sunday's theme.
The frenemy-like senators were followed by Harlem congressman Charles Rangel, who was ostensibly peddling his new book "And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since" but whose direct responses were an early, spring-like, breath of fresh air. Russert took the back seat and let Rangel drive the show out of its earlier bipartisan bickering and onto a straight-talk express that a few presidential nominees might take some lessons from.
RUSSERT: The House voted for funding for the war with a date certain, March of '08, to begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops. But in that bill was $20 billion of so-called pork, money for cricket infestation, tours of the Capitol, security at the National Convention, peanut crops. Why would the Democrats put that kind of money in such a serious bill?
RANGEL: Because they needed the votes.
MR. RUSSERT: If you want to stop the war, why not just simply cut all the funding off?
RANGEL: Because you don't have the votes to do it.
(Can anyone imagine Hillary being so succinct?)
Rangel's straight talk didn't end there. On the way to recounting his own military service in Korea and how a near death experience there changed his life (also where the title of his book has its origins), he reiterated his support for mandatory national service and then, after some talk about taxes (the intricacies of which, we will admit, are a little beyond us) he gave an interesting, surprisingly down to earth take on the democratic presidential nominees.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to presidential politics. You encouraged Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, to run for president. Why?
REP. RANGEL: Because he was a young, attractive minority candidate that had so much wind under his wings that I told him if he didn't run, he'd spend the rest of his life regretting it. I don't think that he will be there for the final rounds, but he's a young candidate, and he's got a bright future in the Senate, and he gets another chance at it in eight years.
MR. RUSSERT: You're supporting Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. Why?
REP. RANGEL: Well, first of all, she's an exciting, qualified candidate with eight years experience in the White House, she's my junior senator from New York, and she's our favorite daughter. And, and quite frankly, I don't think anyone comes near to her qualifications to be a great president.
MR. RUSSERT: You don't think Senator Obama is as qualified as Hillary Clinton?
REP. RANGEL: You don't mean qualified, of course not. But he's exciting, and he's catching on in terms of popularity. But in terms of qualification and background, I don't think anyone says that he has it now. But it doesn't mean that bright people can't acquire the talents that're necessary. But at this point in time, I think it's fair to say he's eloquent, he's bright, and not as qualified as Hillary Clinton.
If it's April Fool's it must be straight talk on "Meet the Press."