12 January 2000
Our current howler (part III): Buddy system
Synopsis: When Russert interviewed Bush and Forbes, he treated just one as his buddy.
Commentary by Tim Russert, Gov. George Bush
GOP Presidential Forum, MSNBC, 1/10/00
Oops! We wish it hadn't been good-guy Tim Russert conducting
those interviews the other nightthose interviews with Candidates
Bush and Forbes after the Michigan forum. We have no doubt that
the affable Russert is a thoroughly decent fellow. And he donated
his time, two years ago, to a charity event we helped produce.
Sensible people don't forget such generosity.
But it's precisely because of Russert's decencyand his very
high professional standingthat his recent work in the candidate
forums calls for a bit of attention. Last week, Alan Keyes scolded
Russert during a GOP forum, and Alan Keyes was right on point;
after Republican hopefuls had debated Social Security, Russert
plainly tried to give himself the final word on the issue. In
doing so, he was flat-out wrong; these forums exist to explore
hopefuls' views, not the views of the network moderators. Throughout
the current forum season, moderators have driven our analysts
wild. They've told us how much money they earn (Brokaw); have
scolded the hopefuls for talking too long (Koppel); and have told
hopefuls how many words they can use in answering questions (Jenningsone).
They've routinely cut off debate on issues just as factual clarity
is about to emerge. We'll admit itwe enjoyed the booing of Brian
Williams down in South Carolina last week; our analysts have lustily
booed the handsome anchor since we began checking his program
But Russert's interviews after Monday's forum presented a new
sort of problem. In the debate itself, Candidate Forbes criticized
Candidate Bush over Bush's tax proposals as governor of Texas.
According to Forbes, Bush made a proposal that broke campaign
pledges; Bush had been saved from his plan by the Texas legislature,
Forbes repeatedly said. Was there merit in Forbes' accusation?
At THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue. As usual, the forum's moderators,
with the focus of gnats, moved the conversation through a hodgepodge
of issues, and there was simply no way for a viewer to judge the
merits of Forbes' complaints.
After the show, Russert interviewed three hopefuls. First to
appear were Gov. and Mrs. Bush; Russert treated Bush like a long-lost
buddy he'd just met at a neighborhood bar:
RUSSERT: Were the Buffalo Bills robbed Saturday?
BUSH: That's what I was going to ask you. I was hoping you'd ask
me a question. I wanted to ask, I wanted to get a question for
RUSSERT: This will determine my objectivity for the next year.
BUSH: the video. The videotape. Listen, this is the old Houston
RUSSERT: Oh, so you think the Bills were treated properly
BUSH: No, I didn't see it. I didn't see it...
This conversation about football went on a while longer, with
Russert and his new best pal exchanging quips about the '93 play-offs.
The time that Russert spent bantering with Bush could have
been much better spent. Russert could actually have asked
Bush to describe the tax plan he'd originally put forward in Texas.
It was Russert, after all, who had asked the question about the
Forbes ads attacking Bush. It was the very first topic Russert
raised in the forum; one would think that Russert, as a journalist,
would want to see facts emerge.
But in the part of the interview that wasn't about sports,
Russert took a different approach. He never asked Bush to describe
his Texas proposal, or to respond to Forbes' repeated statement
that the legislature "saved Bush" from his plan. Instead,
he asked Bush repeatedly if he thought that Forbes would engage
in "negative advertising." And after asking Bush to
speculate about Forbes' plans, he then asked Mrs. Bush a question.
How did it make her feel, Russert asked, when she sees Forbes
criticize her husband?
RUSSERT: Mrs. Bush, when you are up in the audience watching
your husband being attacked, being criticized, what are you thinking,
what are you feeling?
Mrs. Bush gave a dignified answer; she was proud of the way
her husband performed. Russert asked a more pointed question:
RUSSERT: If you had a private moment with Steve Forbes, what
would you say? Here semi-confidentially for America.
Could any of this be of genuine interest? We'll leave that
for the reader to decide. But there was no such banter, or concern
about feelings, when Forbes and his wife appeared. Russert spoke
to Forbes in Bush's voice, scolding Forbes for his ads:
RUSSERT: George Bush was just here and re-echoing some of the
things he said during the debate, Mr. Forbes. "Please, Steve
Forbes," he said, "stop that negative advertising. You
hurt Bob Dole terribly in 1996, caused him to lose various states,
won't you please stop running them."
Forbes said he was telling the truth in the ads; Bush had asked
the public to examine his record, and that that was what he was
doing, Forbes said. Russert, in his second question, spoke in
Bush's voice again. This time Russert directly suggesting that
Forbes' ads were misleading:
RUSSERT: He would say, "You know I cut taxes. Why don't
you tell the people the full story rather than just a small piece?"
Russert now was openly flacking for one hopeful over another.
What were the facts about Bush's proposal? As usual, there
was no way to tell, because Russert had wasted time talking about
football, and asking a hopeful's wife how she feels when she sees
her husband criticized. (No such interest was expressed by Russert
in Mrs. Forbes' feelings.) The celebrification of the American
news process was on gruesome display in these unwise exchanges;
in them, Russert didn't make the slightest effort to maintain
his professional detachment from Bush, and he openly spoke for
Candidate Bush in his interview with Candidate Forbes. Nor did
Russert make any real effort to bring the facts to light.
Russert was egregiously wrong in New Hampshire last week, topping
the hopefuls on Social Security. And he shouldn't be buddies with
one of the boys, when the boys are all running for prez.
As always: As always, we make a standard pointnothing
we've said is intended as criticism of Gov. Bush or Mrs. Bush.
They didn't ask the questions here. It was Russert who started
the football talk. Viewers deserve much better.