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WHERE ARE STANDARDS (PART 2)! Russert seemed to play gotcha with Dean. Why shouldn’t Dems see double standards?

MONDAY, JUNE 30, 2003

EXTRA! CRANBERG SPEAKS! AGAIN! Kudos to the Post “Outlook” section for publishing Gilbert Cranberg’s piece on Colin Powell. We’ll have more on this topic by midweek. Of course, Colin Powell is King Untouchable; Cranberg’s report was completely ignored the first time it ran in a major paper (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/03). Maybe timorous pundits will even dare to ask Powell what happened this time.

RUSSERT PLAYS GOTCHA: Was Tim Russert trying to sandbag Dean with that question about the size of the military? Here at THE HOWLER, we can’t read minds, but it’s certainly hard not to wonder (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/03). Here’s the exchange from Meet the Press that ended with Dean, the Dem White House hopeful, displaying his woeful ignorance:

RUSSERT: Let’s talk about the military budget. How many men and women would you have on active duty?

DEAN: I can’t answer that question. And I don’t know what the answer is. I can tell you one thing, though. We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq…

RUSSERT: But how many troops—how many men and women do we now have on active duty?

DEAN: I can’t tell you the answer to that either. It’s—

RUSSERT: But as commander in chief, you should know that!

Bingo! Russert got to lecture Dean about what he should know as commander in chief. (When Dean told Russert his question was silly, his host only lectured him more.) But take a look at that exchange, and tell us why Dems shouldn’t suspect that Russert engaged in a bit of “gotcha” journalism. Question: Have you ever seen a White House hopeful asked that oddball opening question, about how many troops he would have on duty? But Russert’s first question set up his second, where he dumped his “pop quiz” down on Dean’s head. Our suspicion: Russert didn’t want to stage an overt “pop quiz,” so he created a two-step “gotcha.” Will someone tell us why a Dem shouldn’t suspect he did that?

But whatever Russert’s motives were, his oddball question—and his instant scolding—produced a Standard Press Corps Reaction. Pundits recited a New Standard Theme: Dean bombed on Meet the Press. As we’ve seen, scripted pundits now rattle this tale whenever Dem hopefuls do Russert’s program. How do Dems bomb? Let us count the ways! In the last year, Dean and Edwards bombed on the show because they seemed to know too little. In July 2000, Gore bombed on the show because he acted like he knew too much. And by hard, immutable press corps law, pundits must voice one more complaint. Scripted scribes must sadly say that they just wouldn’t answer Tim’s questions.

Funny, but things were different when Candidate Bush made his first Meet the Press appearance (November 21, 1999). In the past week, pundits have hammered Candidate Dean because he “sidestepped” and was “evasive.” But when Bush appeared on Meet the Press, the hopeful churned a string of responses which could have been spun this way, too. His replies—in a series of policy areas—were vague, evasive and factually challenged. And, just as Dean would do four years later, Bush said that he would rely on experts to inform him on military/foreign policy matters. But the press corps didn’t react in horror to Bush’s vagueness and lack of info. He didn’t find himself lectured by Russert. Nor did he land in a “gotcha” trap—a trap of his host’s invention.

Indeed, Russert seemed a different cat when Bush appeared on his program. It was late November, not late June, the date of Dean’s appearance. As such, the campaign was five months further along—and Bush had already drawn some fire for being uninformed about foreign policy matters. Just two days earlier, Bush had given his first address on the subject, laying out his global vision. But somehow, Russert failed to ask how many troops President Bush would have in the field. Nor did he spring any factual question designed to test Bush’s knowledge. The spirit of “gotcha” was AWOL this day. For example, here’s how Russert handled arms reduction. Note that Russert simply provides the key numbers as part of his question:

RUSSERT: In your speech, you said that arms reductions are not our most pressing challenge.

BUSH: That’s right.

RUSSERT: Right now, we have 7,200 nuclear weapons; the Russians have 6,000. What to you is an acceptable level?

BUSH: That’s going to depend upon generals helping me make that decision, Tim.

In this exchange, Russert doesn’t stage a quiz of Bush’s knowledge; he simply provides the number of nukes. Nor does any lecture follow when Bush can’t answer his question. Indeed, in the next exchange, Bush does demur on a factual question. But again, this produces no lecture from Russert about how much the hopeful should know:
RUSSERT: What would START II bring us down to?

BUSH: I can’t remember the exact number. But I know that we’ve got to spend enough money to help them dismantle the weaponry down to the START I level…

At the end of Bush’s long reply, there was no lecture from Bulldog Russert about his responsibilities as a candidate. Again, this interview took place in late November—five months deeper into the cycle than last week’s session with Dean.

Was there something wrong with Bush’s performance? By normal standards, no, there was not. Did Russert misperform that day? Although he served ample portions of patty-cake, his performance was generally in the normal range, too. But a different fellow lay in wait when Dean did Meet the Press last Sunday. When Dean appeared on Meet the Press, Russert quickly staged a quiz—then offered a set of scolding lectures. And that’s why sensible Dems now ask if Russert has two sets of standards.

TOMORROW: He pandered to Bush, then hammered on Dean. Why shouldn’t Dems see double standards?

THE POST’S SCRIPTS: Insider pundits all know the great script; when major Dems appear with Russert, they just won’t answer Tim’s questions! On Saturday, the Washington Post reviewed Dean’s appearance—and lamented his evasions and his waffling. Dean’s performance “was, to put it charitably, less than impressive,” the editors said. Indeed, they gave a deeply disturbing example of Dean’s very troubling conduct:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (6/28/03): Mr. Dean’s “Meet the Press” performance was, to put it charitably, less than impressive. For a candidate whose appeal is based on a straight-talker image, his answers were at times waffling and evasive. “You know, I go back and forth on that,” he said of his position on a balanced budget amendment.
And yes, that was the Post’s complete discussion of Dean on a balanced budget amendment! But what was supposed to be “evasive” about the hopeful’s discussion? In fact, Dean gave a detailed answer on the subject, describing the pros and cons of such a proposal (a proposal which no one has been making). Meanwhile, Russert never asked if Dean would support a BBA in the end. But no matter! By the corps’ immutable scripts, Dean’s presentation was spun as “evasive.” This has become a great pundit theme, and Dean was soon part of the script.

In fact, how easy is life as a Washington pundit? In this editorial, the Post’s editors essentially cut-and-pasted Kit Seelye. Her identical pseudo-critique had appeared five days before:

SEELYE (6/23/03): Dr. Dean, a Democrat who prides himself on his straightforwardness, equivocated on several issues…Asked whether he would support a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, he said, “I go back and forth on that.”
And yes, that was her full analysis, too! In this press corps, one pseudo-analysis deserves another—so the dutiful eds cut-and-pasted.

Meanwhile, the Post provided a public service, explaining one of the Press Corps’ New Standards. Back in 1999, Candidate Bush repeatedly said that he would rely on expert help. That seemed to be OK from Bush, but now it’s troubling conduct from Dean. Where were standards? And why had they changed? Here was the Post’s explanation:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (6/28/03): Mr. Dean rejected as “silly” a question about the number of troops on active duty, and he had a point, but his generally cavalier attitude—“I will have the kinds of people around me who can tell me these things,” he said—isn’t apt to inspire confidence in voters who, particularly after 9/11, want a president with national security expertise.
Why had pundit standards changed? Easy: That was then, and this is now! Bush had said the very same things—but after events of 9/11, it represents a “cavalier attitude.” Meanwhile, you know how that Washington pundit corps works! On Capital Gang, a pundit cut-and-pasted the Post, just as the Post cut-and-pasted Kit Seelye:
MARGARET CARLSON (6/28/03): For a straight talker, [Dean] doesn’t always give a straight answer, and some of that was obvious on Tim Russert, when he said things like…he’d have people for that sort of thing, for the questions he didn’t have an answer to, which worked for George Bush in 2000, but I don’t think works now after 9/11…
As usual, Washington pundits all Say The Same Things! The Post had come up with a pleasing new point. Carlson pressed “Ctrl/C” for “Copy.”

The Daily update

IF WE COULD TALK TO THE ANIMALS: Conservative pundits were quite upset with the Texas sodomy verdict. In Texas, gays can engage in consensual sex without the fear of arrest! But did anyone notice the way this decision brought certain strange thoughts to some kooky-con minds? For all too many talk-show conservatives, a movie was playing—When Harry Met Lassie. To these pundits, the logic was obvious—if gays are allowed to get it on, bestiality will soon be cool too. George Will expressed the kooky thought best:
WILL: Once consent…supplants marriage as the important interest served by cloaking sexual activities as constitutional rights, by what principle is any consensual adult sexual conduct not a protected right? Bigamy? Polygamy? Prostitution? Incest? Even—if we assume animals can consent, or that their consent does not matter—bestiality?
According to Will, if we assume that animals can consent, then bestiality will be OK too! Of course, if we assume that pigs can fly, then pigs might try to run their own airline! What in the world puts such kooky thoughts in the minds of our leading conservatives?

Whatever the explanation might be, similar thoughts were quite widespread in the wake of the Texas decision. Scented poodles began to bark in the minds of the talk-show right. Indeed, their greatest tribune expressed the weird thought, right there in his fiery opinion:

SCALIA: State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’s validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision.
At least Scalia managed to say that he was talking about adult incest. But poor Scalia! Forget about looming bestiality—the decision might even permit masturbation! By the way, does anyone tire of hearing the fiction that this strange man is a sage?

Readers, the “culture wars” of which we hear continue to rage in these people’s minds. For example, Will’s column bore this childish headline: “Lap Dancing On the Constitution.” Yes, people—in the privacy of their home, two adults can engage in that vile conduct too. This question is why some kooky cons just can’t drive such thoughts from their minds.

TOMORROW: Race and sex both drive them wild. If you doubt it, let’s limn Michelle Malkin.