I still remember about four and a half years ago when I got the chance to see Tim Russert, the moderator of NBC's Meet the Press who died today at 58, live in action. I was a reporter at the Binghamton Press and my editor and I were at a career training workshop held by the Freedom Forum in Washington, DC. My first job as a reporter was through that journalism advocacy organization and they provided mentorship and training. That particular Sunday, our group went to the NBC studio in northwest D.C. to see him tape his show.
His guest that morning was Gen. Wesley Clark. He was running for president and trying to bill himself in opposition to the Bush administration as a liberal democrat. I walked into the studio unsure of who I would be voting for. Tim greeted us and then got down to business. The group of us sat still in the bleachers watching the show progress. Tim asked him a series questions about his role in Kosovo and Clark handled them nimbly. He answered firmly and stoutly in the style of military men. Clark told Tim that Iraq was a mess and the president obviously had no plan. Whenever Clark tried to change the subject, Tim remained focused keeping Clark on the subject.
"I want to talk a whole lot more about Iraq," Tim said, "but I want to stay on Kosovo for just a second."
Clark hadn't yet been hit with anything he couldn't handle. You could see on his face that he felt as if he was acing an exam.
Then Tim started to ramp it up. He brought out the quotes. That's Tim's style, to find out what you said in the past, present it and have you respond to it. On Iraq, Clark said Saddam Hussein was a threat and he would have voted to go to war with the country, despite his current stance that the war was the wrong move. Tim said:
Let’s start with September 26, your testimony to the House Armed Services Committee. And this is what you said: “There’s no question that Saddam Hussein is a threat. He does retain his chemical and biological
capabilities to some extent, and he is, as far as we know, actively pursuing nuclear capabilities.” You went on: “Our president has emphasized the urgency of eliminating these weapons and weapons programs. I strongly support his efforts...” And “I do believe the United States’ diplomacy in the United Nations would be strengthened if Congress can adopt a resolution expressing U.S. determination to act if the United
Nations cannot act.” And you continued, “As Richard Perle ,” chief architect of the war in Iraq, “so eloquently pointed out, this is a problem that’s longstanding. It’s been a decade in the making. It needs to be dealt with and the clock is ticking on this.”
Clark began to stumble, but he still found himself on steady ground. The general stuck to his talking points, criticizing Bush. Tim pointed out that he had supported the resolution to attack Iraq. Clark said it wasn't support. Tim found a quote of Clark actually using the word support.
If this had been a boxing match, Tim would have landed some pretty heavy blows. Clark stumbled a bit, but he was still on his feet.
Tim then hit him with a bomb. He showed a video of Wesley Clark praising the Bush administration at a Republican county dinner:
(Videotape, May 11, 2001):
GEN. CLARK: If you look around the world, there’s a lot of work to be done. And I’m very glad we’ve got the great team in office, men like Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul O’Neill—people I know very well—our President George W. Bush. We need them there, because we’ve got some tough challenges ahead.
MR. RUSSERT: “A great team. We need them there.” And then on January 22, 2002, at Harding University in Arkansas, again, you added to that. Let’s watch.
(Videotape, January 22, 2002):
GEN. CLARK: I didn’t say this earlier, and I should have. I tremendously admire, and I think we all should, the great work done by our commander in chief, our president, George Bush, and the men and women of the United States armed forces.
(End of videotape)
MR. RUSSERT: That sounds like a ringing endorsement of the president. I can see President Bush using those bites in commercials if he runs against you.
In the stands, the young journalists and their editors glanced around in awe. My editor and I looked at each other, eyes agape.
At that point it was over for Clark and he knew it. His face was strained and on it you could see his mind going through a flips and turns. It was obvious that he was thinking of how he would salvage his campaign after all this.
The two went back and forth asking and answering questions, but the show was over, Tim had told it like it was. If that interview was an exam, Clark failed. If it was a boxing match, Clark had gotten knocked the fuck out.
Over the years, I watched Tim use this approach on politicians of all parties and political ideologies. Some withstood the punishing weight of his relentless questioning, others folded. What an amazing service he provided to the people, laying our public servants bare--stripping them of talking points and bullshit--for us to clearly scrutinize. But that morning, he probably wasn't thinking in such a high-minded fashion. He was just doing a job.
After the show, we were in awe of his tight, focused and confident interviewing skills. We got the opportunity to ask him about his technique. He read several newspapers a day to prepare for interviews, he said. The secret to it all was research and preparation. When he sat at that desk Tim knew exactly what he would ask. When I returned to upstate New York, I pretended to be Tim, remembering what my sources, mostly the public officials, had said months before or finding their old quotes in the newspaper archives and asking them to account for their words. But I was no Tim Russert.
That morning in the NBC studios, Tim took a picture with us. He held a Buffalo Bills football like a fullback charging to the end zone against a row of angry lineman. Then he winked at us and hurried out of the studio on his way to another engagement. The great master had done his work.
Washington Post Appreciation
A critic's Appreciation
Hey, Ali, the NBC butler didn't bring us shrimp and juice!