01/28/2006 04:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Russert: At the Feet of the Powerful and Throat of the Weak

"The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet."

-- Winston Churchill

Congratulations to Arianna for daring to expose Tim Russert, whose Meet the Press has for so long dishonored American journalism. Russert is guilty of all the sins she has exposed: slimy cronyism, back-stabbing, nepotism, favor-trading and all the rest. But the harm he does to our society goes far deeper: to paraphrase Churchill, Russert is either at the feet of the powerful or the throat of those who challenge them. By so doing with a conservative Administration, he winds up supporting war, violence, inequality, harm to the environment, and expanded Executive power.

What is particularly shameful about his behavior is that Russert does not toady to a conservative Administration out of ideological conviction. However one feels about Sean Hannity, he is at least sincere. Russert, however, has no real beliefs. He sucks up to conservatives today simply to build his career, income, and power.

Russert began public life as a Democrat, and was for many years a card-carrying member of the so-called liberal media elite. After taking over Meet the Press, however, his ratings depended on repeat performances by government officials, whom he dares not seriously challenge for fear they will refuse to reappear on his show. Those who challenge their power, on the other hand, are expendable. By beating up on them, Russert can pretend to be "tough", giving him a pass to fawn at the feet of a Condelezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld or Richard Cheney. Such behavior, of course, is also the safest course to take with his employers.

Russert's treatment of candidates like Howard Dean contrasts dramatically with the obsequious treatment given those in power. A Cheney or Rumsfeld may be shown a film clip of one of their many lies, and asked to explain. They are then given as much time as they want to expand, amplify and embellish their lies, without interruption, whereupon Russert goes on to another topic. A Dean, however, is pummelled mercilessly.

The end result is to reinforce Administration lies and undermine the credibility of those who would challenge them.

Polls show, for example, that Americans today still believe that Saddam Hussein supported Al Qaeda and was involved in 9/11. In fact, of course, Saddam and Osama were sworn enemies. Osama made no secret of his desire to topple Saddam, and Saddam ruthlessly suppressed Muslim fanatics like Osama. Given this, how did so many Americans come to believe that Al Qaeda and Saddam were linked, helping give the Administration a free hand to invade, occupy and make war in Iraq?

A partial answer to this question is revealed in this exchange between Tim Russert and Dick Cheney on the September 23, 2003, edition of Meet The Press:

MR. RUSSERT: "The Washington Post asked the American people about Saddam Hussein, and this is what they said: 69 percent said he was involved in the September 11 attacks. Are you surprised by that?"

VICE PRES. CHENEY: "No. I think it's not surprising that people make that connection."

MR. RUSSERT: "But is there a connection?"

VICE PRES. CHENEY: "We don't know. You and I talked about this two years ago. I can remember you asking me this question just a few days after the original attack. At the time I said no, we didn't have any evidence of that.

"Subsequent to that, we've learned a couple of things. We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the '90s, that it involved training, for example, on BW and CW, that al-Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems that are involved. The Iraqis providing bomb-making expertise and advice to the al-Qaeda organization.

"We know, for example, in connection with the original World Trade Center bombing in '93 that one of the bombers was Iraqi, returned to Iraq after the attack of '93. And we've learned subsequent to that, since we went into Baghdad and got into the intelligence files, that this individual probably also received financing from the Iraqi government as well as safe haven.

"Now, is there a connection between the Iraqi government and the original World Trade Center bombing in '93? We know, as I say, that one of the perpetrators of that act did, in fact, receive support from the Iraqi government after the fact. With respect to 9/11, of course, we've had the story that's been public out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but we've never been able to develop anymore of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don't know."

MR. RUSSERT: "We could establish a direct link between the hijackers of September 11 and Saudi Arabia."

Note what occurred:

1- Russert respectfully asked Cheney whether he was "surprised" that the American people believed Saddam was involved in 9/11;

2- Cheney was given the opportunity to lie at length, with no interruptions. He repeated, amplified and embellished statements that Russert and anyone else following Iraq knew at the time to be blatant lies.

3- Russert respectfully went on to another question.

Now let us contrast this with Russert's treatment of a critic of the Iraqi war, Dennis Kucinich, on Febuary 23, 2003:

RUSSERT: "Let me start, Congressman Kucinich, by showing you the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 ... You voted for it. President Clinton signed it. Isn't that exactly what President Bush is trying to do?"

REP. KUCINICH: " ... Containment has worked. We should continue on that path. This war is not necessary and, furthermore, this administration has not made a credible case for war."

MR. RUSSERT: "But the Iraq Liberation Act that you voted for says "support efforts to remove the regime." Is containment removing the regime?"

REP. KUCINICH: "Well, I think-"

MR. RUSSERT: "How would you remove Saddam Hussein?"

REP. KUCINICH: "... That resolution that passed in 1998, as you know, was not a declaration of war; it was a statement of intent of the Congress to support efforts to thwart the administration of Saddam Hussein, but it wasn't a call for war against the Iraqi people."

MR. RUSSERT: "It wasn't "thwart"; it was "remove the regime." Are you still in favor of removing Saddam Hussein from power?"

REP. KUCINICH: "Oh, Saddam Hussein should be removed from power."

MR. RUSSERT: "How would you do it?"

REP. KUCINICH: "But not by military force."

MR. RUSSERT: "How would you do it?"

REP. KUCINICH: "I think the way that you do it is continue to use sanctions which thwart his efforts to grow. We've contained him ..."

How satisfying it is to bully the powerless, how dangerous to show anything but the deepest respect to the powerful! This typical but fairly mild example of Russert's treatment of Administration critics has these features:

1- frequent interruptions.

2- repeated follow-up questions, suggesting that his guest is avoiding answering or outright lying.

3- a disrespectful, suspicious, faux prosecutorial tone of voice, and fierce demeanor, showing his clear disapproval.

If you closed your eyes and just listened, you would think that it was Dennis Kucinich whose hands were dripping with the blood of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and Dick Cheney who was a decent, honorable fellow who deserved as much time as he needed to convey his important information to the American people.

In the end, it is Tim Russert's support for those in power, not out of conviction but simple blind ambition, which represents his deepest failing as a human being and journalist. The problem is not that he is too conservative or too liberal, but that he has no real convictions other than a desire to keep a plum job.

And, in the end, it is the Russerts that hurt journalism and betray their nation far more than a Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly. The ideologues come and go in our society. The Kissingers, Rumsfelds, Russerts and other soulless practitioners of power long survive them.