For more than a decade, Tim Russert has been celebrated for his highly confrontational, “gotcha” interviews on Meet the Press. But yesterday’s morning’s interview with Hillary Clinton provides ample evidence that he is among the most superficial and irritating members of the elite Washington press corps.
Whatever you may think of the Democrats, it is impossible to deny that the current race is a fascinating contest pitting core factions of the Democratic base against each other: African Americans versus working-class women, traditional liberals versus New Democrats. But what does Russert do with his exclusive hour with Clinton? He falls back on the sophomoric “oppo research” questions that his staff gleefully gins up, which tell us nothing about the state of the race or the candidate.
He starts by quoting a foolish Bob Herbert column that implausibly tries to paint the Clintons as racist. He follows up with some more ambush clips from African-Americans upset about Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” line regarding Obama’s shifting position on Iraq or Hillary’s line about the importance of Lyndon Johnson in passing the Civil Rights Act. To her credit, Hillary responds to Russert by calling this stuff “an unfair and unwarranted attempt to misinterpret and mischaracterize what I’ve said.”
But Russert, never a good listener, continues to take her words out of context. First he misrepresents an interview Clinton did with Newsweek: “In Newsweek, you gave an interview to Jon Meacham, and you talked about the personal narrative that candidates develop. You seem to compare Barack Obama to, you say, demagogues like Huey Long.” What she said was this: “I have always been a little suspicious, to be honest, with a personal narrative.…There were some of the demagogues, Huey Long and others. For their time, they were unbelievable communicators and they gave people such a feeling of, on the one hand, hitting back against the forces that had undermined their futures or, on the other hand, that it was going to be automatically better if we elected that person I have always been suspicious of that.” This is actually one of the more interesting intelligent things Hillary Clinton has ever said.
Briefly he asked a few “what if” questions about the surge in Iraq, but as soon as Clinton offered a substantive answer, Russert simply retreated to his research file, trying to find some contradictory posture in her vote for the Iraq war she cast more than 5 years ago. Russert put up a video clip from 2002. Then he quoted a New York Times story from the same year. Later in the hour it was aclip of Bill Clinton from 15 years ago defending his lack of Washington experience as a way of trying to embarrass Hillary on her criticism of Obama’s inexperience.
The sheer smarminess of all this is profoundly irritating. The hour-long interview gave us no new insight into Clinton or the current race. It was intended only to highlight the ability of Russert’s team to run a few Nexis searches. At one point, Russert had nerve to cite an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showing Obama beating Clinton – this from the same Tim Russert who, only a week ago, was intoxicated by all the worthless NBC polls showing Obama winning in New Hampshire.
Russert is lazy because he is still using the tired technique of reading old, embarrassing quotes to politicians that seemed like a novel approach when he started doing it — in 1991. He displays absolutely no interest in current politics, other than the urge to expose politicians (tee-hee) as flip-floppers. He is a case study of why the mainstream media has become so irrelevant to serious political conversation.