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.