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28 July 2000

Our current howler (part IV): The prosecution should give it a rest

Synopsis: From e-mail to Arlen, Russert played cop—and badly disserved the public interest.

Al Gore, Robo-candidate
Tucker Carlson, The Weekly Standard, 7/31/00

After 8 Years in Office, Unfamiliar in Michigan
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 7/15/00

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

Tucker Carlson was also present at Gore's town meeting in Saginaw, Michigan—the forum where art doyenne Sheila Redman asked Gore, "Where have you been for the past eight years?" (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/27/00) Three days later, Russert rushed the embarrassing question right to the start of Meet the Press. But Carlson had a contrarian view of some of the town hall participants:

TUCKER CARLSON: The questions keep coming. But mostly people want to give lectures. Self-important, boorish, stunningly long-winded lectures. An Asian kid about 18 (a self-identified "APA"—Asian-Pacific American) rises to complain that the Mattel toy company did not include an Asian Barbie in its "Barbie for President" set. A fiftyish man makes a complicated point about the spread of algae in the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. A large woman with dozens of warts on her face, a college English teacher, scolds Gore for selling out to right-wing corporate interests.

Carlson didn't mention Redman's question. But he did express a contrarian view about some of the VP's questioners:

CARLSON (continuing directly): None of them shows any awareness that Gore is the vice president of the United States, a man who—whatever else he is—is generally considered too busy to spend an entire evening responding to pointless and impolite "questions" from the citizens of Saginaw. Gore never betrays the slightest irritation. He never changes his tone, never becomes sharp. He answers each question, sometimes in excruciating detail.

We hold no view on those whom Carlson describes. But sometimes when pols go to meet The People, they encounter the self-important and boorish. Pols know enough to be polite. But sometimes, in our current press culture, scribes know enough to do something else. They know enough to take a rude, embarrassing comment and rush it to the top of the news. That's what Russert did with Redman; her question led Meet the Press three days later. But Katharine Seelye quoted something else that Redman had said to Gore:

SEELYE: Noting that she was only suddenly aware of his campaign, she told Mr. Gore: "I wasn't sure if I could vote for you. I didn't know if you were strong enough to compete."

Redman, who is "only suddenly aware of [Gore's] campaign," now demands to know where Gore has been! Our guess? Redman may not be the sharpest observer of our politics. No matter! Her remark was rushed to the start of Meet the Press, though Russert didn't seem to have a thing to say about her comment.

The tape of Redman set the tone for the day's performance by Russert. Margaret Carlson approvingly said he was "like a prosecutor," and it isn't hard to see why she said it. A tone of accusation and reproach suffused the hour-long program. But no part of the show was nearly so bad as Russert's treatment of the Hsi Lai temple. As we noted yesterday, Russert began this segment in a troubling way; he misstated the views of those officials who have said that an independent counsel should have probed Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/27/00):

RUSSERT: 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.

As we stated yesterday, that paragraph is difficult to reconcile with what those officials have said, in repeated TV appearances. Russert then made things worse:

RUSSERT (continuing directly): And let me just go through the documentation they have developed. The first was a Secret Service description which said, "According to the Secret Service, the event was a fund-raiser." There was an e-mail from your staff member, Kimberly Tilley to you which talked about it as a fund-raiser; and an Al Gore e-mail back to her which says, "If we've already booked the fund-raisers, then we have to decline" another event.

In this paragraph, Russert repeats misleading facts which were fully explained, under oath, three long years ago. Mention of the "Al Gore e-mail" is especially remarkable. In 1997, it was thoroughly explained to the Thompson Committee: That e-mail was sent weeks before there was any discussion of holding an event at Hsi Lai. No one has seriously disputed those facts; they've been on the record for three solid years. But, as we've pointed out in the past, that "Al Gore e-mail" has become standard agit-prop—routinely mentioned by conservative columnists whose dedication to simple facts is less strong than their partisan appetite (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/00, 3/23/00, 3/27/00). Their readers are told it, again and again: Al Gore sent an e-mail that showed he knew Hsi Lai was a fund-raiser! Their readers aren't given a word of context; they're never told what the Thompson Committee's hearings made clear. Now Meet the Press viewers are similarly misused and misled.

But that's the way a prosecutor works, if we can again use Margaret Carlson's description. And Russert is clearly Top Cop. "You deserve a chance to talk about it," he tells Gore of the Hsi Lai temple. He then forces Gore to explain tired old stories that have been explained again and again, often offering versions of facts every bit as selective as in the case of that e-mail. He's wrong about what Justice officials have said; wrong about the evidence they've amassed; he's wrong about what Gore "told the New York Times" about that meeting on hard and soft money (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/00). He constantly seems not to understand simple distinctions that have been spelled out for years. And Gore's accusers are often spun for, including poor upset Arlen Specter:

RUSSERT: Senator Arlen Specter is deeply offended and has asked you for an apology for your campaign staff referring to him "engaging in McCarthylike tactics." Senator Specter, who's Jewish and very sensitive to that charge—will you apologize to Senator Specter this morning for accusing him of McCarthylike tactics?

Is Specter "very sensitive to that charge" because he's Jewish? Is Specter "deeply offended?" There's no way on earth that Russert could know—but prosecutors always vouch for the witness. At one point, Russert spun for poor Bush:

GORE: I think that most people would like to see a set of one-on-one debates between Governor Bush and myself...I've accepted for two or three months now your invitation to debate on this program. Have you gotten a yes from Governor Bush yet?

As becomes obvious, the answer to that question is "No." But watch Russert squirm to avoid it:

RUSSERT: His campaign says he will debate you, and the request is under active consideration.
GORE: He will debate me on Meet the Press?
RUSSERT: He will debate this fall and a specific request for here—
GORE: Well, have you talked to him?
RUSSERT: Yes, I have.
GORE: What did he say to you?
RUSSERT: It's under active consideration.
GORE: Well, he didn't say yes?
RUSSERT: Not yet.

The answer to Gore's first question was "No." The answer to Gore's second question was "No." The answer to Gore's final question was "No." But even then, Russert couldn't make himself say it, and he twice offered classic misdirection. "His campaign says he will debate you" (just not here); "He will debate this fall" (just not on this show). Pols could go to school on the art of spin by reading those wandering answers.

Margaret Carlson was right. From his pointless use of Redman's question to his hopeless account of the Hsi Lai temple, Russert played the cop this day. He spun—and he often misstated. Who but a cop would ever engage in an exchange with a hopeful like this?

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."
GORE: Now, Tim, you know the difference. You know the difference. First of all—
RUSSERT: You want the government to invest in the market. George Bush wants individuals to invest.

Surely Russert knows that is not Gore's Social Security proposal. But even after Gore explicitly says so, Russert just keeps on insisting:

GORE (continuing directly): First of all, I don't support that proposal.
RUSSERT: It was in your budget.
GORE: Well, it was withdrawn from—it was floated as a trial balloon and it did not
involve any money from the Social Security trust fund.
RUSSERT: It was printed—
GORE: Let me finish now. Let me finish.
RUSSERT: —in your budget.
GORE: Well, I understand.
RUSSERT: It was your budget proposal.
GORE: I don't support it. And I've put out my own Social Security plan.

There may have been some reasonable question Russert could have asked about that earlier proposal. But after first asserting that Gore supports the proposal—a claim he must have known to be false—Russert just kept interrupting and insisting that the proposal was once in a Clinton-Gore budget. He argues again and again. Meanwhile, the chance to explore Gore's SS plan were doomed by Russert's technical weakness. Does Gore have a plan that actually makes sense? On that, we don't have a clue. Partly, we're in the dark due to scribes like Russert. On this show, he kept criticizing Gore for basing his plan on current, standard budget projections. But of course, everyone uses those budget projections, including the SS Governors whose work Russert praised. In this segment, we most likely dealt with technical weakness, not with the prosecutorial attitude which Margaret Carlson correctly spotted. At any rate, Russert's complaints were stated in the same repetitive, bombastic way that led Carlson to make her assessment.

Gruesomely, Carlson was pleased that Tim played Cop. We don't think that's a role for a scribe. Why do we state that incomparable view? Simple—because, starting with that silly question from Redman, we examined the 'script of this program.

Next week: Our entire staff will be in Philadelphia, and THE DAILY HOWLER will not be publishing. See each day for "Howlings."


The Daily update (7/28/00)

Repetition: Three cheers for Tony Blankley! On Wednesday morning, he got it right, in the Washington Times:

BLANKLEY: [Dick] Cheney had never appeared on any media outlet's version of its vaunted "short list." I guess they were all too short to have room for the right answer...We in the political class are approximately 0 for 7,000 on vice presidential selection—no one in town got it right.

We had noticed the same thing ourselves. So what did the pundits immediately do? What else? They began to speculate about who Gore will take to serve as his VP hopeful.

Wrong again
Tony Blankley, The Washington Times, 7/26/00