Others have written that Tim Russert’s trademark and legacy was the “gotcha” — the art of using a guest’s own words to contradict his current position on an issue or some more recent utterance. This was really the journalistic equivalent of a deposition. Unlike law, in the world of politics it is a mixed blessing.
On one hand, Russert asked hard, specific questions which did not allow politicians to blather and filibuster past him without an equally specific answer. This is a good thing and entirely too rare. How many journalists have asked tough specific questions of Barack Obama and John McCain . It is not a question of being nasty or aggressive, but of forcing the interviewee to defend his own views. (I think back to Russert’s interview of Fred Thompson, where he deftly exposed Thomspon’s underlying views on abortion, which turned out to be a rather bold defense of federalism, albeit a stance unacceptable to many staunch social conservatives.)
But in its worst form it has transformed campaigns themselves into the search for the opposing candidate’s inconsistencies, however slight, to be used to claim advantage. At times it seems the substance is lost and we have embarked on an endless journey to prove the other fellow or gal is an unprinicpled flip-flopper. The non-stop drumbeat of “Ah, ha!” opposition research now dominates much of what campaigns turn out. In essence they all want to be Russert.
But perhaps more importantly than anything else, Russert understood that the interviewee, not Russert, was the center of attention. He rarely interrupted, his questions were not speeches and he realized that his opinions were not what voters needed to hear to make informed decisions. That’s a far cry from what 90% of cable news delivers and from the mean-spirited non-reporters who now run wild in the mainstream media.
So at bottom, the goal which we would hope his successor at Meet The Press aspires to is simple: make the newsmaker explain himself. Russert made it seem so simple we forget how hard it is.