Russert Watch: The Other Side, Finally

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

Hello and welcome again to Russert Watch. I'm trying something new this week by posting a quick overview following the show followed by an addendum with more nuanced and specific analysis later in the day, which will draw on and incorporate the observations made by commenters. This experiment is made in honor of Tim Russert, who broke out of the box this week and had THREE segments on his show - which, I think, made it far more interesting and relevant and fast-paced and dynamic. This week's marquee interview was with Democratic Senator Joe Biden (DE), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and declared 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, followed by an equally marquee interview with Hans Blix of almost-but-not-quite U.N. weapons inspections fame, rounded out by a mini-roundtable with PBS' Gwen Ifill and CNBC's John Harwood. The transcript can be found here, and the netcast here.

Before I say anything about the show, however, I will say this: I was shocked by the opening montage. As Tim intoned about the anti-terror funds distribution, on the screen there was suddenly the sickeningly familiar footage of a smoking World Trade Center, and a plane flying into the South Tower. Pretty shocking Sunday morning imagery, especially as part of an opening montage. That will never not be a punch in the gut. It was a bold image to open with and frankly I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. Part of me still wants those images to be used with care, not with abandon. But as a Watcher of Russert and the "Meet The Press" team in general, it did strike me as a bold move, one which said "we have teeth and we're not afraid to face things head on." I'd be interested in your thoughts below.

On to the show. This week I have few quibbles with Russert. Maybe it's because it's been "Meet The Republicans" (or browbeat the Democrats) for the past few weeks, but by comparison - and on its own, I think - this show was balanced and more about facts than spin. Russert's treatment of Biden was a far cry from Nancy Pelosi - he gave Biden a meaty half-hour to take the floor on all issues from Iraq to Iran to the idiocy of the upcoming flag-burning debate ("The world's going to Hades in a handbasket...and we're going to debate the next three weeks gay marriage, a flag amendment - and they think the American people can't see through that?") and had a genuine discussion with him not only on the key issues right now but on how those are being presented and spun. (It should be noted that Biden called again for Rummy's dismissal in the wake of Haditha. How long can Bush keep saying that he's doing a heck of a job? Unfortunately, probably forever. Watch him).

Biden also neatly sidestepped the standard Tim Russert move: going back in time and pulling out random quotes wherein his guest contradicted his current position. He did that with Blix, later on in the show, too; it's his modus operandi. He loves it and won't ever deviate from it, even if it's Ted Kennedy four decades ago. Russert pulled out several quotes in which Biden supported squeezing Iraq in the run-up to war and contributing to the dark mutterings about how Saddam could not be allowed to stay in power. Saith Russert, practically wagging a finger: did YOU contribute to the pre-war hysteria against Iraq? Said Biden, smartly: Tim, you gotta remember what was happening at that time. Back then the game was keeping the sanctions status-quo stable in Iraq, squeezing Saddam while inspections were underway. Joe Biden did what every one should do when Tim hauls out that saw: put it in CONTEXT. O Tim, if you would just do the same.

Biden did well for himself, the Democrats and his own candidacy, hammering on the Bush administration's failures of planning, accountability and diplomacy while emphasizing how his position has been proven right time and again. To his credit, he did not use the opportunity to undermine any of his potential opponents in 2008, despite an attempt by Tim to get him to come out against Hillary (Biden also welcomed incipient re-candidate Al Gore to the debate). In short, a great star turn for Biden, a knowledgeable, experienced and respected guy in the Senate (with years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to boot). This sets him up nicely to deliver a definitive pan-administration er, pan, in the segment's money quote:

The fascinating thing that Katrina did - it not only blew away the Gulf but blew away the illusion that these guys were competently able to deal with the real problems that Americans face....they have no intention, thye have no plan to deal with health care. They have no plan for national security. They have no plan to deal with the energy crisis.... And what are we going to do? Because we don't want to make any hard decisions? Let's go talk about flag burning.

Nice turn by Joe Biden, and nice turn by Tim in giving him the floor.

(One misstep on Tim's part, generally: after citing the atrocities at Haditha - this week's big story, obviously, on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, and Iraq Prime Minister Malaki's condemnation of U.S. violence against Iraqis, he described it as U.S. forces "mistreating" Iraqis. Er, that's a euphemism if I've ever heard one (right up there with "friendly fire"). Tim, if you're going to lead with a plane plowing into the World Trade Center, you'd better be prepared to take the straight talk straight through.)

Next up was Hans Blix, who just sounds more authoritative because of his accent (or maybe that's because he reminds me so much of Dr. Scott from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Now I must strike the image of Hans Blix in fishnets forever from my mind). The word that best describes Blix in my view is "careful" - he was careful in his wording, phraseology and presumably in his weapons inspections (unfortunately "careful" isn't consistent with "fast enough to be done before Bush decides it's time to go to war"). Even so, Tim still quotes careful Hans saying that "American unwillingness to cooperate in international arms agreements was undermining efforts to curb nuclear weapons." Blix's position: that ANY country with nuclear capability undermines non-proliferation. Tim jumped on that, outraged that Blix could equate the U.S.' nuclear program with that of rogue states like Iran and North Korea. Not so fast, says Blix: that is a question of degree. Nonetheless, it's his position that weapons of mass destruction are dangerous in the hands of ANY government, however stable or unstable it may be (and query how "stable" the U.S. is in the hands of the current administration). Blix calls for the U.S. to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - and send a strong signal to the world that it's serious about nonproliferation.

Blix is also careful not to impute bad faith to the administration, although he does choose to ascribe an active meaning to the term "misled" as it applies to the administration: "They misled themselves first, and thereafter they misled the world." Careful, careful Hans does not acknowledge the elephant in that room. Blix also still seems to think that if he could have just finished his inspections war would have been averted (this is in response to Tim's question). "If we had been allowed a couple months more," says Blix, "We would have been able to go to all the sites given by intelligence and found no weapons, since there weren't any...."I think the U.S. would have refrained also from the war if they had seen that the sources were bad." Which makes me wonder if Blix isn't so much careful as a tad naive. Either way, here once again is a platform to a position that is certainly not helpful to the administration. And as I said above, having two marquee speakers on is a great, value-adding move.

Commercial! Is it my imagination or are all the oil-and-energy commercials suddenly skewing pro-green? Is the Inconvenient hand of Al Gore actually being felt in the industry? BP pledges to reduce CO2 emissions by 24 million tons by 2015 based on their new innovations in alternative energy. Well, as BP itself says, "It's a start." Interesting though to see this block of commercials (directed, recall, to a market that is receptive to kids shilling for coal). Less Britpop this week, or at least less McCartney.

Finally, John Harwood and Gwen Ifill on the 2006 midterms and 2008 presidentials. The main discussion is on how candidates for president will handle Iraq, and their respective histories on same (as most of them cannot say, like Ted Kennedy, that voting against Iraq was the best vote they ever cast)(Feingold can, however). There's the obligatory Hillary clip, wherein she continues to speak in a forward-looking vein rather than addressing the what-ifs of her own vote in favor of the war. Ifill was interested in hearing Biden's view (unlike Adam Nagourney, who interestingly left Biden out of the story). The upshot on this point, said Ifill, is that "These guys are in a box." The strategy seems to be to "call attention to how they were misled." Harwood points out that the Democrats - and the Republicans - are split on how the heck to go forward. The watchword here is accountability - who needs to accept it, and which of them will accept it themselves. The most interesting thing out of this segment, to me, was Ifill's use of the term "The Haditha Effect" - saying that the usual line of "we don't support the war but we support our troops" has now been clouded by those atrocities. Excellent point , and I wonder how that will play out. Harwood also makes the disheartening point that the gay marriage ban is a blatant ploy to get out older Republicans who would otherwise not be sufficiently to come out to the polls: "Young people just don't care about this issue." Brutal. For Tim's part, he was mostly reined in - except for his giddy anticipation of the Republicans' response to the 2006 elections: "Here come the Liberals!" he says, scoffing, conjuring up images of a clownish conga-line of dolts floppy-footing their way into Congress. Oh, those Liberals! They're so silly.

On balance, though, that was the word today: balance. Lots of issues, and for a change lots of voices. What were your thoughts? I'll look for them below and fill in a few specific blanks later on in the day. As always thanks for reading, and watching.


UPDATE: Some interesting comments, as always. Perhaps they are best addressed using bullet-points, which are always efficient and fun. To wit:

  • Before any further ado: yep, his name is John Harwood and I clearly can't read. Apologies and thanks for pointing it out, correction duly made. As for the RFK Ohio-election-stealing story in Rolling Stone, HuffPo had that up on the front page both when it was first broken by BradBlog and when it came out - it's a total bombshell and I read it as soon as it was out. I know it's a topic of major discussion. I, too, wonder why the hell the blatant election violations in Ohio went uninvestigated, and I, too, wonder at its conspicuous absence from the discussion. Good point. Now, on to what WAS mentioned in the show.

  • Commenter "dsmith" below caught an important exchange between Blix and Tim wherein Blix refused to accept the Iran-as-nuclear-warmonger party line:

    RUSSERT: As we sit here in June of '06, North Korea has the nuclear bomb, Iran is pushing to have it.

    BLIX: Maybe.

    RUSSERT (caught off guard): Maybe?

    BLIX: Maybe.

    RUSSERT: You don't believe Iran wants a nuclear bomb?

    BLIX: Well, I think, after Iraq, we ought to look pretty well at the, at the evidence. And I hear some people saying that, "What could they--why could they go for nuclear? They have oil." Well, no one says that to Mexico. But I certainly don't exclude that there will be groups, important groups in Iran that may be going there, but I think it's a little wild to jump to the conclusion today.

    Sadly, Tim doesn't want to stop to explore this a bit, to wonder at the other reasons for Iran wanting to have nuclear capability, or not wanting to docilely retreat from their nuclear program. Later in the segment Blix notes that Saddam may have blustered and bluffed about weapons he didn't have "like someone hanging a sign on the door, "Beware of the dog," without having a dog."

  • Here's something else Blix warned against: a new arms race: "I was told the other day that U.S. is spending about $20 billion dollars a year in, in space. We have some engineers who tie together with microphones, and then we have a lot of other engineers who are spending $20 billion dollars to see how we can shoot down each other's satellites. This is not talked about. It is as if people are sleepwalking into a new arms race. That's what Kofi Annan said the other day." Now, I don't know his source obviously, nor do I know much about a space race. But if he'd said that to me I would have asked "What do you mean? Where did you hear that? What kind of space weaponry? How advanced is our system compared to other systems in the world?" or something. But I would have asked SOMETHING. But Russert just sticks to the script. As I've said before, Russert is just not nimble and can't respond to the interview as it takes shape - his model is question, response, question, response (this was most obvious in his lack of response to Newt Gingrich's preposterous and publicly debunked contention that "Saddam had a direct relationship with al-Qaeda" - did Tim even know that Newt was wrong there? It's honestly hard to say. But it's one of his biggest faults as an interviewer).

  • I found this comment from Biden interesting: "As I understand it, this was a bit of a knock-down, drag-out fight between Cheney and, and Condoleezza Rice, and Rice won this round as to how to proceed with regard to Iraq." Well that's interesting and in the thank-heavens-for-small-mercies department, a relief - anything is better than Cheney, no? (Except maybe Rummy.)"

  • This was also interesting: Russert setting up the notion of Iraq as "if you're not with us you're against us." He said that "we had gone into Iraq hoping to establish an ally in that region" - but then showeda clip of NBC's Richard Engel interviewing when Prime Minister Malaki, who says "Iraq will not be a platform for any military action against its neighboring countries, including Iran, because such action would drag the region, and Iraq, into catastrophes." Russert clearly sees that as a betrayal, though of course Biden isn't surprised and neither was I (were you?) - why on earth would Malaki set himself up as a target for the rest of the region? In truth, if the U.S.' goal was to create a stable and successful Iraq, the last thing it should want is a Prime Minister that's as blustery and needlessly confrontational as his predecessor. I thought Malaki's response was eminently reasonable. (Also, a note on Richard Engel: his recent report on Iraqi orphans was one of heartrending things I'd ever seen. There are so many reasons to want that country back on track, reasons that have nothing to do with having a place to launch an offensive on Iran.)

  • A clarification re: Hans Blix in fishnets - towards the end of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," the diabolical and irresistible mad scientist Frank N. Furter throws the switch on the Sonic Transducer which turns Brad, Janet, Columbia, Rocky and Dr. Scott into statues and then releases them back into human form clad in fishnets, garter belts, bustiers and feather boas for the floor show in "Rose TInt My World." Dr. Scott ("or should I say Dr. VON Scott!"), who is wheelchair-bound for the whole show with his legs covered with a blanket, sings his final ringing solo and kicks up his leg, revealing it clad in fishnets and a shiny black-heeled pump. Apologies for the random reference but honestly, a girl's got to amuse herself somehow. And Lord knows our Timmy's not exactly a laugh riot.
There is obviously much I haven't mentioned but that's what transcripts are for. I'll keep watching the comments for good points to add - thank you for watching, reading, and contributing. See you next week because if it's Sunday, it's Russert Watch.