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ALL IN THE FAMILY (PART 3)! It seems that Russert is never wrong—if you ask Russert, that is:

FRIDAY, JUNE 25, 2004

THE ILLOGIC OF LINKS, TIES AND CONTACTS: Good God! Last week, we said the discussion of Iraq and al Qaeda would turn on the logic of links, ties and contacts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/18/04). The 9/11 Commission had said two things: There had been “contacts” between the two orgs. But as far as the commission could tell, they hadn’t engaged in a “collaborative relationship.” So what’s true? Have the orgs ever worked together? Have they ever formed a partnership? That is, of course, an empirical question. But the public discussion of this topic has drowned in the logic of links, ties and contacts. Consider what happened when Brit Hume’s “all-stars” tried discussing Gore’s speech just last night.

Brit played one short clip from the speech. Then he and Fred started discussin’:

HUME: Panel, that’s Al Gore today on President Bush. He asserts this on the basis of what he said the 9/11 Commission found, and therefore, made clear that there is no connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. What about it?

BARNES: You know, I think there are a lot of people who disagree with him. Not only myself, but there’s President Bush, there's CIA director George Tenet who was, after all, the CIA director when Al Gore was vice president. They’re both the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission itself, who have said there definitely were ties there between al Qaeda and Saddam.

But what exactly did Fred mean by “ties?” Did he mean “contacts”—or did he mean something more? The simple word “ties” can be quite hard to limn. Bravely, Juan Williams threw in his ten cents. But when he did, Brit shut him down, and the gang seemed to play Who’s On First:
WILLIAMS: But what Al Gore is saying is there was no collaborative relationship.

HUME: No. No. No. Hold it a minute! He says in this sound bite—

BARNES: That’s not what he said.

LIASSON: That’s what the commission says.

HUME: —that there is no linkage. He said that they’re asserting a linkage.



WILLIAMS: Fine. The way I interpret—

LIASSON: And he said the commission found no linkage, when in fact, the commission found no collaborative relationship.

WILLIAMS: Correct.

And yes, it was just that bad if you actually watched. After endless confusion about what the commission had said, Mara tried to clear things up. Her comment made absolute perfect sense. So naturally, Brit jumped on her too:
LIASSON: The argument is about what kind of ties—

HUME: The argument is not about what kind of ties! The argument, based on this speech, is about whether there was any linkage or not. This man, this former vice president, is claiming that there were—that the 9/11 Commission found no ties.

LIASSON: Which is false. But the difference between the commission and the White House is just the way you describe it, collaborative relationship versus linkage.

“The argument is about what kind of ties.” Mara, of course, was perfectly right. But the endless illogic of links, ties and contacts overcame these Fox “all-stars” last night. Can you imagine the chaos we’d hear if they ever brought in minor-leaguers?

What did Gore actually claim in his speech? We haven’t read the whole speech yet. But Michael Janofsky is quite coherent in today’s New York Times:

JANOFSKY: Mr. Gore referred several times to the report last week by the staff of the Sept. 11 commission that cited contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda but said there was no collaborative relationship between them. Yet he said Mr. Bush and other administration officials continued to assert “aggressively and brazenly” that a stronger link existed.

“They have such an overwhelming political interest in sustaining the belief in the minds of the American people that Hussein was in partnership with bin Laden,” Mr. Gore said, “that they dare not admit the truth lest they look like complete fools for launching our country into a reckless, discretionary war against a nation that posed no immediate threat to us whatsoever.”

Was there a “partnership” between Iraq and al Qaeda? And has the Bush Admin suggested same—that such a “stronger link” existed? Janofsky makes a coherent presentation. So does Gore, in the passage quoted. The facts, of course, remain to be scanned. But last night, the “all-stars” never got to that point. Instead, they played a game of Who’s On First as they drowned in the logic of links, ties and contacts. And yes: This is very much the way our modern press discourse often works.

Our current series: All in the family


PART 1: Tim Russert’s father deserves your respect. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04.

PART 2: Being Tim Russert has its advantages. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/04.

Now, for today’s third installment:

DUDE’S NEVER WRONG (PART 3): Why should we care if scribes get paid “north of $5 million a year,” or if they try to build a “brand name” out of pleasing if semi-implausible tales? The problem lies with human nature. When people become too rich and too famous, they really do tend to bloat with pride—and as our elites have fawned to Russert, the signs of decay have been evident. Indeed, in Russert’s own mind, he is now never wrong. Consider what happened when Howard Kurtz dared to challenge his work as a pundit.

“Let’s look at your punditry record,” Kurtz pleasantly said during his recent session with Russert. The scribe was stepping on dangerous soil. But he quickly got down to brass tacks:

KURTZ: January 6, 2004, on the “Today” show, Matt Lauer asked you whether Dean was, quote, unstoppable. You said: “Right now something would have to interfere with Howard Dean’s movement towards the nomination. He clearly is on his way to it unless something untoward happens.”Two weeks later, Dean was trounced in Iowa. Were you wrong?
Almost anyone else would consider saying that yes, he might have been somewhat wrong. Not Russert! As is his current wont when challenged, the squire of Nantucket started parsing:
RUSSERT: Was I wrong? I think he was on his way to the nomination. I think the intervening event was the extraordinary negativity that erupted between Gephardt and Dean. And then, ultimately, in the scream, which I thought was kind of a striking event. But at that stage, do I think that he was the front-runner? Absolutely, yes.
Hmm. Just like that, Slick changed the question to “front-runner.” (He had been asked about “unstoppable.”) As if you read the whole exchange, you’ll see that Kurtz continued chronicling Russert’s imperfect predictions about Dean. But clearly, Russert is never wrong. How far will he go to maintain his record? He let us see in these last Q-and-A’s:
KURTZ: On January 19, 2004, the day of the Iowa caucuses, Matt Lauer asked you, “Which candidates can survive a setback in Iowa?” And you said: “Howard Dean. He has a revenue source on the Internet; he has an organization in the states and a future.” Did you miss the boat on that one?

RUSSERT: Oh, no. I mean, he did survive. He went through New Hampshire—

KURTZ: And got clobbered there, too.

RUSSERT: He had the money to run a very competitive race in New Hampshire. You will recall throughout the day because of the, quote, exit polls, which people were relying on, I mean the early reporting on many of the cable outlets was that, you know, Dean had run better than expected. So, I mean, Dean hung in there and through Wisconsin.

“Oh, no!” Russert instinctively said. Indeed, to prove that he’d been right all along, he even cited “the early reporting on many of the cable outlets”—early reporting that turned out to be wrong! As we learned when the actual votes came in, Dean had not “run better than expected” in New Hampshire. But Howard Kurtz had dared to ask if the squire had “missed the boat” in New Hampshire. Because the squire is never wrong, he quickly cited some bogus evidence. This is the way politicians react—politicians who can’t take a punch.

But that’s what happens to human beings—even to decent people like Russert—when their heads get filled with fake, phony praise from minions who fawn, pimp and pander. All that praise can go to their heads. They start hearing themselves described as saviors even when they’ve been lightly chided (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04), and any suggestion that they might have erred is met with instant denial. Continuing bravely, Kurtz asked Russert if he overstepped at a famous Campaign 2000 debate. The reaction again: Quick denial:

KURTZ: One controversial moment in your career was in September 2000, when you moderated the debate in the Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Congressman Rick Lazio. You asked if she would apologize for branding her husband’s accusers as part of a right-wing conspiracy. You asked, “Do you regret misleading the American people?” That caused quite a stir. Did you go too far on that?


KURTZ: Absolutely fair game?

RUSSERT: Oh sure.

Did Tim “go too far” in his questions to Hillary? In the question Kurtz quotes, Russert implied that she deliberately misstated the facts—an insinuation for which he offered no evidence—and as his string of questions continued, he absurdly suggested, two separate times, that she had meant to tar anyone who ever criticized her husband as part of that “right-wing conspiracy.” (Absurdly, Russert even mentioned Joe Lieberman, asking if she would apologize to him.) As a result, some observers came down on Tim hard. Indeed, Kurtz cited one scribe by name. Note: The text about the “clarification” was inserted by Kurtz, not by us:
KURTZ: On the [questions to Hillary Clinton], Mark Sommer, a Buffalo News columnist, said you were “like a bull in a china shop.” He said you chose “sensationalism over substance.” He said Russert “embarrassed himself and his profession.” Pretty tough stuff.

RUSSERT: Yeah, but he wrote an apology or a retraction. [Actually, a clarification.]

KURTZ: Did you call him?

RUSSERT: I didn’t call him. He got his facts wrong in that column in a big way...Can you imagine a debate with Hillary Clinton running for the Senate from New York and not talk about her comments?

Actually, many people could imagine a debate in which Clinton’s comments weren’t absurdly mischaracterized. But having mischaracterized what Clinton said, Russert mischaracterized Sommer’s critique, too. As Kurtz noted, the Buffalo News had issued a “clarification” (full text below) in which the paper acknowledged one minor mistake by Sommer, and in which it recorded Russert’s objection to one of Sommer’s “interpretations” (an interpretation Sommer did not retract). Did Sommer “get his facts wrong in a big way?” That, of course, is a matter of judgment. But one claim by Russert was just flat-out wrong. On Monday, Kurtz reported the error:
KURTZ (6/21/04): Tim Russert has told the Buffalo News he regrets an error he made in a recent Washington Post Magazine interview.

Russert had said he never called News reporter Mark Sommer to complain about a negative review of his performance in moderating a Hillary Clinton-Rick Lazio Senate debate in 2000. But Sommer says in an interview that Russert called him twice about the piece and “was furious...I was struck how a guy who basks in the reputation of being a tough reporter can’t handle criticism when it applies to himself.”

“I just plain didn’t remember it,” Russert told Kurtz. But he didn’t deny what Sommer had said—that he actually called Sommer two times.

Yes, human nature being what it is, it’s dangerous when our biggest journalists lollygag on their decks in Nantucket typing up tales of their Buffalo souls. When we humans are pandered and fawned to, we tend to nurture imperial dreams, in which our conduct and instincts are always correct. And we start repeating worthless tropes to prove how fair we really are. Indeed, as we see in his session with Kurtz, Russert likes to offer the silliest proof of his fairness. When Kurtz dared ask if he’s harder on Dems, Russert dragged out an old chestnut:

KURTZ: I get a lot of e-mail from liberals saying you’re much tougher on Democratic candidates than you are on Bush administration officials. I’m sure you’ve heard this.

RUSSERT: You know what? I get it from both sides. It’s overwhelming.

As readers of his book can see, Russert adopts this worthless posture almost by reflex. As long as he’s criticized “from both sides,” Russert assumes that his work must be fair. Indeed, when Kurtz challenged Russert’s questions to Hillary, he dragged out the chestnut again:
RUSSERT: I mean, you have to be evenhanded in these things, and to this day I’m amazed, well, when you say cause a stir, it was largely amongst party activists supporting Hillary Clinton. And I fully expected that ...You get it from the left and the right, and I think that kind of confirms you’re doing a pretty good job.
In short, until Republicans complain that he’s too hard on Hill, Tim will assume that he’s been a good boy. In fairness, almost all scribes use this empty escape. But Russert recites it while sleeping.

Of course, it’s not as if Russert has never been wrong. In Big Russ & Me, he bravely describes the time he went bad—by beating up on a Nazi, David Duke! On Dateline, he confessed to Stone Phillips:

RUSSERT: In fact, after that interview someone from NBC said, “You know, you got to be careful not to cross the line from moderator or questioner to prosecutor.” So I called Big Russ, the way I always do after the show, and he picked up the phone and said, “That was great. You were pounding that guy.” And I said, “Well, Dad,” I said, “I got to be careful. They’re suggesting I may have made a mistake this time.” Long pause, he said, “I’ll tell you what, you make a mistake, make a mistake with a Nazi.”
In Russert World, he’s even the good guy when he goes bad! His biggest mistake? Beating up on Nazi too hard! This is like the apocryphal pol who’s asked to name his biggest character flaw. “I would have to say I’m too honest,” he admits.

Yes, important scribes can swell with pride when they’re over-paid and over-praised. But it’s odd to see Russert puffed with pride, because he’s been warned all about it. “Dad was wary of people whose heads were too big for the doorway,” he writes in Big Russ & Me (page 157). Earlier, on page 43, it’s another valuable lesson learned: “‘Don’t get too big for your britches,’ Dad would say, and ‘Don’t get a swelled head.’” But even decent people—people like Russert—can bloat when showered with fake, phony praise, and lessons learned in the snows off the lake can be lost in the winds of Nantucket.

MONDAY: Our lesson-laden, hard-hitting conclusion! “You have to be man enough to go to that person and tell him, to his face, what you have done.”

TEXT OF THAT CLARIFICATION: Here’s the “clarification” which appeared in the Buffalo News after Russert complained about Sommer (no relation):

CLARIFICATION: In a Sept. 18 commentary after the first debate between U.S. Senate candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick A. Lazio, News Arts Editor Mark Sommer criticized debate moderator Tim Russert for asking Clinton if she regretted “misleading the American people” in a 1998 television interview. In that interview, she blamed criticism of her husband over the Monica S. Lewinsky affair on a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Sommer’s commentary asserted that “Clinton had already answered similar questions before.” In fact, Clinton had not been asked that question previously. But she has addressed the issue generally, including making a press statement that she was misled about her husband’s affair. The News commentary also stated that Russert has belittled the idea of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” on his NBC “Meet the Press” program. That observation was based on Sommer’s impression and interpretation after watching many of those programs. Russert, however, asserts that is not the case and that he never belittled the idea in any way.
Did Russert ever “belittle” the idea of a “vast right-wing conspiracy?” (In his column, Sommer said he did so “on more than one occasion.”) It’s hard to know how to judge that claim. Belittlement is in the eye of the beholder; based on an imperfect search of Meet the Press transcripts, we would say that Russert did not “belittle” the notion on a regular basis—perhaps not at all. But did he “belittle” it more than once? It was a minor claim in a longer column—and there’s no real way we can judge it.