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NEW CONSENSUS! Russert and Williams stumbled around–and a consensus emerged: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16, 2008

WITH SUPPORTERS LIKE THESE: For the second straight day, the New York Times is musing about—well, why not let “About New York” columnist Jim Dwyer speak for himself? We won’t highlight the ugliest highlights. But you can pick them out:

DWYER (1/16/08): For some, the very strength of Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has dragged the thought of violence out of the shadows of the unspeakable.

A church worker and military veteran, Jeffrey Addison, 50, who is rooting for Mr. Obama, said last week in Harlem, ''Obama, I hope you don't get a bullet.''

A much younger man, Joseph Solomon Jones, 25, held in the same thought high hopes and pure fatalism about the Obama campaign.

'He's very educated, very fluent in what the people want,'' said Mr. Jones, a college student in Brooklyn. ''Obama, I want him to be president. First black president, all right, I'll take that. Even though he's going to get shot after that.''

It must be great to be out on the trail—and then, to have your flagging spirits buoyed up by supporters like these! But this is now the second straight day that the Times has gone a million miles out of its way to invite us to muse about possible violence. And O’Dwyer’s an equal opportunity man. He found someone willing to ponder the murder of the other Big Dems:

DWYER: For [Jesse] Epps, who was instrumental in persuading Dr. King to come to Memphis, the history of that moment leads him not to worries, but to strategy.

''When they cut down the leader, the work is going to go on,'' he said. ''Get rid of Mrs. Clinton, you have Mr. Obama. You get rid of both of them, you get Mr. Edwards. A flock of geese will move to protect the lead goose from the hunter.''

Does Dwyer show bad judgment here—in a column he says is inspired by the memory of Dr. King’s death? Each person can judge that for himself. But this is now the second straight day the Times has published a piece on this subject (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/15/08)—and once again, Dwyer uses that speech by Michelle Obama to fuel the morbid musings. You know? The speech in which Michelle Obama didn’t discuss this topic?

DWYER: In a speech on Sunday night, Michelle Obama, the wife of Senator Obama, lightly traced the twisting byways of that anxiety. ''There are still voices, even within our own community, that focus on what might go wrong,'' she said in Atlanta. ''It's not just about fear, people. It's also about love. I know people want to protect us and themselves from disappointment and failure, from the possibility of being let down again—not by us, but by the world as it is. A world that we fear might not be ready for a decent man like Barack.''

In yesterday’s inexcusable “news report,” a fantasist named Shaila Dewan said that Michelle Obama had “obliquely” addressed “the specter of violence” in her speech; she had “nimbly entwin[ed] references to violence with her more usual admonitions,” Dewan hazily said. This morning, Dwyer spells it out even more clearly. Obama “lightly twist[ed] the byways” of this topic, he super-hazily says.

Dare we state what is merely obvious? By any normal standard of interpretation, Michelle Obama didn’t raise “the specter of violence” in Sunday’s speech. Is it possible that the Times’ ghouls, kooks, nut-cakes and goblins could stop pretending that she did? Some of us can recall what it’s like to see our greatest leaders murdered. Or, as the folks at the New York Times “nimbly” “twist” what Michelle Obama said, are they just dishing their latest big helping of “fun, entertainment and sport?”

Boxed text accompanying Dwyer’s column: Barack Obama stirs memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fate.

Photo caption accompanying Dwyer’s column: Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, has inspired both hope and fear. “I hope you don’t get a bullet,” one supporter said.

We’ll voice our judgment: Revulsion. Disgust. It’s really time they stopped this.

NEW CONSENSUS: The transcript hasn’t been posted yet, and we won’t bother transcribing ourselves. But by 9:22 last night, we were as peeved as the heckler who rose to complain about the endless racial questions being posed by Williams and Russert. The heckler was apparently led from the room, but his complaints struck us as well-founded. For ourselves, we had called a friend, just a minute before, to ask if she had ever seen such a set of inane, worthless questions.

But on and on the hapless pair went, praying they could ignite a new squabble. Everyone was asked to explain why they’d said the things they had said, and what they thought about everyone else. It was clear that no one wanted to play. But Jack Welch’s “Lost Boys” just kept trying.

Eventually, even Russert and Williams tired of their dull, fruitless quest. Even they were forced to ask substantive questions. Today, a few quick reactions:

The first twenty minutes: Again, that first twenty-plus minutes were hard to take. At 9:22, a heckler asked the boys to shut up. Dare we hope it? Dare we hope that normal, decent people will challenge these tools more and more?

Other inane questions followed: That said, the love of the inane is never far from these boys’ empty heads. Around 10:35, Russert started in again, asking Clinton why an (unnamed) pollster had been quoted making a semi-racial statement in a newspaper. And that question about the ROTC! At TPM, Todd Gitlin reacts to this oddly off-the-wall query. But let’s state the judgment which Gitlin implies: Russert seemed to be looking for an “issue” that might embarrass the Dems, even though the issue was wildly tangential—even though it has played no role in recent presidential-level debate. But then, don’t we recall a similar question, about driver’s licenses, the last time this pair hosted Dems in debate? More thoughts on this matter tomorrow.

A striking contrast: Russert and Williams weren’t great last night. But their performance was nothing like the blatant disgrace of October 30, when they staged a two-hour gang-bang of Clinton, changing the shape of the Dem campaign with their endless oppo research-style questions. In the aftermath of that debate, apologists lied about the pair’s motives; front-runners always get treated that way, they said, although there has never been a presidential debate in which moderators behaved in anything like the manner of Russert and Williams. But then, it’s just as we have always told you; your press corps never you tells the truth about its own methods and motives. Indeed, after last evening’s session, high comedy reigned on MSNBC as pundits puzzled long and hard: Why didn’t Obama and Edwards go after Clinton, as they did on October 30? Surely, everyone knew one large part of the answer: In large part, they went after Clinton on October 30 because they were prompted to do so, by Russert and Williams, all through that evening’s two-hour session. But last night, all the pundits feigned complete ignorance. Absolutely no one could figure why the dynamic had changed. (Transcript tomorrow. High comedy.)

A bit of comic relief: Around 9:30, Russert asked a type of question we always dislike: Name your greatest strength and weakness. (For unknown reasons, Josh Marshall called this “a decent question.” Kevin Drum called its two parts “bogus” and “completely bogus,” but he did find one redeeming quality.) Guess what, people? Candidates tend to be prepared for this stupid, tired old chestnut.

Meanwhile, a bit of comic relief. As we’ve told you, there’s a standard humorous answer to Part 2 of that question: My greatest weakness? I’m often too honest. Has anyone ever given that answer? Last night, Edwards came close.

A new consensus on Russert: For us, though, the most interesting part of last night’s debate came in the reactions of several liberals. Josh Marshall batted Russert around, snarking hard at every turn. (On October 30, he managed to live-blog the whole debate without noting the fact that Russert and Williams were savaging one of the candidates.) And then, via Kevin Drum, we saw this comment by Matt Yglesias—and we were whisked to this new report about Russert’s “unbearable inanity.”

As such, we’ll say that it’s now official: After all these years, it isn’t just Matthews—it’s now standard practice to mock Russert too. This should be a good thing—but something is missing. Tomorrow, we’ll review that report.

HOWLER HISTORY—WORST QUESTIONS EVER: Russert’s question about “your greatest strength” recalled two of the worst debate questions ever asked. They were posed by good-natured Tom Griffith, of Manchester’s WMUR-TV, during Gore and Bradley’s final New Hampshire debate. Why should moderators stay away from crap like this? Because this is where it can take us:

GRIFFITH (1/26/00): The next question goes to Senator Bradley. A lot of observers have said basically both of you are so similar on policies—you may not agree with this, but observers say this—that you're so similar on policies that the real question here is who has the personality and the temperament to be the next president. With that in mind, Senator Bradley, will you please outline for me your worst behavior on the basketball court?

BRADLEY: This is a very personal question.

(LAUGHTER)

My worst behavior on the basketball court, I suppose, was occasionally holding John Havlicek when I played the Boston Celtics. And actually, I knew I was doing pretty well in New Hampshire about six months into the campaign when some person came up to me and said—gave me a bumper sticker and it said: Another Celtic Fan for Bradley.

But I also, in addition to holding John Havlicek occasionally, you know, there's a competition that goes on. There are elbows that are thrown. Occasional blows are thrown. That's part of the game. So if you're asking me about that, I think that's what I would say.

Politics is different. Politics should be something that's higher. Politics should be something that elevates us. It should not be something that drags us down. I'm trying to get beyond politics as usual to a kind of politics that allows Americans to realize that they're a part of shaping our collective futures, by participating and by recognizing that candidates who state what they're for have a better chance of leading truthfully than candidates who do not.

As if that wasn’t gruesome enough, Griffith asked one more question:

GRIFFITH (continuing directly): Maybe trying to get to emotion here. In basketball, have you ever cried in victory or in defeat?

BRADLEY: I've never cried in victory or defeat in basketball. I cried the other day, though, right here in New Hampshire. I was in a setting where a woman named Kathy Perry told me her story. She said that she and her husband had four kids. They both—she had two jobs, her husband had one job. They took one of their children to the doctor and they didn't have health insurance. The doctor diagnosed it as strep. She was leaving and she wrote out the check and her son said to here, I'm sorry, Mom. And she said, Why? He said, I'm sorry because I got sick.

I don't think any child in America should get sick. And when I heard that story, tears rushed to my eyes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to have to move now to the next round of candidate-to-candidate questions.

Yes, that actually did occur. We really did not make that up.

In those days, of course, the insider “press corps” was trying to pick your nominee for you, just as Russert and Williams were doing back on October 30. And perhaps you can guess who Woodruff favored! Incredibly, this was her first “question” for Gore. This also ranks as one of the worst debate “questions” ever asked:

WOODRUFF: The first question goes to Mr. Gore. Most people believe that you are an honorable man, but when it comes to electoral politics your critics, including some Democrats, say that you will do almost anything to win, including reinventing yourself, using consultants no matter what their reputation, and running not just a tough, but a mean-spirited campaign. Newspaper editorials here in New Hampshire and around the country accuse you of distorting Mr. Bradley's record. Is this really necessary to win your party's nomination?

That “question”—which was really a speech, of course—may rank as the worst in history. Rattling off the things “people say,” Woodruff accused Gore of a long list of sins—reinventing himself, using evil consultants, running a mean-spirited campaign, and, of course, lying about saintly Bradley. He was willing to do almost anything to win. No specifics of any kind were offered—and he got sixty seconds to respond.

And oh, by the way: Senator Bradley had once stooped so low as to tug on John Havlicek’s jersey!

No softballs were tossed at Gore that night. Woodruff got tough with Bradley just once; she criticized him because, she said, he hadn’t gone after Gore hard enough!

But then, the press corps had its favorite that year. They knew who the good and the bad people were. They just knew that Gore was a very bad man. Are we happy with how it turned out?