Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Personal Asides: Pul-e-e-e-e-z-e, MSM! Russerts Death Not the End of the World!...Romneys a Joke-Teller: Did You Know That?
Let me tell you, mainstream media know how to mourn one of its own. When was the last time we were called upon to crythe death of Peter Jennings? Remember how they groaned about Jennings? Movie-star handsome, superb phrasing, almost like an Oxford don, belying the fact that he was a high school dropout from Canada. How, oh how, can we ever survive without Peter Jennings?
Now NBC has upstaged Jennings death by planting an empty chair on Meet the Press last Sunday, scheduling a memorial at Washingtons Kennedy Center, grilling Tim Russerts heat specialist on why he hadnt ordered a bypass when they knew his heart was enlarged and he diabetic, bringing his son Luke in for an interview on the Today show with a spate of future stories on who will take over his assignments on NBC. You know, Russert was not the finest political reporter of our era basis his experience as a political operativebecause he was to the point of his death a consummate liberal Democrat, which showed. And he was responsible for only one innovation in TV journalism and that not entirely unpredictable. In fact you wondered why it took so long. The innovation was, believe it or not, Russerts playing TV tapes of pols past statements and then grilling them on it.
Not all that stunning, no? By his own acknowledgment, he studied the founding master of Meet the Press, Lawrence E. Spivak and decided the conservative Spivak was correct in giving everyone who appeared on his show a tough time, from Robert A. Taft to Hubert Humphrey. Spivak was only one panelist on the original showgiven the role of asking the first question of a guest which was usually a doozy. But Russert moved the program from a panel show to concentration of himself asking the questions. Me, I preferred the old format, the panel show because it featured such superb interrogators as Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, Clark Mollenhoff of Cowles, a sweet looking little old lady with her hair in a bun, May Craig, southern-born but Washington columnist for the Maine-based Gannett newspapers.
Rather than glimpse other questioners as in the past, Russert staged the program around himself and thus built a personal fan club. But I never believed he improved the program, nor do I believe for a minute that he was one of the best political TV reporters in all U. S. historyan accomplished one in our era, certainly but even then, only ahead of some of his competitors by scant pointsand behind at least one other.
He was distinctly below Huntley-Brinkley with Huntleys establishmentarian views and David Brinkleys wry, superbly intuitive observations. Russert did ace his reputation as a barbed questioner but his questions usually only dwelled on the inconsistencies all politicians have. You never saw him, for example, duplicate Charlie Gibsons brilliant knowledge of economics or make the salient contribution that Gibson did when in the Democratic debate, he questioned Obama for his economic views. You could see Obamas eyes widen when Gibson nonchalantly cornered him on supply-side theory and you discovered that the presidential candidate billed as insuperable had never heard that it is possible for revenue to roll into the treasury by lowering taxes rather than raising them. With that one interview, Gibson gave us a glimpse of Obamas vulnerabilities far more than Russerts gotcha questions that centered only on the political horserace.
Frankly, I always had a bone to pick with Russert although I cannot do it now that he is dead. When I was a Nixon aide, I got to know the counselor to the president on domestic affairs reasonably wellDaniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan worked for Nixon because he was going through a great reappraisal of his philosophy, leaving liberalism and becoming conservative. I saw that as we talked. Moynihan was, after all, for all his Harvard gloss, a blue-collar product of New Yorks Hells Kitchen who had the perspicacity to see the faux nature of 1960s liberalism. In fact, after he left public service he joined Irving Kristol and others in The Public Interest magazine where he was one of the pioneer new-born conservatives of his era.
When Moynihan decided to run against Bella Abzug for the Senate everybody knew it would be a tough race, between an authentic neo-conservative Democrat of the Henry Jackson school and a radical feminist. I got my PAC and company chairman to pour dough into Moynihan. He won narrowly. When he went to Washington, he took along Russert as his press guy and later made Russert his administrative assistant. What I hold against Russert is this: Moynihan had the talent and following to be an outstanding legislator of the old, centrist Democratic party, especially on social issues. Moynihan was an Irish Catholic and was pro-life. It was Russert, another Irish Catholic but a born pragmatist whose only goal was to placate the mob, who convinced Moynihan to go with the liberal herd and be a pro-abort.
I followed Moynihans senate career closely because Quaker Oats had a huge installation in New York statethe Fisher-Price toy company. So when I tell you Moynihan could have been reelected and easily without caving in to the pro-aborts, I mean it. He had a following in New York that would have stayed with him had he determined to be a man of courage and adhere to principle on social issues.
But Russert was evasive, hesitant and timid, fearing that a primary opponent would knock Moynihan off. Nonsense. Russert belong ed to the same old Richard M. Daley style where a politician could win by 60 percent but by selling his soul could edge it up to 62 percent so what you do is sell your soul. Selling out didnt mean that much to Russert: in fact, it meant nothing at all. It DID to Moynihan but Russert dogged him into making that error. Thats what Russert had Moynihan do. Result: Moynihan, in my view anyhow, never did become the Democratic leader he could have been and carved a new legacy for his party in the center-right.
Blame Moynihan but also Russert for that. Consummate pragmatist. Fooey. The task of a great pol is not just to win but to win by selling as little of your principles as you can. With Russert you sell out to win and that was it. Moynihan knew better when I talked to him privately. Knew better and for the last few years of his life he resorted to the bottlean alcoholic no one really knew how bad he was trying, I think, to make himself forget that he had sold his principles out on the altar of pragmatism. Do I exculpate Moynihan and blame Russert entirely for this? No, Moynihan was, after all the senator. But Russert was the Iago.
The only time Moynihan broke free from Russerts advice was to oppose partial birth abortion, calling it, truly, infanticide. So Im sorry hes dead and all but dont talk to me about Tim Russert. He never, ever, made the contribution to clarification of thought that Charlie Gibson did with that one magic moment where he gave Barack Obama a lesson in economics.
I never, ever thought of Mitt Romney as a funny man, a good joke teller but I guess on the campaign trail he WAS. When Fred Barnes came into town yesterday to speak at the Chicago session of the Heritage Foundation he raved about Romneys droll sense and excellent story-telling proclivity. Reallydid you ever imagine that?
Heres one Romney told that struck me as very funny. I hope I can tell it as well as Barnes did imitating Romney telling it.
A guy was celebrating his 50th birthday by taking his wife of the same age to Palm Beach. They were strolling on the beach when they came upon the inevitable bottle washed up by the ocean. He picked it up and saw a tiny figure of a beautiful Geni inside who was pleading: Let me out! He pulled the cork and she filtered out, growing in size until she stood next to them a beautiful Geni. She said: In return for what you have done to free me, Im going to give both of youyou and your wifea wish each. Anything you want.
The wife went first. She said: You know, when I was at the British Museum last year I saw those gorgeous jewels that Queen Victoria worean emerald necklace, diamond tiara, rings of exquisite beauty that cost millions. Thats what I would like.
The Geni said: It shall be done and immediately his wife was decked out in the jewelsrings, tiara, necklace.
Then the Geni turned to the husband and asked: What can I do for you?
He blushed and said: You know, I shouldnt say this in front of my wife like thisbut aw heck, I will. I wish I had a wife 30 years younger than I.
The Geni said: It shall be done.
And immediately he was 80 years old.