I take it back. In my last column I referred to Meet the Press host Tim Russert as the Grand Inquisitor of the Sunday morning talk shows. Not this Sunday. Not when George W. Bush was in his clutches.
Russert is a master of the legitimate gotcha question. I admire his hard-nosed interviewing techniques. But he must have checked them before passing through the metal detectors at the White House. In his Oval Office, hour-long session with Bush, he repeatedly let Bush slide or elide. The few tough queries produced the predictable replies from Bush. And then Russert did not come back with the obvious follow-ups. He was not his usual self: a polite but aggressive quizzer who sticks to specifics, wielding quotes and source material to force his subjects to address previous statements and past actions. Instead, Russert allowed Bush to dish out the all-too familiar, White House-approved rhetoric. It pains me to say, he was more enabler than interrogator.
Russert began by asking Bush about the new commission Bush has created to review the prewar intelligence on Iraq. Bush responded with platitudes about the need for good intelligence. Russert queried Bush on the March 2005 deadline Bush set for the commission’s report–which means the report will come out after the election–and noted that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had given a similar British commission a July deadline. Bush said that he didn’t want the commission “to be hurried” and that there “will be ample time for the American people to assess whether I made good calls.” This sounded like a dodge. Why couldn’t the commission, which has to look at a wide range of issues, at least put out before the election an interim report–as commissions often do–on whether the White House exaggerated the prewar intelligence? Wouldn’t that help the American people to assess Bush? Russert didn’t ask. He took Bush’s answer at face value.
On the dicey matter of the absent weapons of mass destruction, Russert reminded Bush that before the war Bush declared the intelligence left “no doubt” that Iraq had WMDs. Faced with this inconvenient quote, Bush offered a defense composed of the assorted lines the White House has been using for months. He said that he had relied upon the best intelligence the US government had at the time, that everyone knew that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous fellow who had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, that former chief weapons hunter David Kay has said that Hussein had the “capacity to produce [WMD] stockpiles,” and that the U.N. had declared there were “unaccounted-for stockpiles.”
Russert could have challenged Bush on much of this. But he did not point out that U.N. inspectors had not concluded there were unaccounted-for WMD stockpiles in Iraq. (The weapons inspectors, after leaving Iraq in 1998, had said there were discrepancies in Iraq’s accounting of its weapons and WMD-related material and that this was worrisome and might mean some weapons remained.) Kay, who found no evidence of any existing weapons, also reported he had uncovered no signs that Iraq had any significant WMD production capability after the first Gulf War. Kay had indeed unearthed evidence of WMD-related “program activities” that he considered dangerous, but he had concluded Iraq had not possessed a serious production capacity. Bush misrepresented Kay’s findings, and Russert did not call him on it.