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ALL IN THE FAMILY (PART 5)! Given the valuable lessons he's learned it’s time Tim explained what he did:


(DON’T BE A) TRUE BELIEVER: We knew the e-mails would come rolling in when we dared say Michael Moore made an error. As we noted, Fahrenheit 9/11 clearly implies that Saudis were allowed to leave the country before American citizens could fly in the wake of September 11. (We went back a second time to be sure.) As we said, the point is trivial, but this claim has turned out to be wrong. For the record, here is the relevant text of the film. Yes, the matter is basically trivial. But the suggestion is clear, and it’s wrong:

MOORE: In the days following September 11th, all commercial and private airline traffic was grounded.

VOICEOVER: The FAA has taken action to close all of the airports in the United States—

VOICEOVER: Even grounding the president's father, former President Bush, on a flight forced to land in Milwaukee. Dozens of travelers stranded, among them, Ricky Martin, due to perform at tonight's Latin Grammy awards.

MOORE: Not even Ricky Martin could fly. But really, who wanted to fly? No one. Except the bin Ladens.

(video of plane taking off. Song, "We've got to get out of this place")

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: We had some airplanes authorized at the highest levels of our government to fly to pick up Osama bin Laden's family members and others from Saudi Arabia, transport them out of this country.

MOORE: It turns out that the White House approved planes to pick up the bin Ladens and numerous other Saudis. At least six private jets and nearly two dozen commercial plans carried the Saudis and the bin Ladens out of the U.S. after September 13th. In all, 142 Saudis, including 24 members of the bin Laden family, were allowed to leave the country.

The suggestion there is perfectly obvious. When the planes were grounded, no one even wanted to fly—except the bin Ladens—and they were transported out of the country. One reader writes back to say that the phrase “after September 13th” means this passage is actually accurate (air space reopened on 9/14). But almost no one watching this film will know the date when air space reopened. If they do know, it will only be because Moore’s critics—searching for errors with which to assail him—have hammered away on this point. (As we said, another question is more serious: Were the Saudis adequately questioned? On that, we have no view.)

This is a trivial, fleeting point in the film, but the suggestion is wrong. By the way, please don’t write about that one flight from Tampa on 9/13. The issue here is leaving the country, and that flight went to Lexington, Kentucky. None of this is worth haggling about. But on this minor, fleeting point, the film’s suggestion is wrong—and Moore has been hammered for it.

JOE SCARBOROUGH’S RUBIFICATION PROGRAM: Joe Scarborough’s program last night was astounding. More on this nightmare tomorrow.

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.

PART 3: Tim Russert never seems to be wrong! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/25/04.

PART 4: We caught Russert’s drift about those darn Dems. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/28/04.

Now, for our thrilling conclusion:

IT’S TIME HE EXPLAINED WHAT HE DID (PART 5): What kind of Democrat was young Russert? In Big Russ & Me, he doesn’t really say. And today, Russert says, he has no real views. During his session with Howard Kurtz, for example, he said he has no view on tax cuts:

RUSSERT: One of the fiercest critics of my comments about [Howard] Dean was someone who believes very deeply that there should be more tax cuts, not fewer, and that every time I ask a politician about deficits resulting from tax cuts, that I'm pushing a personal agenda, that I don’t like tax cuts. I don't have a view on tax cuts—

KURTZ: You don't have a view on tax cuts? Or you don't let your personal views affect the kind of questions you ask?

RUSSERT: I don't have a view on tax cuts, I really don't. What I've tried to do in my life is come to a point where I know both sides of the issues so well that I almost confuse myself, and I can see the merit of both sides.

As usual, Russert is super-humanly fair. For ourselves, we don’t doubt that Russert has tried to understand “both sides” of mainstream issues. But he surely has an outlook on certain topics—on the future of Social Security, for example. While moderating a Republican debate in January 2000, he pushed his own view of this issue so hard that one of the candidates, Allan Keyes, finally upbraided him for his politicking. “I begin to wonder when Mr. Russert will declare his candidacy,” the hot-headed hopeful heroically said. Here on our campus, we lustily cheered. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/17/00.

No, we don’t doubt that Russert has tried to discipline himself in the manner described. But everyone has views and perspectives, and Russert—for all his tales of those Buffalo days—is now a man of the Washington insider class, a man who vacations on Nantucket with the NBC elite (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04). And alas! During the bad old days of the 1990s, this gang really did stand out when it came to distaste for Bill Clinton. And later, throughout the establishment press, this distaste was neatly transferred to Clinton’s anointed successor, Al Gore—which brings us to the worst single hour Russert has ever performed on TV.

We refer to Russert’s Meet the Press session with Gore on July 16, 2000, in which he performed one of the most awful turns in recent press corps history. As Russert neared the end of the session, he had already conducted an interview for which he’d be hailed as “prosecutorial.” But at the start of the show’s final segment, Russert unloaded the following attack—a presentation he ought to explain even now, some four years later:

RUSSERT (7/16/00): 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 I'll give you a chance to talk about them. April 29, 1996, fund raiser at the temple, Hsi Lai—we can see it there on our screen—and 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.
Yikes! According to Russert, the FBI chief and three other honchos thought Gore “may have broken the law or lied under oath.” And Russert was dropping this bomb on Gore just four months before a White House election, and just one month before he would go to L.A. to accept his party’s presidential nomination. But as of July 16, 2000, establishment Washington had already spent sixteen months dropping bombs on Candidate Gore, and most of their bombs, like Russert’s this day, were bombs they had simply invented. But no matter—Russert soon dropped his A-bomb again. “This is beating a dead horse,” Gore said, responding to Russert’s endless (and selective) charges. “No, no, it’s an open investigation,” Russert said. “When the director of the FBI and three Justice officials say it should be looked into, that’s why I’m asking. You deserve a chance to talk about it,” Gore’s host magnanimously said.

Russert’s overall performance this day was among the worst in Sunday talk history. We’ve discussed his outing in detail before (links below), but it’s hard to avoid recalling this session when reading his current self-impressed book—a memoir which tries to help readers see how balanced and fair Russert is.

What was so strange about Russert’s performance? According to Russert, four Justice officials—including the head of the FBI—thought Gore “may have broken the law or lied under oath” in connection with the Buddhist temple incident. They were “pointing specifically” to Gore’s denial that he knew the event was a fund-raiser. It’s hard to imagine a more serious charge, offered in the heat of a White House campaign. And excited scribes echoed the charge for weeks. Not much later, Bush took the White House after one of the closest elections in history.

But there was one major problem with Russert’s charge—a charge which produced so much heat. Did those officials actually think that Gore may have committed a crime? In fact, two of the four had repeatedly said something totally different. (The other two hadn’t discussed the matter.) On June 11, 2000, for example, one of the four, Robert Litt, had appeared on ABC’s This Week. “You have to remember that this is not a question really of whether the vice president committed a crime,” Litt said. “Nobody really thought that was the case.” Nobody thought that, he told Sam and Cokie! Appearing with Litt was Charles LaBella, another of the Justice officials to whom Russert would refer five weeks later. LaBella seemed to agree with Litt, and from April through June, he made similar statements on a string of major programs. On June 27, 2000, for example, he was asked about Gore and 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.” And LaBella specifically told Sean and Alan that Gore was unaware of Hsia’s illegal activities—the crimes which Russert suggestively cited. “The fact is, when I was there, there was no evidence that I was aware of that Vice President Gore was aware of any of the [illegal] contributions that went on at the temple,” the gumshoe debunkingly said.

Yikes! On show after show, LaBella said that he favored appointment of an independent counsel only as a “process matter;” he wanted the public to know that the charges had been investigated outside the Clinton Justice Department. Meanwhile, Litt had said the very same thing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It is important to remember that no one really thought that the Vice President ought to be prosecuted,” he told the committee on June 21. “The question was only whether the technical provisions of the Independent Counsel Act required that an independent counsel be appointed to make that decision.” In the weeks before Gore did Meet the Press, Litt and LaBella repeatedly made these statements in high-profile forums.

Yes, Labella and Litt repeatedly said it: “You have to remember that this is not a question really of whether the vice president committed a crime. Nobody really thought that was the case.” But here’s the most surprising part: Despite Russert’s damaging charge on July 16, LaBella had made similar statements to Russert himself, right on the April 2 Meet the Press! “We’ve got to put it in context for the American people because I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” he told the squire of Nantucket that day. “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 four officials—including LaBella and Litt—thought he “may have committed a crime.” In fact, LaBella had said something totally different. He had said it right to Russert’s face, right there on Russert’s own program.

If fairness plays any role in press culture, Russert’s performance this day was appalling. “Tim, this has all been aired publicly and otherwise,” Gore replied at one point, showing the patience and personal dignity we have come to associate with Russert’s father, “and those are pretty selective facts.” As Russert continued, Gore said it again. “Well, again, that's pretty selective,” he said to another of Tim’s presentations. But the public never got to know just how “selective” Russert’s facts had been. After all, being Tim Russert has its advantages! Fellow pundits stampeded into print, swearing how brilliant their Top Cop had been. We at THE HOWLER corrected the record (links below). But everywhere, scribes knew to stand silent.

For the record, Russert’s performance shows why some Dems now doubt his good faith, a point Kurtz raised in his interview. But the publication of Russert’s new book helps shed new light on this puzzling session. After all, fair-minded people may want to think that Russert simply erred this day. But Russert insists, in his self-pleased new book, that no such excuse could be possible.

In Big Russ & Me—and in his promotional appearances—Russert boasts about the preparation he performs before every program. Indeed, it’s one of the valuable lessons he learned back in his Buffalo days. Remember the day in 1962 when Big Russ scoped the route of that Kennedy motorcade? “I learned at least three things that day,” Russert writes, “and they are lessons that I still think about and follow.” As we pondered Russert’s text, Lesson 2 caught our eye. How could it not?

RUSSERT (page 147): The second lesson from that day is that the key to success is preparation. In journalism, it’s absolutely crucial. Like everyone else, I have days when things go well, and days when they don’t. But one mistake I have never made is to show up unprepared for an interview.
So there it was, in Russert’s own words! By his own self-effacing admission, Russert says he has never been unprepared for an interview—not once! And since he’d been told—on his very own show—that these four major Justice officials didn’t think Gore had committed a crime, how hard could it really have been to prep him for this crucial session? No, to judge from the boasting right there in his book, Russert knew his brief this day; he knew what LaBella and Litt had been saying. But this was the summer of 2000, and the Nantucket elites had been trashing Gore for two years, dropping bombs which they kept inventing. Result? Russert went ahead and accused Gore all the same, committing a truly ugly offence against you and our challenged democracy.

Readers, do you see why we were slightly puzzled by Nicholas Lemann’s profile of Russert? Remember the slightly odd things the scribe said? “Toward officialdom he is always respectful,” Lemann wrote, “and toward officialdom so high as to border on celebrity he is starstruck.” But how “respectful” was Russert this day, raining his C-bomb (for “crime”) on Gore’s head? At another point in his puzzling profile, Lemann praised Russert’s restraint:

LEMANN: Russert wouldn’t be such a big star, though, if he crossed the line into nastiness. He usually takes the dangerous edge of off his hostile questions by presenting them as being merely requests for a response to something someone else has said, and he has an instinct for when to pull back from charged moments and return to tough-but-respectful.
But on this important occasion with Gore, Russert didn’t seem to “pull back” at all. Indeed, he did “present his hostile questions” as being “merely requests for a response to something someone else has said.” But on this day, he baldly misstated what those people had said, accusing Gore of crimes in the process. Which part of Russert’s effort this day could have struck Lemann as being “respectful?” For the record, Lemman cites passages from this Meet the Press session two times. But he strangely fails to mention this, the most significant part of the outing.

Of course, being Tim Russert does have its advantages, as we incomparably told you last week.. At THE HOWLER, we discussed this horror show in real time, and we’ve described it periodically in the years since. We have also described the rest of Russert’s outing—a horrendous performance from start to finish, in which Russert hectored, bashed and trashed Gore, a well-known member of “high officialdom.” But it’s funny! From that day to this, we have never seen anyone else ever refer to Russert’s startling offence. We’ve seen no one mention it in the mainstream press. We’ve seen no one mention it on the web. Next week, we’ll take some time to wonder why Russert gets this treatment, even from fiery “bloggers.”

But here’s the good news: After reading Russert’s book, we think the time is drawing near when the scribe will explain his own conduct. It all comes down to “accountability,” another valuable lesson learned back in the Buffalo days. Early on in Big Russ & Me, Russert limns the lesson-laden day when he broke a window in a neighbor’s garage. Big Russ tells Tim he has to fess up and pay for the broken glass. Then the story begins to mature:

RUSSERT (page 28-29): That afternoon, Dad bought a pane of glass and fixed the window while I watched. Then he sent me home to get a broom and a dust pan. When we had cleaned up all the broken glass, Dad told me to bring him a shoe box...I learned how to dispose of broken glass, but the real lesson I learned that day was about accountability. If you break somebody’s window, it’s not enough to fix it. You have to be man enough to go to that person and tell him, to his face, what you have done.
Another valuable lesson learned—and here’s the perfect chance to apply it! No, the press and the web will never challenge Russert about his conduct this day. But Russert obviously knows what he did, and he learned the accountability lesson. Russert badly offended against Gore that day; far worse, he badly offended against you. Isn’t it time for the host to fess up? Isn’t it time he was man enough to tell you, to your face, what he did?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For a fairly recent review of Russert’s session with Gore, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/03. In that post, we link to four detailed reviews of this awful hour, reviews we posted in real time. Note: When we reviewed this session in July 2000, we didn’t know LaBella had done Meet the Press. For whatever reason, the 4/2/00 Meet the Press is missing from Nexis to this day.

THE LOST PROMOTION: Two readers suggested that Big Russ’s lost promotion may not have involved affirmative action. Here is one e-mail:

E-MAIL: Regarding Monday's reference to Big Russ's lost promotion, I worked for many years for the New York State government. During that time, it was common practice, in my office and elsewhere, to ask people who scored well on promotional exams to sign off so that management could appoint someone of their choice. I was never asked to sign off (or received a promotion because others did sign off). There were generally two reasons that management wanted to get to a person lower on the list. In my recollection, the primary reason was that the person was already doing the job as a provisional appointment or was the right choice for the promotion based on skills and experience and just didn't do well on civil service tests. The second and less justifiable reason would be that the person was more favored by management for the position. I can't remember any instances where the reason appeared to be affirmative action related. There were too many other ways to address affirmative action in government (e.g., non-service appointments, provisional appointments, creating new titles for provisional appointments, etc.) Of course, this doesn't mean that it never happens or didn't happen in this case, but I would not have interpreted the anecdote as a veiled reference to affirmative action.
Did the lost promotion involve affirmative action? We don’t have any idea; Russert’s tale was murkily told. But for those who haven’t worked for the New York state government, we think this would be an obvious thought. As we said in Monday’s post, we wish this story was told more clearly. To us, it felt like a wink-and-a-nod. Frankly, that did surprise us—Russert doesn’t strike us that way. As we noted, he stresses the fact that his dad always pushed for racial understanding and fairness.

Others said the story didn’t quite make sense. If Big Russ didn’t “sign off” on the promotion; and if the law said the job had to go to one of the top three scorers; then why didn’t Big Russ get the job? We wondered about that too. (Perhaps it went to another of the top three.) But Big Russ & Me is full of stories that don’t quite make sense, except for the messages they’re designed to convey. Our favorite such story concerns the flat tire. Perhaps you can spot the problem:

RUSSERT (page 210): A couple of months later I had a flat twenty miles outside the city, and again he drove out to meet me. This time, however, he was upset. “Are you kidding? This tire looks like Yul Brynner’s head! You’ve got to be responsible. Part of owning a car is having good rubber. You know, it’s a good thing this tire blew because it’s not safe to be driving on.” Another lesson learned.
We couldn’t help wondering when the lesson was learned about always having a spare.