The myth of the "Russert Primary"

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

With NBC's hugely important announcement that David Gregory will be the guy who asks questions on Meet The Press, the press has been in full, MTP worship mode. (It's not just a TV show people, it's an institution) Leading the charge, Howard Kurtz at the WaPo:

In what was dubbed the Russert Primary, a presidential candidate's stock would rise or fall depending on how he or she handled the interrogation.

This is beyond Beltway CW, it's official mythology. What Kurtz left out was the fact that the Russert Primary was often quite different depending on whether you were a Democratic or Republican candidate, as I quote from Lapdogs:

During the hour-long sit-down, [Howard] Dean faced off against a clearly combative host, Tim Russert, who prepared for the interview in part by asking the Bush Treasury Department to produce what the Washington Post later called a "highly selective" analysis of the Democratic candidate's proposed tax program. The GOP-friendly analysis prompted Russert to ask incredulously to Dean, "Can you honestly go across the country and say, "I'm going to raise your taxes 4,000 percent or 107 percent" and be elected?"

That was Russert's second substantive question of the interview. His first was about the then-recent arrest of Dean's son for helping steal beer from a country club. Russert though, famed for his pre-show prep, botched the facts and erroneously informed viewers that Dean's teenage son had been "indicted." Deep into the interview Russert asked how many men and women were currently serving in the U.S. military, a gotcha-style question designed solely to put Dean on the spot. When Dean said he didn't know the exact number, Russert lectured the candidate, "As commander in chief, you should know that." Dean answered the question by saying there were between 1 and 2 million men and women in active duty; according to the Pentagon, there were in fact 1.4 million.

But travel back in time to November, 1999 when Russert had a far more civil sit-down with then-candidate Bush. (Russert: "Can kids avoid sex?" Bush: "I hope so. I think so.") Russert, in a rare move, even agreed to leave his NBC studio and to travel to Bush's home turf in Texas to conduct the interview, thereby giving the Texas governor a sort of home-field advantage. In fact, Russert first flew down to Austin in April 1999 to "get to know the governor of Texas," as the moderator put it, and to begin lobbying Bush for a Meet the Press appearance. (There's no indication Russert ever traveled up to Vermont in 2003 to "get to know" Dean or to persuade him to appear on the Sunday talk show.)

For nearly 60 minutes Bush and Russert talked about key issues, but Russert never tried to pin the Republican candidate down the way he did Dean. When the host did spring a specific policy question on Bush, asking how many missiles would still be in place if a new START II nuclear weapons treaty were signed, a stumped Bush simply answered: "I can't remember the exact number." But unlike his session with Dean, Russert dropped the topic without lecturing Bush that "as commander in chief, you should know that."

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