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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 night—those 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 decency—and his very high professional standing—that 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 (Jennings—one). They've routinely cut off debate on issues just as factual clarity is about to emerge. We'll admit it—we 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 last June.

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 you—
RUSSERT: This will determine my objectivity for the next year.
BUSH: —the video. The videotape. Listen, this is the old Houston Oilers—
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 point—nothing 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.