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THE LAST BULLDOG DIES (PART 4)! Why did Russert sleep in the sun? He says he just followed Dad’s orders:


FOUR YEARS LATER, A POSTSCRIPT: To some extent, we agree with the sentiment expressed at the start of this morning’s Post editorial. “On one level, there’s something odd about rekindling the debate over President Bush’s military service, more than three years into his tour as commander in chief,” the Post editorial board opines. Indeed, when one reads the debate of the past few weeks, one can hardly believe this is the second time Bush has run for the White House. But as usual, the Post editorial spins the tale to benefit their cohort’s reputation. After all, who has “rekindled” a previous “debate?” This discussion is occurring today because the Post, and the rest of the press, ran and hid beneath their desks when this issue arose during Campaign 2000. “The issue came up during the 2000 presidential campaign and during Mr. Bush’s run for governor,” the Post says. But the allegation of a “missing year” didn’t come up when Bush ran for governor—the Post is repeating one of Bush’s misstatements—and the press corps didn’t pursue the facts during the 2000 race. The “debate” has been “rekindled” in the past month because the press corps failed to kindle it during Campaign 2000.

Why is the corps so lively now? Why did they slumber and doze four years back? Simple. In Campaign 2000, the Washington press staged a War Against Gore, punishing him for his association with Clinton. For twenty months, they made up phony tales about Gore—and buried unflattering news about Bush. Four years later, some in the press have “buyer’s remorse” about the man they worked to elect. Result? They hector the hapless Scott McClellan, pursuing a story they hid from before. And organs like the Post ed page spin you about why this is happening.

But even now, the frothing press corps can’t get the basic facts right. Result? Consider this letter, published today, in America’s paper of record:

To the Editor:

“The President’s Guard Service” (editorial, Feb. 11) is at best a tempest in a teapot.

It is pure hypocrisy for the Democrats to make an issue of George W. Bush’s National Guard record when they gave Bill Clinton a pass on his total avoidance of military service.
If Mr. Bush had done anything out of order, there would have been a reprimand in his National Guard records.

W— D—
Pinehurst, N.C., Feb. 11, 2004

Reader WD seems to think that there is no “reprimand” in Bush’s records. Perhaps that’s because he read yesterday’s Times, in which Elisabeth Bumiller wrote a lengthy summary of the alleged “missing year”—but failed to mention Bush’s suspension from flight duty for missing his annual physical (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/11/04). (“The President’s Guard Service” didn’t mention it either.) The press corps went in the bag four years back; now they growl and spit at McClellan. But they still can’t get their basic facts straight. Bush’s suspension? It’s the one clear-cut, undisputed fact in this whole case. By instinct, therefore, the nation’s scribes avoid it like a case of bubonic.

We have always cautioned against judging candidates on what they did in the distant past. The facts are routinely hard to make out, and the relevance of such conduct is almost always unclear. But this is a basic part of Bush’s biography—a part of his story that should have been pursued during Campaign 2000. Even now, with belated pursuit underway, the Post editorial page echoes misstatements, and Bumiller fails to include basic facts. Readers in Pinehurst remain underfed. But then, that’s your press corps’ central culture.

THE REASON THAT DOG WOULDN’T HUNT: Has President Bush dragged his heels when it comes to exploring intelligence failures? Russert began with that topic last weekend, and it might have provided a good discussion—if the topic had been pursued. But a bulldog was missing in action this day, and we saw the disappointing result. Bush completely avoided Russert’s first question—and Russert let the evasion stand. Moments later, Bush boasted about his cooperation with the 9/11 commission—a commission which has routinely complained about the president’s lack of cooperation. But Russert ignored this odd statement too. What would Bush have said if challenged? The public will never find out.

No, that was hardly a bulldog in the Oval last weekend. Follow-up questions were toothless and few. Those trademark film clips were missing in action. Several times, Bush apologized for “repetitive” answers, but it was Russert’s vague and repetitive questions that defined the meandering, softball discussion. Missing was the lecturing scold who rebuked Howard Dean and falsely accused Gore (see below). The bulldog had left his teeth in a jar. But why in the world had he done that?

For what it’s worth, Russert offered an explanation during his victory tour this week. After the interview, the self-impressed pundit accepted applause for the brilliant work he had done. How brilliant, how great had Russert been? Why, when he went to the dentist on Monday, rubber-gloved workers burst into applause! We know that because Russert told us:

PERGAMENT (2/10/04) (pgh 1): Tim Russert walked into his dentist’s office Monday morning for an appointment and was given a sweeter reception than he gave President Bush over the weekend.

(2) “The dentist, the receptionist and the hygienist started clapping, it was really sweet,” said Russert in a telephone interview the morning after his hour-long interview with the president on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

They couldn’t help it—they just had to cheer! For the record, this was Alan Pergament of the Buffalo News, passing on Russert’s tales of hosannas.

Russert is nothing if not self-impressed. But as he took his victory lap this week—accepting the cheers of admiring colleagues—he explained his toothless session Bush. On Tuesday morning, USA Today’s Peter Johnson passed on the scribe’s explanation:

JOHNSON (2/10/04): If it’s important, Meet the Press host Tim Russert knows to place a call to Buffalo to get advice from the family patriarch, Timothy “Big Russ” Russert.

Big Russ, a retired sanitation man, had this to say before his son’s big weekend sit-down with President Bush, according to Russert: “Remember, you’re going to be in your job longer than he is, even if he’s re-elected, but the Oval Office and the White House are going to be there longer than you, so be respectful."

“That is exactly what I tried to do,” Russert said Monday. “It’s a delicate balance. You want to ask the right questions, the right follow-up, but you also have to realize that you could easily spend the entire hour on one subject.”

As usual, Russert dragged in “Big Russ,” used as a symbol of his own decency. According to Russert, Big Russ said to be “respectful” because he’d be in the Oval Office. Russert explained this in more detail in a Tuesday morning session with Imus.

Of course, it hardly takes Russert’s dad to offer this advice; most Americans would want a newsman to be “respectful” with a sitting president. But how about with a major candidate, like Dean? And how about on July 16, 2000, when Russert went to the Vice Presidential residence to interview a sitting vice-president? Would “Big Russ” have suggested respect there, too? In fact, Russert’s conduct was very different when he interviewed Candidate Gore that day. He lectured, hectored, interrupted, misstated. What do you think “Big Russ” would have said about his son’s work in that session?

Russert’s explanation to Johnson is sad—the mark of a failed celebrity newsman. The double standard which Russert acknowledges makes him an abject failure. He can hide behind Big Russ all he likes. But when Russert shows “respect” to Bush—having ripped Gore and Dean—the public is quite poorly served.

A grown man doesn’t hide behind Dad—nor does he cower when he goes in the Oval. Last weekend, a ballyhooed bulldog curled up and died. A fearsome bulldog is finally gone. Long live that fearsome press bulldog!

WHAT WOULD BIG RUSS HAVE SAID: How did Russert behave with Gore—with a sitting vice president, in the VP residence? Russert behaved abominably this day, and he made a sick joke of your discourse. He opened with one of his famous clips—a clip quite plainly designed to embarrass (links below). And there was no dearth of follow-up questions this day! At one point, Russert hectored Gore about Social Security. “Now Tim, you know the difference,” Gore replied, after Russert’s initial presentation. But knowing the difference didn’t matter this day. Was Bush allowed to ramble last weekend? Watch Gore as he gets interrupted:

RUSSERT: You mentioned privatizing. Let me put on the board for you what Clinton-Gore proposed in the year 2000 and put up for everyone to see: “Increase returns from private investment. The administration proposes tapping the power of private financial markets to increase the resources to pay for future Social Security. Roughly one-fifth of the united budget surplus set aside for Social Security invested in corporate equities or other private financial instruments.”

GORE: Now, Tim, you know the difference. You know the difference. First of all—

RUSSERT: You want the government to invest in the market. George Bush wants individuals to invest—

GORE: First of all, I don’t support that proposal.

RUSSERT: It was in your budget.

GORE: Well, it was withdrawn from—it was floated as a trial balloon and it did not involve any money from the Social Security trust fund.

RUSSERT: It was printed—

GORE: Let me finish now. Let me finish.

RUSSERT: —in your budget.

GORE: Well, I understand.

RUSSERT: It was your budget proposal!

GORE: I don’t support it. And I’ve put out my own Social Security plan. And the difference is that did not involve any money from the trust fund. That was general revenue money. Now, that's all the difference in the world compared to what Governor Bush is proposing. What he wants to do is to divert 16 percent of the money that's going into the trust fund and put it into the stock market now. Now, that means that the checks that are written the next month would have to be cut by 16 percent unless he makes up the money from some other source. And that's a trillion dollars over the next 10 years, which, if he takes it from the trust fund, it goes bankrupt in short order. If he takes it from the budget, he puts the budget in an even deeper hole. Let me show you this.

RUSSERT: But, Mr. Vice President—

GORE: I want to show you this.

RUSSERT: You will. But, Mr. Vice President—

At best, Russert’s objections were tortured (links below). But the bulldog was snapping quite freely this day. Where was Russert’s great “respect” when he sat with a sitting vice president?

Meanwhile, what would Big Russ say about Russert’s most egregious performance with Gore—his repeated, bogus assertion that Gore may have committed a crime in his 1996 fund-raising? Showing the mandatory irrelevant-but-embarrassing piece of tape, Russert raised the topic:

RUSSERT: Mr. Vice President, when we talk to voters all across the country, they say they are looking for trustworthiness and a strong leader. A lot of comments made about your role in 1996 fund-raising. And I’ll give you a chance to talk about them. April 29th, 1996, fund-raiser at the temple, Hsi Lai—we can see it there on our screen—and following right behind you is one of your principal fund-raisers, Maria Hsia, who was convicted of five felony counts. The essence of the debate or discussion seems to be that director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, and three other ranking Justice Department officials believe there should be an independent counsel, special counsel, to look into this matter, because they think you may have broken the law or lied under oath. And they point specifically to your denial that you knew that event was a fund-raiser.
“We can see it there on our screen,” Russert said, as he played pointless footage from the temple. It showed funny men dressed in funny robes, so people like Russert adored it.

“Those are pretty selective facts,” Gore said, after Russert finished his first peroration (we’ve only shown part of his lengthy brief). But Russert kept hammering away with his charge. After all, “the director of the FBI and three Justice officials” thought Gore may have committed a crime! Russert quoted Charles LaBella, one of the four, before the punishment ended.

Wow! Four major Justice honchos thought Gore “may have broken the law!” The bulldog’s teeth were IN this day! Unfortunately, Russert’s statement was grossly inaccurate—and Charles LaBella had told him so, right on his Meet the Press program.

Russert’s charge was damaging—but was it accurate? Did these officials think Gore had committed a crime? In fact, two of the four had repeatedly said something completely different. (The other two hadn’t discussed the matter.) On June 11, 2000, for example, one of the four, Robert Litt, appeared on ABC’s This Week. “You have to remember that this is not a question really of whether the vice president committed a crime,” he said. “Nobody really thought that was the case.” Nobody thought that, Litt told Cokie! And not only that—Charles LaBella appeared with Litt, and seemed to agree with his statement. Meanwhile, LaBella made similar statements on a string of shows, from April 2000 right through June. On June 27, for example, he was specifically asked about the Buddhist temple on Hannity & Colmes. “I have never said anything other than I thought an investigation was warranted,” he replied. “I also said I thought, at the end of the day, the investigation would wash out the allegations.” LaBella specifically said that Gore was unaware of Hsia’s illegal activities, the activities Russert would cite three weeks later. “The fact is, when I was [working in the Justice Department], there was no evidence that I was aware of that Vice President Gore was aware of any of the contributions that went on at the temple,” LaBella said.

On show after show, LaBella said he favored appointment of an independent counsel only as a “process matter.” He wanted the public to know that the charges against Gore were being probed outside the Clinton Justice Department. And here’s the most surprising part: Despite Russert’s damaging charge on July 16, LaBella had said the same thing to Russert himself on the April 2 Meet the Press. “We’ve got to put it in context for the American people because I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” he said. “What we were saying was there should be an investigation…[We were] not suggesting in any way, shape, or form that charges were going to be brought, or that charges were even appropriate.” But alas! When Gore did Meet the Press three months later, Russert said that LaBella—and three other officials—thought Gore “may have committed a crime.” A bulldog’s teeth were IN this day, and the bulldog kept snapping and growling. For the record, Gore was being extremely polite when he called Russert’s statement “selective.”

So what would Big Russ say about that? Should Russert have shown some “respect” to Gore? And how about “respect” to the public—to the voters who were misled this fine day? Russert’s session with Bush was weak—but his session with Gore was inexcusable. Maybe it’s time for a bulldog to sleep in the sun, so Americans can finally hear a real discourse. Maybe it’s time for a new breed of dog—for a dog who doesn’t hide behind Dad, who treats all his guests with “respect.”

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For more on Russert’s session with Gore, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/03, with links to real-time reporting.