How the Russert Test Failed America

How the Russert Test Failed America

Sure, he asked the tough questions. But why didn’t he challenge the lies?


You’ll pardon me if I don’t jump on the pyre the media is building for Tim Russert, who died of a heart attack June 13. You’d never know it from the keening all over television, but as Dick Cheney’s press aide testified during the Scooter Libby trial, Russert’s show was the place the Bushies loved the most for “getting their message out.” Especially during the homicidal and suicidal Iraq war. And especially for the Vice President, who was architect of the Administration’s foreign policy.

The eulogists are right: Tim Russert was powerful. From calling Florida for Bush in 2000 to telling Al Gore to quit the contest after Election Day, to kneecapping Hillary Clinton in the debate in Philadelphia last October, Russert was a kingmaker. When he called the Democratic primary for Barack Obama last month, his fellow pundits compared it to the moment Walter Cronkite bailed on the war in Vietnam. I, for one, am looking forward to the rest of the electoral cycle without the domineering presence of NBC’s electoral college of one.

It’s not just that Russert abetted the Bush Administration in the Iraq War; much of the media shares that role. It’s that he did damage in a wide range of contexts. There are two reasons for this: his tactics and his substance. Procedurally, there was what the Bushies actually called the “Russert Test.” As they said after their candidate used an hour on Meet the Press to demonstrate his seriousness in 1999, and again in 2004, when as President he appeared on the show to stanch his fall in the polls, if you can survive an hour of Russert, you’re vetted.

The biggest promoter of the Russert Test was Russert himself, as in this 2007 interview with John Elsasser of the Public Relations Society of America: “A political leader, particularly a president, can’t make a tough decision unless they can answer tough questions. So, you can always use that as an entree into the debate–a video question, but it’s necessary to have follow-ups, too.” And again on Sean Hannity’s FOX program: “It’s a TV show,” Russert explained. “If you can’t handle TV questions, how you gonna stand up to Iran and North Korea and the rest of the world?”

In fact, the Russert Test was exactly backwards. The better our leaders performed on Meet the Press, the worse their foreign policy seemed to be. Tough: tough. It sounds the same, right? But it’s not the same. The political leaders who did the best answering Tim Russert’s questions in the last seven years–Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell–are the authors of the most disastrous American foreign policy since the Vietnam War, and maybe since 1776.

The Russert Test was a disaster because it rewarded people willing to lie unabashedly on TV. They lied because they could not truthfully defend their positions. But Russert’s famed “gotcha” research couldn’t catch them. Much has been said this eulogizing week about Russert’s hard-working ways assembling the material in advance of the show. Old metal. When someone told a new lie on Meet the Press, such as when Dick Cheney flat-out denied he had ever said that intelligence confirmed the Al Qaeda/Iraq link, Meet the Press had no procedure for producing the contrary evidence. This would hardly have been difficult, given Google, an earpiece and a producer to do instant research. As it happened, NBC had the rebuttal to Cheney’s lies in its own archives, but it remained for The Daily Show to do the research.

Since MTP was always looking back, the Bush Administration had a big advantage. Their new lies to Meet The Press were halfway round the world while The Daily Show was putting its boots on.

Russert’s sunny manner also concealed that he was anything but a neutral journalist, advancing, somewhat covertly, the conservative trifecta: War on terror, war on women’s reproductive rights, and war on Social Security.

The locus classicus of Russert’s complicit support for going into Iraq is, of course, Dick Cheney’s appearance on Meet the Press March 16, 2003, one week before the invasion:


Many Americans and many people around the world are asking one question: Why is it acceptable for the United States to lead a military attack against a nation that has not attacked the United States? What’s your answer?

There then follows an astonishing, nearly 1,000-word filibuster from the Vice President, including the key litany of assertions for the Iraq War:


…where might these terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons? And Saddam Hussein becomes a prime suspect in that regard because of his past track record and because we know he has, in fact, developed these kinds of capabilities, chemical and biological weapons. We know he’s used chemical weapons. We know he’s reconstituted these programs since the Gulf War. We know he’s out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons and we know that he has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization.

Just rereading it is enough to raise the hair on your neck, even these disastrous many years later. And what did that paragon of “tough” questioning do in response to this dirty dozen of false assertions (“we know, we know, we know”) about to drive the United States into one of the worst foreign policy decisions in the history of the Republic? He asked Cheney about the French:


French President Jacques Chirac said this morning, that perhaps there could be a deadline of 30 days or 60 days and he may be able to buy into that. What would be wrong for the United States to say to the world, “OK. We’re going to give Saddam 30 days or 60 days and put some pressure on the French to step up and have a united front against Saddam Hussein”?

Russert’s inability to stay on target usually vanished, however, when the respondent espoused a liberal position. Here is Russert questioning Al Gore on (the horror) his support for abortion rights:


When do you think life begins?


I favor the Roe vs. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did–


Which is what? When does life begin?


Let me just say, I did change my position on the issue of federal funding and I changed it because I came to understand more from women–women think about this differently than men.


But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don’t believe life begins at conception. I’m just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?


Well, look, the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question–


Which is?

As the liberals sense a coming resurrection, they have begun to shine a light on the corrupt, decade-long conservative attack on Social Security, under the cloak of fiscal responsibility. Social Security, practically the last vestige of the New Deal left, is not going bankrupt any more than Saddam Hussein was about to go nuclear. But by far the loudest journalistic voice for this conservative attack on Social Security was Tim Russert. In this program from 2000, he manages to at once beat the drum for repealing Social Security and also use the sticks (again) on the Democratic candidate, Al Gore:


If–the facts are simple: When Social Security began, Franklin Roosevelt, genius, he–the life expectancy at that point was 63. He made eligibility for Social Security 65…It was a–was a very popular program. There were 45 workers for every retiree and life expectancy was exactly that age. Now we’re approaching two workers for every retiree. Life expectancy is 78 going to 85. You’re going to have 80 million people on Social Security and Medicare for about a fourth of their life, for three to 20 years. Everyone knows that, and yet when you present it to Al Gore, he’ll say, “No problem. I’ll take the surplus and it’ll pay for it.” Even his own Secretary Treasury written volumes of reports–trustees reports, will say, “No, it doesn’t work that way.”

Everyone my age is checking their will (and their CAT scan insurance), and no one wishes a father and husband to drop dead at 58. But for many of us ordinary citizens, Tim Russert was a powerful man who mostly did harm in every way we can think of. So if it’s all right with you, I think I’ll turn the TV off now.

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