Russert Watch, Pinch Hitting

Arianna has asked me to watch Meet the Press, which I do anyway--normally to concentrate on the inanities of the answers--and to take the reins of the Russert Watch for a couple of weeks. And one approaches these broadcasts with a couple of expectations. Sure, they've been dashed week in and week out since dinosaurs walked the earth, but still, they're mine and I love 'em:

(a) the host should ask the question(s) you want answered, and (b) the host should refuse to let the guests get away with just dispensing their planned talking points.

This week's broadcast had two huge elephants in the studio that went unnoticed for the full hour. Tim Russert's guests included Matt Cooper and Woodward/Bernstein. The elephants: like Matt Cooper, Russert had testified to the grand jury on the Plame affair, yet at no point during the interview did the salient fact sally forth to the viewer. The pretense was uninvolved journalist interviewing involved participant: the reality was one pea in the pod interviewing a fellow pea. Cooper almost made news, but Russert saved him. Russert asked:

MR. RUSSERT: The piece that you finally ran in Time magazine on July 17th, it says, "And some government officials have noted to Time in interviews, (as well as to syndicated columnist Robert Novak) that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These officials have suggested that she was involved in her husband's being dispatched to Niger..."

"Some government officials"--That is Rove and Libby?

MR. COOPER: Yes, those were among the sources for that, yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: Are there more?

MR. COOPER: I don't want to get into it, but it's possible.

MR. RUSSERT: Have you told the grand jury about that?

MR. COOPER: The grand jury knows what I know, yes.

MR. RUSSERT: That there may have been more sources?

MR. COOPER: Yes.

And there that line of questioning ends. Your hopes rise momentarily, because after a series of questions about Rove's lawyer, Russert feints at being the kind of questioner who sneakily returns to the meat of the interview. He once more brings up the "more sources" point, asking if Cooper had waivers from them. Cooper waves the question away, repeating that he doesn't want to get into it, and whatever desire Tim has to get into it vanishes in the morning mist.

The other elephant? Woodward and Bernstein are doing their victory lap tour, promoting Woodward's new book (you can figure out the interesting angles in that sentence). We know now, after thirty years, the identity of Deep Throat. The book is a chronicle of Woodward's relationship with Mark Felt. You could ask Bob (and Carl) to amplify upon material already amplified in the book--that's called a promotional interview. Or you could try to make news. Let's see, after all these years, what do we still not know about Watergate? Why were the five burglars breaking into the Democratic National Commitee headquarters, their pockets stuffed with cash, in the first place? What were their bugging devices designed to find? Did Tim Russert ask that question?

He did not. He asked about Mark Felt, about how Mark felt when, contrary to assurances from Woodstein, his existence was confirmed (and dramatized) in "All the President's Men". He asked a question with a premise so bizarre that Bernstein had to counter it before he could even try to answer:

The biggest struggle a journalist has is in terms of dealing with the confidentiality of their sources.

Really? Bigger than being told by your editor to drop a story you know is important to cover some trivial piece of crap? Bigger than--come on, you can complete the list.

Bernstein, ever the helper, even tries to point Tim toward The Question, referring to Watergate as a conspiracy "against the electoral process in this country". That would seem to suggest a purpose for the break-in, but Bernstein has already tried unsuccessfully to inject context into the previous subject, the Rove-Cooper story, by suggesting that it's really about "WMD, the truthfulness of this White House", so Tim's wise to his context-mongering.

In the elephant-free zone of the program, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman and former Clinton aide John Podesta engaged in a talking-points duel that the moderator did nothing to disturb. Here's Mehlman, obviously proud that his writer has been roaming into Jesse Jackson territory:

Two stories have come out this week, both of which have the effect of exonerating and vindicating Mr. Rove, not implicating him. And what's so amazing and what's so outrageous, in my judgment, is, despite the fact that this investigation is ongoing, despite the fact that Mr. Rove and other people at the White House are cooperating fully with Pat Fitzgerald, Democrat partisans on the Hill have engaged in a smear campaign where they have attacked Karl Rove on the basis of information which actually vindicates and exonerates him, not implicates him....

Every Democrat voted for that to happen on the basis of prejudging a case when the information actually exonerates and vindicates. It doesn't implicate....

The information exonerates and vindicates, it does not implicate, and what we should all do is take a breath, not rush to judgment and certainly not try to make political gain of an investigation that we should have confidence in the investigator for.

Podesta, for his part, manages to describe Rove's, then the White House's credibility in the same terms--in shreds. Russert does rise to one occasion. When Mehlman professes tremendous confidence in special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the moderator pounces, attempting to force Mehlman into an utterly meaningless pledge. Mehlman's good enough to counter that in his sleep.

Overall, Mehlman does outrage. Podesta does anger. They go out for coffee together afterwards. Good job, everybody.