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25 July 2000

Our current howler (part I): Top bunk

Synopsis: Margaret Carlson praised Russert’s questions. They were like what you’d hear in a dorm!

Commentary by Tim Russert
Meet the Press, NBC, 7/16/00

Gore Rejected C.I.A. Evidence of Russian Corruption
James Risen, The New York Times, 11/23/98

Russian crapshoot
David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 9/1/99

Commentary by Margaret Carlson
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 7/20/00

It was a slightly odd question. Toward the end of his hour-long session with Gore, Tim Russert had a special request:

RUSSERT: There was an article in The New York Times, which I've always wanted to ask you about, and I'll put it on the screen and have our viewers see it: "When the Central Intelligence Agency uncovered what analysts considered to be conclusive evidence of the personal corruption of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of Russia in 1995, they sent it to the White House, expecting Clinton administration officials to be impressed with their work. Instead, when the secret CIA report on Chernomyrdin arrived in the office of Al Gore, it was rejected and sent back to the CIA with a barnyard epithet scrawled across its cover. At CIA headquarters, the message seemed clear: The vice president did not want to hear allegations that Chernomyrdin was corrupt and was not interested in further intelligence reports on the matter."

"That is utter nonsense," Gore said.

"Never happened?" Russert asked.

Gore shook his head. "Never happened."

It was just a minor part of the interview, but for us it helped set a tone. Russert was referring to a report that had appeared in the New York Times almost two years before. On November 23, 1998, James Risen began a lengthy article with the anecdote which Russert now recalled. According to Risen and his CIA sources, Gore had stuck his head in the sand when it came to Chernomyrdin's real character.

Gore told Russert the incident hadn't happened, and said the report in question had been "a very sloppy piece of work." He said that, "in his dealings with our country," Chernomyrdin "proved to be a person who was worthy of respect." But we were intrigued by Russert's question because of an article which the scribe didn't cite. Last September—almost a year after Risen's report—David Ignatius discussed Chernomyrdin in the Washington Post. At one point, he recalled Risen's article:

IGNATIUS: One 1995 report discussed Chernomyrdin's activities in some detail. CIA gossip had it that the report came back with "bull—" scrawled in the vice president's handwriting. The New York Times reported the story last November, but a senior intelligence official said this week that the agency never found any piece of paper that would confirm the dismissive comment, that none of the analysts who regularly brief the vice president recalls such an episode and indeed that the vice president has been "one of the most avid and receptive consumers" of intelligence about Russian corruption.

Ignatius wasn't all that friendly to Gore; he closed by asking why Clinton and Gore "didn't do more to stop [Russian corruption]." But Ignatius dismissed the Risen anecdote as an example of "CIA gossip." And plainly, no one has ever produced a copy of the document on which the barnyard epithet was supposed to be scrawled.

Should Russert have asked about the naughty epithet? Gore's diplomacy with Chernomyrdin is a serious topic, one that is surely fair game. But Russert only seemed aware of the embarrassing claim which Risen cited. He seemed unaware of the later report which suggested that no such incident had ever occurred.

All over the press corps, we've read reactions to Russert's interview session. And the reviews, as usual, have been all of a kind—in the eyes of the pundits who watched Meet the Press, Russert just tore Al Gore up. Colleagues marveled at Russert's performance. Bill Sammon described it on Special Report; Russert "had been brilliantly pummeling this guy all morning," Sammon said. Is that the role of an interview host? Some seemed to think that it was. Mary McGrory said that Gore "had the look of someone in the midst of a root canal," and "never got a break" from his host. "Gore was reduced to accusing Russert of 'beating a dead horse'" on the Buddhist temple, she related. As we saw last Friday, Marjorie Williams had nothing but scorn for Gore's reaction to one Russert question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/21/00). And Robert Novak said that Gore "struggled under examination by Russert."

But no one expressed more scorn for Gore than Margaret Carlson, on the phone with Don Imus. No pulling of punches found here! "Tim Russert chopped him up in little pieces last Sunday," Carlson said, when asked to comment on Gore. "It was the single worst performance I have ever seen by a public official on a Sunday talk show." And don't think she didn't have substantive complaints. "Someone told him to relax, so he slouched, but he slouched in the wrong direction," she simpered. She and her daughter were "appalled by" the performance. "It looked like [Gore] was a candidate who was bolted together by the people at the robot factory," Carlson colorfully said.

Russert, of course, had been grand. "He asked that kind of question that late at night in a dorm room you'd come up with," Carlson said, plainly believing her words were praise. "The bizarre stuff. What would you do if a woman on death row became pregnant, and, you know"—now she did an impression of Gore—" 'I'm going to have to take that under advisement,'" she said, in her deepest, stuffiest voice. In this comment, Carlson joined Williams and McGrory; both mocked Gore in their columns last week for saying that he'd have to think about Russert's obscure question. Only Sammon noted that Russert had created confusion in the way he phrased his query. Meanwhile, continuing to deconstruct Gore, Carlson ran right to the ol' psychobabble. "He doesn't have confidence in who he is," she said, bringing in a standard soundbite. "He's lost who he is. He doesn't rely on who he is. He's going through the cards in his brain."

All in all, the doctor was IN as Carlson reviewed the session for Imus. Carlson thought it was great that Russert had asked the same questions a teen-ager would. But she also expressed a view of Russert's work that we thought showed off her egregious bad judgment. "Russert was a prosecutor," she said. "And while people don't like the press...Russert was like a prosecutor," she repeated, "and he did a very good job."

But did he do a very god job? The pandering press corps always praises its own. But here at THE HOWLER, we were uneasy with a good deal about Russert's performance. Should a TV host try to "prosecute" guests? Should he ask the same questions you'd ask in a dorm? We think the answer to both questions is "No," and that Russert stands guilty as praised.

Tomorrow: Russert's "barnyard" question set a slight tone. But elsewhere, he made outright errors.


The Daily update (7/25/00)

Like asking Tiger Woods not to golf: Could we take a collection and just pay Bush and Gore to announce their VP nominations? Until the nominees are announced, nothing else will be discussed by the press corps. You know those pundits! They love nothing so much as sheer speculation, and they love distractions from things that matter. For the past month, they've insisted on running through the same old names, offering up the same old comments. Until the nominees are announced, nothing else is going to happen. If they run through the names a hundred times, they'll start in on the hundred and first.

Other things pale in significance! On Sunday, Senator Danforth appeared on Fox News Sunday, two days after announcing his findings on Waco (more tomorrow). But the gang asked Danforth one question about that, then began the hackneyed efforts to find out who might be the veep. On Friday, Danforth had quite correctly pointed out the importance of the Waco findings. But they weren't important on FNS. "Body language" about veeps was what mattered.

We could just wait to find out who the hopefuls name, but that would kill all the speculation. And speculation is what our pundits do best. It's like asking Tiger Woods not to golf.