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.

Russert reminded Bush that before the war Bush had claimed that there was a “unique urgency” to the threat from Iraq and that this threat had to be countered “as quickly as possible.” He reasonably asked Bush if Hussein really was an “imminent” threat. Bush tossed out the line that the White House has been deploying for months: Hussein was a “grave and gathering threat” because “he had the capacity to make a weapon.” Russert could have asked Bush what was “gathering” about the threat from Hussein, especially since no WMDs have been found and Kay has said Hussein’s WMD-making capabilities were minimum. But he did not put this important piece of White House rhetoric on the griddle.

In explaining his decision to go to war, Bush told Russert there had been no other choice. It would have been irresponsible, Bush said, to say, “Let’s hope [Hussein] changes his stripes….Let us try to contain him.” But when Kay testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee two week ago, he said that the U.N. inspection process had contained Hussein’s WMD programs. Russert did not bring that up.

Russert did ask Bush whether he had hyped the prewar intelligence on Iraq. Bush replied, “I and my team took the intelligence that was available to us and we analyzed it and it clearly said Saddam Hussein is a threat to America.” But Russert did not then do what he is most noted for: he did not present a series of quotes from Bush and his aides and ask Bush to explain and justify specific statements in which he and his aides had overstated the intelligence. Russert could have chosen from a long list. He could have compared these assertions to portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and asked Bush to address the discrepancies between what Bush claimed and what the intelligence actually said.

There are many examples Russert could have thrown at Bush. (I suggested some in a previous column .) For instance, Russert could have reminded viewers that during a nationally televised speech in October 2002, Bush said that Iraq had a “massive stockpile” of biological weapons. But at the same time the National Intelligence Estimate–what was supposed to be a summation of the intelligence community’s best material on Iraq–reported that the intelligence agencies had no information on any bioweapons stockpiles. Mr. President, Russert might have asked, please tell us why you said Iraq possessed bioweapons stockpiles, even though U.S. intelligence had no proof such stockpiles existed?

What would Bush have said? We don’t know.

Russert could have done the same regarding Bush’s and Cheney’s dramatic prewar statements suggesting Iraq was close to producing nuclear weapons. He might have done the same concerning the supposed link between Hussein and al Qaeda. Before the invasion, Bush maintained Hussein had an operational alliance with al Qaeda, even though the intelligence did not say so. But Russert did not question him on this. Nor did he do so on whether Hussein was a direct threat to the United States. Russert could have put up on the screen the various times Bush made that claim and then cut to the National Intelligence Estimate’s finding that it was unlikely Hussein would strike the United States or share any of his weapons with a terrorist outfit unless the Iraqi dictator was about to be attacked by the United States.

Russert posed too many questions that permitted Bush to reach for sounds-good buzz phrases and platitudes–such as, was this “a war of choice or a war of necessity?” He did not often enough attempt to puncture Bush’s assertions with facts. When it came to Bush’s reasons for war, he did not truth-test Bush’s remarks.

The same happened when Russert turned to the controversy over Bush’s service in the Air National Guard. There is evidence–documents from Bush’s own file and the statements of Guard officials–that indicate Bush did not report for duty for an entire year. Bush’s annual performance review, dated May 2, 1973, is rather damning. It noted, “Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit” for the past year. Bush claims that for several months he reported not to his home base in Houston but to a base in Alabama, where he was temporarily living. But the commander of the base has said he never saw Bush. During the 2000 campaign, Bush aides promised they would produce the names of people who served with Bush in Alabama. They did not. And Bush, who says he returned to Houston after November 1972, has never explained why he failed to show up at the base there for six months.

His military record could yield difficult questions for Bush. Why did your campaign not come forward with the name of a single individual who could vouch for your presence at the Alabama base? Why were you not seen at the Houston base after you returned to Texas? Do you deny what was written in your annual performance review? Why did you fail to take a flight physical during that missing year–an act that caused you to be grounded? Why in May, June and July 1973 did you put in extra days of duty? Were you making up for missing time?

Bush has never been grilled by a journalist on this touchy topic. Russert had an opportunity, but he did not, as they say in journalism, advance the story. When he asked Bush about the charge that Bush had been AWOL, Bush dismissed the charge as just “politics.” Russert countered that there was no evidence that Bush had reported for duty for a year. But oddly he cited none of the specifics. Bush replied that his critics were “just wrong. I did report….I did show up in Alabama.” Russert could have run through the details and pressed Bush to address them. Maybe Bush has decent explanations that he has not yet shared with the public. Instead, Russert merely pushed Bush to make all the available records public. Many key records, though, are already public. So it was no big deal that Bush said, “Sure.” The issue is not that Bush is sitting on information; it is that he has not fully discussed and explained the existing record.

Russert next moved to the economy, and Bush said what he always says about his tax cuts: they’re great; they’re stimulating the economy. But, Russert asked, whatever happened to Bush the fiscal conservative? To make his point, Russert pointed to a General Accounting Office study that maintains the deficit will be so out of control in the year 2040 that the federal government will either have to cut total spending in half or double taxes in order to balance the budget. What are you doing about this “deficit disaster?” Russert asked.

Bush replied with the current White House mantra: “the budget I just proposed cuts the deficit in half in five years.” To viewers who are not well-versed in budget policy, Bush’s reply probably seemed sensible. Russert was worrying about the deficit 36 years down the road; Bush said he was reducing the deficit in the next few years. But Bush’s budget projections are a scam. They do not include obvious expenses–such as the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan after this coming September. Budget experts across the political spectrum–from Goldman-Sachs, the Concord Coalition, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities–have all said that the Bush White House is engaged in fake accounting and that his deficit projections are a fantasy, a dishonest coverup. They agree that the deficits in the coming years will be much higher than Bush is claiming. Just a few days before this interview, The Washington Post editorialists blasted Bush for engaging in outright budgetary deceit.

I waited for Russert to pounce on Bush. But no pounce came. Russert asked Bush why he insisted on cutting taxes in wartime (when every other wartime president since the Civil War has raised taxes). Once more Bush had the chance to pull out one of his stock lines: “I believe the best way to stimulate the economic growth is to allow people to keep more of their own money.” Haven’t we heard this before? Unfortunately, that could be said about much of what came out of Bush this hour.

In the days before the interview, some Republican strategists were telling reporters that they believed the White House had erred in accepting Russert’s invitation. Bush might be experiencing political trouble at the moment. The MIA WMDs have tarnished his credibility. His poll numbers are not so hot. He’s been pounded by the Democratic presidential candidates. But place him in Russert’s crosshairs? Things aren’t that bad. Who knows what might happen when that pitbull got hold of him?

It turns out the doubters had nothing to fear. Bush appeared hesitant the first few minutes, but he ended up doing fine. Russert never cornered him, never pinned him. Russert never made Bush sweat, and Bush was able to reel off the same-old/same-old. Was this because Russert was too respectful of the man or the office? Expectations (mine included) were high. After all, It’s not too often a president has to submit to being interviewed by a smart, no-holds-barred journalist.

It’s certainly easy to be a Sunday evening quarterback. To be fair to Russert, interviewing politicians is not easy. Most are programmed. Few answer questions directly. Many have learned–or been taught–to turn any query into an opportunity for soapbox speechifying. It’s difficult to force them to provide straight answers. And Bush is no slouch in ducking questions and staying with the script. But Russert knows how to cut through the bullshit. This time, though, it looked as if he was unsure of how far he could go. It was as if Russert wouldn’t let Russert be Russert. Booking Bush was the big “get,” but, alas, Russert let this “get” get away.

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