Remembering Tim Russert


. . . as one who at a crucial time in ’02 lobbed softballs to Dick Cheney.

It’s tragic that Tim Russert unexpectedly died, leaving behind family and friends who loved him.

That said, let’s try to keep this in perspective — and not the perspective offered up this afternoon by the Washington Post, which called him “the Democratic operative turned NBC commentator who revolutionized Sunday morning television and infused journalism with his passion for politics.”

He did not revolutionize anything. He was a news reader, a media celebrity, not a soldier dying in a futile war.

As our body count in Iraq keeps right on climbing, I’ll recall Russert’s classic ’02 interview of Dick Cheney on Meet the Press as a true exemplar of recent American journalism.

I don’t mean that in a nice way.

The exact date was September 8, 2002, as Cheney and his frontman, George W. Bush, were lobbying Americans and members of Congress on the urgent necessity of invading Iraq. This was before the key Senate vote.

We now know they were lying, but many of us were thinking that back in ’02. Drowning out the dissenters were most of the U.S. media outlets — not all, but most.

And media celebs such as Russert were playing their roles as wing men for schnooks such as Cheney.

In June 2005, I parsed Russert’s ’02 interview with Cheney in an item called “Shuck and Awe.” So I’m just going to plagiarize myself and re-run that item here. See for yourself:

Shuck and Awe

Originally posted June 6, 2005

Before the “shock and awe” of March ’03, there was shuck and jive. But the Downing Street Memo and other British government documents revealing Blair-Bush skullduggery in 2002 are not old news.

In fact, the recently released documents offer fresh clues not only about (1) the contempt the Bush and Blair regimes had for the intelligence of the American public and press but also about (2) why the occupation of Iraq has turned into such a horror show.

On March 14, 2002, Tony Blair‘s foreign policy adviser, David Manning, reported to his boss after meetings with Condi Rice and a National Security Council “team” in D.C., according to a memo leaked three years later:

We spent a long time at dinner on IRAQ. It is clear that Bush is grateful for your support and has registered that you are getting flak. I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States.

What do you suppose he meant by “different”? Well, the U.S. press, for one thing, is much more easily gulled—in general, that is.

Only three days before Manning sent that memo to Blair, Dick Cheney (on his way to the Middle East) was in Great Britain meeting with the prime minister. The two regimes’ CEOs stood still for a press conference in London, where the reporters aren’t afraid to ask tough questions, and the Bush regime can’t put on its own dog-and-pony show. Here’s an example from the March 11, 2002, press conference, courtesy of a White House transcript:

QUESTION: Mr. Vice President, if the inspectors are allowed into Iraq, will that negate the need to take military action against Baghdad? If you do have to take military action against Baghdad, what will be the legal basis of that action? And if you can’t build a coalition that many support, will [you] go ahead anyway?

Cheney’s reply? This is how he started it:

They do the same thing here they do in the States, that’s ask these long complex questions.

Yeah, that was really complex. But I guess compared with the “grilling” he gets from people like Tim Russert, it’s complex. On September 8, 2002, Russert hosted Cheney on Meet the Press and played slow-pitch with him open-ended questions, perfect for spinning. Here’s one:

RUSSERT: Let me turn to the issue of Iraq. You have said that it poses a mortal threat to the United States. How? Define mortal threat.

Yes, ask the vice president to define a buzz phrase that he and his handlers have spent a lot of time honing. Here’s another softball:

RUSSERT: There seems to be a real debate in the country as to [Saddam’s] capability. This is how the New York Times reported comments by Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who said, “The Central Intelligence Agency had ‘absolutely no evidence’ that Iraq possesses or will soon possess nuclear weapons.” Is that accurate?

Gee, what do you think Cheney will say when you let him off the hook with a stupid-ass “Is that accurate?” appended to an otherwise-promising line of questioning? Here’s how Cheney belted that blooper pitch:

CHENEY: I disagree. I think the accurate thing to say is we don’t know when he might actually complete that process. All of the experience we have points in the direction that, in the past, we’ve underestimated the extent of his program.

Keep in mind, now, that Cheney was making up this shit. The Bush and Blair regimes were “fixing” the intelligence, as the Downing Street Memo, revealed three years too late, put it.

A little later in the Russert interview, Cheney said:

We know we have a part of the picture. And that part of the picture tells us that [Saddam] is, in fact, actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

Which provoked this question:

RUSSERT: Why haven’t our allies, who presumably would know the same information, come to the same conclusion?

Big problem with this question, Tim. You’re asking a question that Cheney cannot answer. He can’t speak for others’ actions. Instead of pinning him down, you’re leaving him room to roam.

Russert could have asked this instead: “Our allies haven’t come to that conclusion, and they would have no reason to cover for Saddam. You say ‘we know.’ Give me a specific example of what ‘we know,’ and how that is at odds with what our allies’ intelligence tells them.”

But Russert didn’t ask that. Instead, he asked Cheney why our allies hadn’t “come to the same conclusion.” How in the world could Cheney know “why”? (Except for the fact that he and Blair were making up shit and the allies weren’t—but he couldn’t very well admit that.) This one was easy for Cheney to hit out of the park:

CHENEY: I don’t think they know the same information. I think the fact is that, in terms of the quality of our intelligence operation, I think we’re better than anybody else, generally, in this area.

Oh, so our intelligence was good, eh?

Cheney was just giving himself a pat on the back, because the Bush regime was making it up as it went along, so it could justify an unjustified invasion of Iraq.

So, do you see a difference in the kinds of questions British and American politicians have to face? Democracy is more raucous in Great Britain, and the press—with exceptions—is more docile in America.

Now for the other part of the equation: the disastrous occupation that has followed the unjustified invasion. Go directly to the Downing Street memo itself for that. The memo from Matthew Rycroft to Manning of Manning’s meeting with Blair on July 23, 2002, summarized MI6 chief Richard Dearlove‘s recent visit to D.C. (Dearlove is referred to as “C.”) Here’s a passage from the memo:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

“Little discussion” of the “aftermath,” huh? We’d better make sure there’s plenty of discussion about that.