THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2004
FOUR YEARS LATER, A POSTSCRIPT: To some extent, we agree with the sentiment expressed at the start of this mornings Post editorial. On one level, theres something odd about rekindling the debate over President Bushs military service, more than three years into his tour as commander in chief, the Post editorial board opines. Indeed, when one reads the debate of the past few weeks, one can hardly believe this is the second time Bush has run for the White House. But as usual, the Post editorial spins the tale to benefit their cohorts reputation. After all, who has rekindled a previous debate? This discussion is occurring today because the Post, and the rest of the press, ran and hid beneath their desks when this issue arose during Campaign 2000. The issue came up during the 2000 presidential campaign and during Mr. Bushs run for governor, the Post says. But the allegation of a missing year didnt come up when Bush ran for governorthe Post is repeating one of Bushs misstatementsand the press corps didnt pursue the facts during the 2000 race. The debate has been rekindled in the past month because the press corps failed to kindle it during Campaign 2000.
Why is the corps so lively now? Why did they slumber and doze four years back? Simple. In Campaign 2000, the Washington press staged a War Against Gore, punishing him for his association with Clinton. For twenty months, they made up phony tales about Goreand buried unflattering news about Bush. Four years later, some in the press have buyers remorse about the man they worked to elect. Result? They hector the hapless Scott McClellan, pursuing a story they hid from before. And organs like the Post ed page spin you about why this is happening.
But even now, the frothing press corps cant get the basic facts right. Result? Consider this letter, published today, in Americas paper of record:
To the Editor:Reader WD seems to think that there is no reprimand in Bushs records. Perhaps thats because he read yesterdays Times, in which Elisabeth Bumiller wrote a lengthy summary of the alleged missing yearbut failed to mention Bushs suspension from flight duty for missing his annual physical (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/11/04). (The Presidents Guard Service didnt mention it either.) The press corps went in the bag four years back; now they growl and spit at McClellan. But they still cant get their basic facts straight. Bushs suspension? Its the one clear-cut, undisputed fact in this whole case. By instinct, therefore, the nations scribes avoid it like a case of bubonic.
We have always cautioned against judging candidates on what they did in the distant past. The facts are routinely hard to make out, and the relevance of such conduct is almost always unclear. But this is a basic part of Bushs biographya part of his story that should have been pursued during Campaign 2000. Even now, with belated pursuit underway, the Post editorial page echoes misstatements, and Bumiller fails to include basic facts. Readers in Pinehurst remain underfed. But then, thats your press corps central culture.
THE REASON THAT DOG WOULDNT HUNT: Has President Bush dragged his heels when it comes to exploring intelligence failures? Russert began with that topic last weekend, and it might have provided a good discussionif the topic had been pursued. But a bulldog was missing in action this day, and we saw the disappointing result. Bush completely avoided Russerts first questionand Russert let the evasion stand. Moments later, Bush boasted about his cooperation with the 9/11 commissiona commission which has routinely complained about the presidents lack of cooperation. But Russert ignored this odd statement too. What would Bush have said if challenged? The public will never find out.
No, that was hardly a bulldog in the Oval last weekend. Follow-up questions were toothless and few. Those trademark film clips were missing in action. Several times, Bush apologized for repetitive answers, but it was Russerts vague and repetitive questions that defined the meandering, softball discussion. Missing was the lecturing scold who rebuked Howard Dean and falsely accused Gore (see below). The bulldog had left his teeth in a jar. But why in the world had he done that?
For what its worth, Russert offered an explanation during his victory tour this week. After the interview, the self-impressed pundit accepted applause for the brilliant work he had done. How brilliant, how great had Russert been? Why, when he went to the dentist on Monday, rubber-gloved workers burst into applause! We know that because Russert told us:
PERGAMENT (2/10/04) (pgh 1): Tim Russert walked into his dentists office Monday morning for an appointment and was given a sweeter reception than he gave President Bush over the weekend.They couldnt help itthey just had to cheer! For the record, this was Alan Pergament of the Buffalo News, passing on Russerts tales of hosannas.
Russert is nothing if not self-impressed. But as he took his victory lap this weekaccepting the cheers of admiring colleagueshe explained his toothless session Bush. On Tuesday morning, USA Todays Peter Johnson passed on the scribes explanation:
JOHNSON (2/10/04): If its important, Meet the Press host Tim Russert knows to place a call to Buffalo to get advice from the family patriarch, Timothy Big Russ Russert.As usual, Russert dragged in Big Russ, used as a symbol of his own decency. According to Russert, Big Russ said to be respectful because hed be in the Oval Office. Russert explained this in more detail in a Tuesday morning session with Imus.
Of course, it hardly takes Russerts dad to offer this advice; most Americans would want a newsman to be respectful with a sitting president. But how about with a major candidate, like Dean? And how about on July 16, 2000, when Russert went to the Vice Presidential residence to interview a sitting vice-president? Would Big Russ have suggested respect there, too? In fact, Russerts conduct was very different when he interviewed Candidate Gore that day. He lectured, hectored, interrupted, misstated. What do you think Big Russ would have said about his sons work in that session?
Russerts explanation to Johnson is sadthe mark of a failed celebrity newsman. The double standard which Russert acknowledges makes him an abject failure. He can hide behind Big Russ all he likes. But when Russert shows respect to Bushhaving ripped Gore and Deanthe public is quite poorly served.
A grown man doesnt hide behind Dadnor does he cower when he goes in the Oval. Last weekend, a ballyhooed bulldog curled up and died. A fearsome bulldog is finally gone. Long live that fearsome press bulldog!
WHAT WOULD BIG RUSS HAVE SAID: How did Russert behave with Gorewith a sitting vice president, in the VP residence? Russert behaved abominably this day, and he made a sick joke of your discourse. He opened with one of his famous clipsa clip quite plainly designed to embarrass (links below). And there was no dearth of follow-up questions this day! At one point, Russert hectored Gore about Social Security. Now Tim, you know the difference, Gore replied, after Russerts initial presentation. But knowing the difference didnt matter this day. Was Bush allowed to ramble last weekend? Watch Gore as he gets interrupted:
RUSSERT: You mentioned privatizing. Let me put on the board for you what Clinton-Gore proposed in the year 2000 and put up for everyone to see: Increase returns from private investment. The administration proposes tapping the power of private financial markets to increase the resources to pay for future Social Security. Roughly one-fifth of the united budget surplus set aside for Social Security invested in corporate equities or other private financial instruments.At best, Russerts objections were tortured (links below). But the bulldog was snapping quite freely this day. Where was Russerts great respect when he sat with a sitting vice president?
Meanwhile, what would Big Russ say about Russerts most egregious performance with Gorehis repeated, bogus assertion that Gore may have committed a crime in his 1996 fund-raising? Showing the mandatory irrelevant-but-embarrassing piece of tape, Russert raised the topic:
RUSSERT: Mr. Vice President, when we talk to voters all across the country, they say they are looking for trustworthiness and a strong leader. A lot of comments made about your role in 1996 fund-raising. And Ill give you a chance to talk about them. April 29th, 1996, fund-raiser at the temple, Hsi Laiwe can see it there on our screenand following right behind you is one of your principal fund-raisers, Maria Hsia, who was convicted of five felony counts. The essence of the debate or discussion seems to be that director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, and three other ranking Justice Department officials believe there should be an independent counsel, special counsel, to look into this matter, because they think you may have broken the law or lied under oath. And they point specifically to your denial that you knew that event was a fund-raiser.We can see it there on our screen, Russert said, as he played pointless footage from the temple. It showed funny men dressed in funny robes, so people like Russert adored it.
Those are pretty selective facts, Gore said, after Russert finished his first peroration (weve only shown part of his lengthy brief). But Russert kept hammering away with his charge. After all, the director of the FBI and three Justice officials thought Gore may have committed a crime! Russert quoted Charles LaBella, one of the four, before the punishment ended.
Wow! Four major Justice honchos thought Gore may have broken the law! The bulldogs teeth were IN this day! Unfortunately, Russerts statement was grossly inaccurateand Charles LaBella had told him so, right on his Meet the Press program.
Russerts charge was damagingbut was it accurate? Did these officials think Gore had committed a crime? In fact, two of the four had repeatedly said something completely different. (The other two hadnt discussed the matter.) On June 11, 2000, for example, one of the four, Robert Litt, appeared on ABCs This Week. You have to remember that this is not a question really of whether the vice president committed a crime, he said. Nobody really thought that was the case. Nobody thought that, Litt told Cokie! And not only thatCharles LaBella appeared with Litt, and seemed to agree with his statement. Meanwhile, LaBella made similar statements on a string of shows, from April 2000 right through June. On June 27, for example, he was specifically asked about the Buddhist temple on Hannity & Colmes. I have never said anything other than I thought an investigation was warranted, he replied. I also said I thought, at the end of the day, the investigation would wash out the allegations. LaBella specifically said that Gore was unaware of Hsias illegal activities, the activities Russert would cite three weeks later. The fact is, when I was [working in the Justice Department], there was no evidence that I was aware of that Vice President Gore was aware of any of the contributions that went on at the temple, LaBella said.
On show after show, LaBella said he favored appointment of an independent counsel only as a process matter. He wanted the public to know that the charges against Gore were being probed outside the Clinton Justice Department. And heres the most surprising part: Despite Russerts damaging charge on July 16, LaBella had said the same thing to Russert himself on the April 2 Meet the Press. Weve got to put it in context for the American people because I think theres been a misunderstanding, he said. What we were saying was there should be an investigation [We were] not suggesting in any way, shape, or form that charges were going to be brought, or that charges were even appropriate. But alas! When Gore did Meet the Press three months later, Russert said that LaBellaand three other officialsthought Gore may have committed a crime. A bulldogs teeth were IN this day, and the bulldog kept snapping and growling. For the record, Gore was being extremely polite when he called Russerts statement selective.
So what would Big Russ say about that? Should Russert have shown some respect to Gore? And how about respect to the publicto the voters who were misled this fine day? Russerts session with Bush was weakbut his session with Gore was inexcusable. Maybe its time for a bulldog to sleep in the sun, so Americans can finally hear a real discourse. Maybe its time for a new breed of dogfor a dog who doesnt hide behind Dad, who treats all his guests with respect.
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For more on Russerts session with Gore, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/03, with links to real-time reporting.