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NO NO NO NO NO NO NO! Russert scolded Dean last June. But how will he act with George Bush?


TWO TIMS—AND THREE DODGES: It’s like Super Sunday two weeks in a row! This time, minus the break-away costumes! This weekend, Tim Russert sits with George Bush on Meet the Press. But we’re forced to pose two incomparable questions: Which Tim Russert will appear for the session? And will he fight against Bush’s three dodges?

Tim meets The Dub at an interesting juncture. In recent weeks, many in Russert’s media cohort have begun to show signs of flipping on Bush. Most strikingly, Don Imus has been savaging Bush every morning, criticizing his “missing year” in the Guard and accusing Bush of misleading America about the threat from pre-war Iraq. On Tuesday morning, Imus even hectored John McCain about Bush’s alleged misconduct, to the point where the affable solon seemed to feel that he had to push back against Don.

So which Tim Russert will do Meet the Press? The hectoring, “prosecutorial” bulldog whom pundits cheered for his attacks on Al Gore? (links below) Or the sleepy, somnolent friend-to-mankind who slept through a pair of Meet the Press sessions with Candidate Bush four years back?

As is required by Official Press Scripts, Russert’s friends are already saying how tough and relentless he will be. Yesterday morning, Imus chatted with Republican congressman J. D. Hayworth. The I-fellow began with a Requisite Script—why in the world would President Bush sit down with a bulldog like Russert?

IMUS: Why do you think that the president has agreed to sit down with Tim Russert Sunday?
Hayworth offered a quote from Richard Neustadt. But as Imus continued—how times are changing!—he showed the direction Russert should take when he sits down with Bush:
IMUS: Well, he’s gonna be—I mean, Tim’s gonna be relentless, particularly about the administration having told us that—the perception was—I know what the president’s specific words were, and I saw the other night where he said, you know, we don’t want to wait until it’s too late and there’s a mushroom cloud someplace. Well, so, if you examine that phrase, the president is not saying that they have the weapons now and they’re going to attack us in the next twenty minutes. But the implication is, if we don’t do something now, there’s a mushroom cloud on the horizon. So he left us with the impression that we had to act—well it was clear! That they had the weapons, they were going to attack us, that we had to act now. [Imus’ emphases]
Hayworth responded to this with a script. The president never said “imminent threat!” Indeed, Bush said there wasn’t an imminent threat! He said it in the State of the Union!

Which Tim Russert will show up this weekend? If Russert decides to play bulldog this week, he will fight back—he’ll fight back hard—when Bush offers three scripted dodges.

First: When Russert asks if Bush misled about the threat from Iraq, he’ll stop Bush from changing the subject. Bush will try to discuss a more pleasing topic—he’ll claim that the policy turned out right. We closed the torture chambers, he’ll say. An evil man is now out of power. But none of these pleasantries answer the question: However the policy may have turned out, were we told the truth in the run-up to war? If Russert decides to play bulldog this week, he will say “No no no no no” when the president attempts this evasion. (That, of course, is the line he dropped on Howard Dean only last June.)

Second: When Russert asks if Bush hyped the threat from Iraq, he won’t let Bush play semantic games about the phrase “imminent threat.” This is where the relentless bulldog could take some clues from Imus. I’m not going to parse Bush’s words, Imus said. I don’t plan to be “Clintonesque.” I know the implication of the things Bush said; I know the impression he was leaving. As Imus says, the Admin made it sound like we had to act now. They made it sound like we just couldn’t wait. If Russert comes to play this week, he won’t let Bush use that one legalistic bite from the State of the Union. He’ll review what the Bush Administration said and implied all through the fall of 2002.

Third: There’s one more evasion a bulldog must fight. A bulldog will say “no no no” when Bush offers this dodge: Everyone thought Iraq had those weapons.

Did other nations think that Iraq had, or probably had, WMD? Yes, it’s clear that they did. Did Clinton think this, back in 1998? Yes he did, as he’s made clear. But that isn’t where the dissembling occurred as the Bush Admin made its case for war. Ackerman and Judis described the actual problems in The New Republic eight months ago (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/03). It was perfectly reasonable to think that Iraq may have had WMDs. But the Bush Admin kept hyping the case, especially with respect to the nuclear threat. They faked the intelligence RE aluminum tubes—then talked about that “mushroom cloud.” They said that Iraq had magical planes that could drop nasty substances here in this country. They faked the intel about ties to al Qaeda; they kept suggesting Saddam was involved in 9/11. If Russert raises specific points of dissembling, Bush will try to change the subject; very quickly, he will say that everyone thought they had WMD. And that will be the third fateful dodge. If Russert decides to play bulldog this day, ”no no no no no no no” will be heard ringing out through the land.

So which is it, Tim—lapdog or bull? Will we see a bulldog on the set? Or will that other Tim Russert show up—the one who pandered, smiled and fawned for Candidate Bush four years back?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Does Russert even know who he is? It’s hard to say, because two different Russerts met Gore, Bush and Dean over the course of the past four years. Why not visit our incomparable archives to see how different these Two Tims can be?

In July 2000, Russert sat with Candidate Gore—and pundits praised him for acting “like a prosecutor.” In fact, this Javert persistently misstated and spun. Visit our archives for the year 2000. Scroll back to a four-part series starting on July 25.

In June 2003, Bulldog Russert lectured Dean about his fecklessness as a candidate. But no such lectures were offered to Candidate Bush when he sat with Russert four years earlier. We puzzled over these Two Different Tims—and revisited the trashing he handed to Gore. Visit our archives for the year 2003. Scroll back to a four-part series starting on June 27.