08/21/2006 04:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

RussertWatch: In The Week Of JonBenet, They're Actually Talking About...Iraq

Greetings and welcome to RussertWatch, this week featuring NBC White House Correspondent and utility player David Gregory, which would make it "StretchWatch" if President Bush were watching, or reading, or could read. I kid, I kid! He totally read the decision of the federal court that ruled the NSA wiretap program unconstitutional, and he totally disagreed with it on the merits. We'll get to that later in the program, but first, a more important story — and it"s not JonBenet Ramsey: the war in Iraq, front and center on MTP, which kicked off "Day 1,251of the war in Iraq" with actual coverage. Which these days just can't be taken for granted. Gregory's top-of-the-hour guest was John McCain, who felt to me like he was just on but when I checked the recordes his last appearance was in April and before that December (he was recently on Jon Stewart, less straight-talking than equivocating). Still, it felt like, oh, here they go with a platform for McCain again, and I found myself wishing for someone whose views weren't so well-known and whose PR machine wasn't so effective. For this reason I'll leave most of the dissection of McCain to the comments, if you are so inclined, and will just point out a few things. Second half of the hour featured Professor Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future" with whom President Bush met this week; retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, now an NBC News analyst who was recently in the region; and MTP regular John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal/CNBC, who most recently was on stepping up and defending his news-side buddies at the WSJ after that God-awful bank records editorial (refresh your memory here).

Okay. First of all, Gregory frames the civil war question in the form of a question — "Has a civil war already begun?"; I'm with Nieman Watchdog on this one. Gregory also asks a question that seems absurd: "Senator, are we winning in Iraq?" Says McCain: "I don't think so, but I'm not sure that it's turned into a civil war." Two-part answer to a straight-up question, and McCain goes from there, getting to how now the key is to send more troops over. You know, to that place he's not sure is in the midst of a civil war. Also interesting is his claim that "Sadr has got to be taken out of this equation" (that's radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to you). Hm — I thought it was Zarqawi who had to be eliminated. What's to say that, once eliminated, a new Sadr won't rise up in his place? It's just that there are a lot of ifs in McCain's comments.

McCain also endorses Ken Mehlman's spin from last week, suddenly retreating from "stay the course" and thinking no one would notice: "The choice in this election is not between stay the course and cut and run, it's between win by adapting and cut and run." McCain, ever the straight talker, embraces this view. He does, however, give a straight-talk answer on whether Rummy should stay or go — though it's an entirely frustrating one. McCain flat-out says (when pressed) that "I've been asked a number of times if I had confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld and the answer is no." But still, he claims that Rummy should keep his job because "that's up to the president of the United States" (and yes, it's up to the other branches of government to check and balance that, but whatever). McCain says he thinks it's up to Bush "because elections have consequences. The president has the right to pick his team." Well, as long as clutch decisions impacting national security and the lives of American soldiers every day isn't overtly political! Sheesh.

McCain stubbornly sticks by his man when Gregory asks "Why, why would you still support a group that you think has, has been so flawed?" Said McCain:

Because serious mistakes have been made in every war. General MacArthur, our greatest general, told Harry Truman, "Don't worry, those Chinese won't come across the Yalu." There are mistakes are made in war, that's why we try to avoid them. And this is an elected president. I think he's led our nation very capably.

There are mistakes made in war, of course. Then there are massive misjudgments and grave tactical errors made repeatedly by a man who doesn't know the dickens what he's doing. McCain goes back to the rationale that the President is "elected." Man, that is faint praise indeed. That's like complimenting someone on their breathing.

If this seems churlish — after all, they're finally giving Iraq some airtime after an awful month there that was all but ignored in favor of Israel and Lebanon — it's not meant to; it's an in-depth discussion and I could spend hours parsing it, and it's good to have it discussed. It's just that McCain's agenda is so blatant and his allegiances so entrenched that his credibility is really just there anymore. Take this exchange about the Connecticut election brou-ha-ha:

MR. GREGORY: Do you think that Allen Schlesinger, who is the Republican opponent in Connecticut, should win? Do you support him?

SEN. McCAIN: I support him. I support the Republican nominee.

MR. GREGORY: Will you campaign for him?

SEN. McCAIN: I don't think that probably is in the calendar.

MR. GREGORY: Why not?

SEN. McCAIN: We have--I have--my priorities generally are set by the, our folks at the RNC and the campaign committees, and they have a pretty clear line-up of people that I'm going to be campaign for.


SEN. McCAIN: And I, look, look, look, look...

MR. GREGORY: The party has made a judgement at this point to stay out of this race, not support Schlesinger?

SEN. McCAIN: I don't know what, what decision they've made. All I know is that, look, Joe Lieberman is, is a close friend of mine and I would not campaign against him. I'll just be very--I'll straight talk.

Er, yeah. That's straight talk, no question. Who are you and what have you done with John McCain? Sigh.

Just one more example, on the NSA spying case. Here's McCain on the ruling: "I disagree with both the rhetoric and the reasoning, and so do most constitutional scholars." Oh, so there are hereditary kings in America with powers not created by the Constitution? Thanks for clearing that up. But then, when asked by Gregory if he would have believed he had the right to do the same thing, McCain talks out of the other side of his mouth:

I would believe it, but I, frankly, I would also sit down with the leaders in Congress and say, "Look, here's what we can agree on. We need more than FISA right now, and the court, going to court for each one. And now let's, let's come to an agreement."

Really? Why would he need to bother if he was within the Constitution? There would be nothing to check or balance — or would there? That's pretty circulatory for straight talk.

Quickly, on the second half: Professor Vali Nasr doesn't think it's civil war, either, but he admits that the distinction is academic: The amount of dead each day is close to tipping into civil war territory and anyway this conflict is going to be decided ultimately by militias. Nasr thinks the number of dead will eventually trigger some sort of organization on the part of Iraqis to solve this themselves if the U.S. can't control the violence. I mean, honestly. WHY does it need to reach that point? McCaffrey, for his part, thinks McCain's suggestion of more troops is just dandy — if there were actually more troops to send. Harwood, meanwhile, sees this issue as divisive (and possibly costing McCain in 2008 for his unshakable fealty to the Bush administration). He says the Dems are going to push the Rummy accountability question, which will lead to a Bush accountability question for keeping him on. "And when that happens, you will have a moment when Republican candidates may have to choose, are they going to stick with the administration or are they going to try to go along with Democrats on some resolution, for example, calling for the president to replace Rumsfeld as a way of showing daylight between themselves and the Bush administration."

The transcript is here; the video is here. That was longer than I intended but then again it always is because if it's Sunday, it's Russert Watch. See you in the comments!