Tim Russert’s non-interview with the president

By Gautham Rao

A few weeks ago, Tim Russert phoned the Bush administration and requested an interview with the President. The White House curtly refused, knowing that the President had nothing to talk about other than the Mars rover. Once Bush’s poll numbers began slipping, somebody somewhere in the West Wing thought it wise to call Russert back. Just like that, the interview was on.

But then, of course, the White House still had a President who not only had nothing to say, but manages to say nothing in facial contortions and linguistic distortions that we have not seen since before Gilbert Gottfried’s death (actually, he’s not dead—just obscure).

So they came up with a masterstroke. The President would talk about nothing. It would be the Seinfeld of political interviews. This wouldn’t even take much prep.

Meanwhile, the White House dispatched some foot soldiers with a message: don’t expect much. Bush’s Communications Director, Dan Bartlett, gave The New York Times this zinger, about the possibility that the President would discuss the Iraq-intelligence fiasco: “He’s more than comfortable talking about those decisions and he believes the country wants to hear from the president about these issues.” And even if things didn’t go well, said Terry Holt, a spokesperson for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, “We’re 269 days from the election, and that’s several political lifetimes.” The lower they could drive people’s expectations, the better nothing would look.

Phase two was a bit tougher. In “Operation: Clay Aiken,” the White House media strategy tried to transform Tim Russert, a slightly bizarre guy with a creepy stare, into a real journalist. Republican operatives hit the cable news shows proclaiming how intimidating Tim Russert was, how thorough his research was, and how meticulous his questions were. On “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, Sheri Annis, a Republican National Committee consultant, noted that Russert makes people cower, and she hoped aloud that Russert would allow the President to retain his dignity.

That’s how it was done. All that was left was for the President to deliver. And did he ever. I counted 37 questions asked by Russert, and the majority of responses did not actually refer to the question. Here is a paraphrased example. Russert asks if Congress would have gone to war if they knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—not an unimportant question. Bush’s answer (it is a run-on sentence to emulate the seven meandering paragraphs of response): Congress saw the intelligence I saw, the U.N. wasn’t enforcing its resolutions even though they thought he was bad, but he kept defying the world, and if we don’t follow up on threats then nobody will respect us, so it worked because Libya is giving up its arms program, and “the world is a safer place” with Saddam behind bars.

Of course there were other gems like, “every life is precious,” or, that the problem with the Vietnam War was that “we had politicians making military decisions,” or that “we need really good intelligence.” But the bigger point here is that this string of non sequiturs, non-answers, evasions, and unintelligible blather constituted absolutely nothing at all. Even Peggy Noonan—the former Reagan speechwriter and occasional contributor to the W. Bush oeuvre—found no content in the President’s performance.

I am not naïve enough to think that an utter lack of policy platforms will stop Bush from getting reelected. I am sure Karl Rove and his folks are already calling people, asking them if they know that John Kerry is actually a gay black man who hates guns but loves white women and is on their local PTA board. But there are only so many times you can pretend there’s an elephant in the room, especially if its always the same imaginary elephant you’ve been pointing to and prodding at for three years. Or maybe not.