07/17/2006 05:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Russert Watch: Biden, Newt, Novak and World War III

Hi and welcome to Russert Watch, a day late again this week with our abject apologies. Unfortunately my time for "Meet The Press" has been somewhat compromised by something far tastier: Eat The Press, HuffPo's new/month-old media page which I write and edit, and which has sadly left me with far less time for slavish devotion to Tim Russert's giant head. Fortunately there's been no shortage of coverage of yesterday's show, featuring a tag-team of MTP favorites Newt Gingrich and Joe Biden plus Robert Novak explaining the circumstances surrounding his publication of Valerie Plame's name and sounding kinda slippery in the process. At this point it's late for a full-throttle round-up but since this column is called "Russert Watch" I wanted to make a few comments on how the show itself was structured and how Russert himself performed.

On the whole, this was some great MTP action. Where last week's episode seemed to have been phoned in (complete with who's-gonna-watch-it-anyway scheduling change and who-are-these-guys-again lineup), this week we had Biden and Gingrich - two knowledgeable and spirited speakers, in more than just a faceoff on policy but in a real, get-down-to-it discussion of the current crisis, the policies that led to it and the years of history leading up to it. True, Novak gave the rundown of his PlameGate adventures in his column last week, but he let loose a few gems this time around, under some fairly able questioning from Russert. Here are some thoughts/highlights
  • Starting the program with a news bulletin was genius. Immediately engaging, immediately imparting new information: Richard Engel in Beirut: "Everyone here says it depends on the United States and Syria — the U.S. to pressure Israel, Syria to call off Hezbollah" and news that the U.S. Embassy, representing an expat population of 25,000, was being flooded with calls "about six or seven a minute" plus Martin Fletcher in Haifa: "[D]on't forget that when Israel left--ended their occupation of south Lebanon in the year 2000, the deal was that the Lebanese Army would go in and police the border. Well, they never did that. Instead, Hezbollah moved in with all those rockets, and ever since then, about--for that last five years, Israel's been planning what to do, how to fight Hezbollah, how to destroy them. So this is, this is not a quick reaction to a kidnapping, it's the implementation of a plan Israel's been working on for five years with very specific targets." Just with these two reports we have a lot to chew on over the segment. Dense with info and not spin - it's a refreshing change.

  • The two-person opening segment is just so much more effective than the staid one-on-one format. No stilted let's-just-get-through-my-questions feeling, no video "gotcha!" callbacks, and a far more dynamic feel as Biden and Gingrich reacted to the comments of the other. It even woke Russert up - he followed through on the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah/Hamas alliance point that Gingrich brought up ("What do you mean do something about Syria and Iran?" Hey, it's a start). More importantly, having a Democrat and a Republican forces Russert to be more balanced in his questioning and give both sides equal access to the floor, allowing for the possibility of - dare I say? - agreement between the sides.

  • The discussion, for the most part, was refreshingly non-partisan. Yes, Newt is a bit of a warmonger ("When in doubt, I want the United States to be very strong and I want us to be very clear with dictatorships") and let's hope he's exaggerating with his darkly intoning observation that we're on the cusp of World War Three (though there are a hell of a lot of countries in play now: Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, North Korea, and let's not forget Afghanistan - and why not throw in Venezuela just for kicks, as Gingrich did). More importantly, he and Biden were in agreement on the important stuff: the Bush administration's policies in the middle east are ineffectual, and in recognizing that hostilities between Israel and its neighbors are hardly the product of the past six days (Gingrich: "This is the 58th year of the effort by those who want to destroy Israel. As Ahmadinejad, the head of Iran, says, he wants to defeat the Americans and eliminate Israel from the face of the earth. So we should not see this event in isolation"). Both Gingrich and Biden emphasize the point made by Fletcher above, that Lebanon sat by and let Hezbollah amass rocket after rocket on the border pointing straight at Israel, and in grouping Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas into an alliance (even though Biden disagreed on the WWIII point). The point is, it was a real discussion, and no one said "cut and run" once.

  • While Gingrich was all about following up tough talk with tougher action, Biden recognized the uncomfortable reality of the current situation: "Does anybody think we're stronger now because we, in fact, have been essentially going it alone around the world? Does anybody think we can wage a war now against Syria, against Iran, against Korea, and while we're still bogged down in Iraq? We've got to get real here." Which is why Gingrich's trumpet calls to action are a mite scary; Biden's scenario clearly calls for diplomacy. It shouldn't be tough; everyone should want the same things, right? I.e. their infrastructure not bombed, their civilians not killed. Skilled diplomacy - not cowboy diplomacy - is what allows all players to leave the table and go forth to their people feeling like they've saved face. Tough challenges invite defiance, and defiance is very scary when attached to warheads and rockets and enriched plutonium.

  • Another good reason to have two people in on this discussion: If Biden hadn't been there, Gingrich's alarmism would have escalated unabated. His doomsday conjecture vis a vis North Korea's capabilities — "Can we risk losing San Francisco or Seattle?" — were well-tempered by Biden's scoffing that there was no bloody way NK would have that kind of capability for years ("The North Korean government's like an eighth-grader with a small bomb looking for attention. My worry about them is not that they're going to be able to hit Seattle; they're not even close, not even remotely close to being able to do that. What I'm worried about is that this totally isolated regime with a guy who doesn't seem to understand anything, is going to do something very, very stupid that ends up in a shooting war in the Korean peninsula where they have 30,000 pieces of artillery--or, 10,000 pieces of artillery that can take out a significant chunk of South Korea.")

  • Finally, there were some nice shots taken at the administration — but the surprising one was from Gingrich:

    GINGRICH: We're sending signals today that no matter how much you provoke us, no matter how viciously you describe things in public, no matter how many things you're doing with missiles and nuclear weapons, the most you'll get out of us is talk.
    RUSSERT: You're talking about the Bush administration.
    GINGRICH: I'm talking about the policies of the United States today.
    RUSSERT: But that is such a condemnation of George W. Bush.
    GINGRICH: Well, it's not a condemnation of George W. Bush. It's a statement that--look what we've done in the last six weeks. I mean, I think we are in a very serious crisis in this country.

    (Note: Seattle Times political columnist David Postman has some interesting background on Gingrich's less-than-usual partisanship).

  • Robert Novak: There was a subtext here that Plame-watchers would have recognized: Russert grilling Novak, yet never declaring his own role in Plamegate. To anyone who knows about the Libby-Russert connection (Libby said that Russert of all people clued him in to Plame's identity; Russert said he didn't know until he read about it after the leak), it's totally disingenuous for Russert to say things like "We were subpoenaed at NBC. We fought the subpoenas," especially when he's never really been transparent about it with his viewers.

  • This from Novak caught me off guard: "I don't think I outed her. I think she was outed by Aldridge Ames before. I don't think she was a, a covert operative." What? There is definitely stuff on this out there in cyberspace, but it is certainly not mainstream. That kind of claim requires a bit more authenticating, and Russert should have jumped on it.

  • Novak is fuzzy on a few facts, and Russert catches him on two "misstatements" - Novak originally said he'd been told Plame's name, but in his most recent version claims to have sleuthed it out via "Who's Who." Russert catches him sticking to that story on two fronts: once on "Meet The Press" and then another more brow-raising inconsistency in Newsday:

    RUSSERT: Now, Newsday interviewed you a few weeks after your column ran, back in 2003, and quotes you as saying this, "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me. They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."
    NOVAK: That was a misstatement on my part. I--I'm--I've found I'm much better--I hope I'm not screwing up on this interview because I'm much better interviewing than I am giving interviews. They didn't give me the name. And of course it was not a "they," it was one person, which I later checked out with Mr. Rove. They, they--the Newsday article also paraphrased me as saying they came to me, I never said they came to me, because obviously I initiated the interview.
    RUSSERT: Newsday stands by that story.

  • Robert Novak is a reporting columnist, not a thumbsucking columnist, dammit. Take that, Frank Rich.
  • We still have no idea who Novak's Primary Source is, though Tim Russert's really pushing for Richard Armitage.

    That's it for "Meet The Press" this week - apologies again for the lateness but please fill in the blanks in the comments section and definitely check out "Eat The Press" when you get a moment - feedback welcome at In the meantime, next week we will return at our regular bat-time to bring you the highs, lows, and spine-tingling in-betweens of "Meet The Press" because if it's Sunday — and sometimes Monday — it's Russert Watch. In the meantime, please no one let Newt Gingrich near the nuclear codes.