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RussertWatch: Wherein The Editor Of Newsweek Won't Be Talking About News

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This is a special advance version of RussertWatch since I'm going to be traveling today and will miss it. Too bad — it promises to be one of the newsiest, juiciest, most cutting-edge broadcasts of the year. Or, you know, not — because it's Christmas, which means another excuse to talk about "Faith In America." We saw this last on Easter, when Russert convened a panel to discuss — wait for it — "Faith In America" (they don't even pretend to be aiming for new ground here). Back then, I was still pretty new to my Russert-watching, I'll admit it, and I found the discussion pretty interesting and relevant. THE FIRST TIME. Even then, though, I noted what had been given up in order to chat about what religion the Founding Fathers wanted Americans to be:

"[W]hile this topic is no doubt relevant, it is an evergreen one; a lot of stuff happened this week that was not addressed. Calls for Rumsfeld's dismissal? Check. Bush authorizing Cheney authorizing Libby to leak? Check. And isn't Brangelina having a baby? OUT OF WEDLOCK? I know Tim likes to stick to his pre-prepped talking points, but there was some news this week. Ah, well. Stuff happens."

Haven't we had a sort of eventful week? What happened, let's see...ah, yes: Bush finally admitted that America was not winning the war in Iraq (his kingdom for a Mission Accomplished banner). Despite a really, really big vote of non-confidence in November (House, Senate, Democrats — remember that?), plans are solidifying to send more troops to Iraq, and the U.S. is beefing up its presence in the Persian Gulf in a "show of strength" to Iran, because escalating international hostilities is AWESOME. Oh yeah, the White House also censored a New York Times editorial (talk about meeting the press! Oh, wait, that's totally NOT meeting the press. Never mind.) Also, Britney has a new boyfriend and hasn't shown her ladyparts once. Big week!

But it's Christmas, and MTP has an Exclusive! "Dr. Rick Warren, author of the international best-seller "The Purpose Driven Life," and Jon Meacham, Newsweek's Editor and author of "American Gospel," discuss Faith in America: Can religion unite the country for the greater good and what role will God and values play in the 2008 presidential election?" These are IMPORTANT QUESTIONS RIGHT NOW.

Especially for Meacham, go-to MTP religion expert and liberal dropper of Bible quotes (Genesis 38:9, Meacham: Do your worst). When he was named editor in September of this year I joked "Looks like more God covers at Newsweek!"; since starting on Oct. 2nd, there have been two (here and here), plus named a Religion editor and chaired a Newsweek/WaPo online religion forum called "On Faith." Meacham is well-known for his study of religion as it relates to American life; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that or anything else, except insofar as it keeps him from talking about other stuff, like last time.

And Meacham has far more to answer for than that. As a historian with a special expertise in FDR, Churchill, and the founding fathers, Meacham is a regular on political roundtables, and more often than not he makes a point of comparing President Bush to — wait for it — FDR, Churchill and the founding fathers. Here's a quote from 2004 on the effectiveness of a war president: "Sometimes you do have to say, 'Damn the naysayers and damn the press. We're gonna project power to fight battles beyond our borders because we think it's right.' The other [criteria for effectiveness] is clarity, both of mission and of the post-war mission, which is something the president's not done quite so well on. And the other is cooperation. As Winston Churchill once said, 'The only thing worse than having allies is not having allies.'" (Churchill also said "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies," but he was talking about things like troop movements, not whether or not he was secretly planning to oust Rumsfeld.) In the matter of how Bush became a wartime president, Meacham has tended to characterize Bush as being galvanized with purpose and conviction by Sept. 11th but lay the responsibility for trumped-up reasons to go to war more with Cheney. Meacham has also compared Bush to Henry V (once in the same breath as comparing Kerry to Hamlet, the original flip-flopper) (see below, where we've included a few quotes).

The point of this is not to take Meacham to task for any time he may have called Bush "Churchillian" (though perhaps a more applicable word might be "Orwellian"). But "Meet The Press" should be about accountability, not only from politicians but from the journalists who characterize them for the rest of the country. There's no question that Meacham has framed Bush positively,* from emphasizing his genuine feeling that he was "called" to leadership after Sept. 11th (as opposed to calling him out for acting on that feeling, rather than known facts) to comparing him to beloved leaders like Churchill and FDR (even if, granted, he did draw distinctions between Bush's execution). Now that the results are so grim, the war so long and so disastrous and so nationally reviled, and Bush so not blameless in it all, it falls to Meacham to look back on his earlier rationalizations and take responsibility for where he may have erred. And it falls to Russert to call him on that, because it's relevant, now. Even if it is Christmas.

Christmas may be news, but it's not the news.

**************

"There's no question that after the 11th, he articulated a mission, I think rather brilliantly. He talked about things in terms of good and evil, when there seemed to be not much doubt about the murder of innocents, 3,000 people who died not far from here on that day and in the skies of Pennsylvania and in Washington. I think what he's had a harder time doing is connecting the conflict in IRAQ with the war on terror, which clearly he believes are connected, but the evidence that he went to war in IRAQ for has simply not turned out as--as he thought. So there is kind of a dissonance between defining the struggle in noble Churchillian terms and actually saying, 'Well, here's the weapon--here are the weapons of mass destruction. Here are the ties to terror.' The second part has been--has been trickier to do."
CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown, May 30, 2004.

"Why did Bish go to war? Why did Bush take us to war? He did it because he pretty clearly had decided very early on that this would be good for the safety of the world, and somehow or another for the security of the American people. And he worked from that premise, from that decision. He went back and built a coalition. Usually you have the opposite. Usually you build a coalition, you have a causus belli and you go forward. We are in a complete Alice in Wonderland world diplomatically here." — MSNBC's Hardball, April 16, 2004

"I don't think this was The Cowboy versus The Professor, I think this was a king who is a little worried and a little tired of being questioned versus The Professor. Bush kept saying, 'I know how this world works. I know how to deal with these guys. This was a man who was almost monarchial in his tone and he, you know, we talked before about he became Henry V and this was, and this was a kind, there was almost an element of self-pity there... This was a kind of -- there was an element almost of self-pity there."
Sept. 30, 2004, HARDBALL post Kerry/Bush debate MSNBC roundtable

CHRIS MATTHEWS: What I like the president and the way he said this week was it's dangerous. I think somebody counted many, many times he said the word "dangerous" because the book you wrote about Churchill, the one Churchill really understood was don't advertise good news till it comes, advertise bad news so the people will know what to expect.

JON MEACHAM: Right. Franklin Roosevelt once said the American people deserve it straight from the shoulder, and--and Churchill...

CHRIS MATTHEWS: And the president's trying to do that, isn't he?

JON MEACHAM: Exactly. And Churchill said that the British people can face any task with fortitude and buoyancy if they're told the truth.
— Chris Matthews, November 2, 2003

* Meacham is rumored to have had a bust of Bush in his office at one time. We mention that as a piece of fun trivia, not as an intimation that there is anything inappropriate about that.