Sunday, May 26, 2002

Daschle, Russert Duel to a Draw

Will Vehrs
Tim Russert asked tough questions and Tom Daschle changed the subject. That was the highlight of the Sunday talk shows.

The major issue was the potential for an independent commission to investigate intelligence failures prior to September 11, along with the sub-text of since withdrawn Democratic criticism of what the President knew. The other top issue was the memo from FBI whistle-blower Colleen Rowley.

The Senate Majority Leader lead off on Meet the Press and a well-prepared Russert challenged him immediately with a Human Events article claiming Senator Bob Graham (D, FL) and the Senate Intelligence Committee had the same information the President did prior to September 11th. “It wasn’t all on one page like the President’s,” protested Daschle. To every Russert suggestion that perhaps the Senator might have known or might have inquired more into hints of a terrorist attack, Daschle changed the subject to the need for an investigation so that it “didn’t happen again.” A Daschle-satirizing “Tom the Dancing Bug” comic strip was even shown.

Daschle criticized Vice-President Cheney for getting “close to the line” of impugning his patriotism, but failed to criticize Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D, CA) for her remarks questioning President Bush. Daschle declined an opportunity to support Senator Zell Miller’s (D, GA) criticism of McKinney. The South Dakota Senator repeated his claim that President Bush and Vice President Cheney asked him not to investigate 9-11 in January. When asked by Russert why he had waited 8 months to press for an investigation, Daschle said that such an investigation would have distracted important agencies from the War on Terror—the same reason he attributed to Bush and Cheney’s January request.

When it was over, Russert appeared to have scored some hits, but Daschle appeared not to have noticed.

Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation devoted the majority of his show to questions about Minneapolis FBI Agent Colleen Rowley’s devastating memo about the Bureau’s failure to support an investigation prior to September 11th. Fox News Sunday also spent a considerable amount of time on the topic, with The Nation’s David Corn saying, “The memo that Rowley produced leads to serious questions … whether this is an agency that can be reformed.”

Corn and Fox’s Juan Williams have already started worrying that any FBI reform will resort to “cheap tricks” that make it easier to spy on “law-abiding” citizens.

President Bush’s treaty signing in Russia failed to garner much attention. Condoleeza Rice appeared on Fox to trumpet the achievement and Colin Powell appeared on Late Edition. Corn called it a “Junk food arms control treaty. It looks good, it doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value to it.” Fred Barnes called Corn “picky,” and touted the US-Russia friendship as the most important foreign policy development since 9-11.

Also far from the radar screen were tensions between India and Pakistan. On Late Edition, Powell again expressed disappointment at a second Pakistani nuclear test.

I Hate It When This Happens

This Week was pre-empted by the Indianapolis 500, so no Sam, Cokie, or George Squared for me.

Modesty or Calculation?

A few weeks ago I noted that Senator John Edwards (D, NC) never challenged a Tim Russert “What would President Edwards do?” question. Today, Tom Daschle was asked the “President Daschle” question and responded strongly, “There isn’t a President Daschle.” After a second question, Daschle asked Russert, “You’re hung up on this President Daschle, aren’t you?”

The Odyssey

No stuffy committee report for Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe, substituting for Mark Shields on The News Hour: "I still see and detect a great hunger for a narrative of what happened last fall that we can all live with and learn from."

Meet the Press Rehab

Tim Russert had plagiarist historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on a panel with Howard Kurtz and David Broder of the Washington Post.

Maybe Accidentally?

I have a hard time believing the Administration would deliberately jerk the American people around. –David Broder, addressing concerns that terrorist warnings are politically motivated.

Code Red on Capital Gang

Bob Novak: Is it prudent to make these alerts and tell the American people to watch out? I don't know how you're supposed to watch out. Am I, you know, when I go on the show, am I supposed to be careful that Margaret doesn't have a concealed weapon or something?

Margaret Carlson: I would definitely use it.

Friendly Advice

Polls show that women actually support arming pilots at a higher rate than men, because they see it as a safety issue; they don't see it as a gun issue. This is a wonderful political opportunity for Democrats to make women feel safer, and appeal to men. They look so anti-gun in other contexts. –Kate O’Bierne, Capital Gang

Partisan Shot of the Week

If hypocrisy were a felony, the House Republican majority would be doing hard time at Leavenworth. –Mark Shields, Capital Gang

Non-News Tip of the Week

I don't think it is terribly significant that Ken Lay went to the White House Easter egg roll and that hadn't been disclosed before. –Tom Oliphant, The News Hour

Subtle Metaphor of the Week

We have a whistle blower, some leaks, we want investigations, we want to send some people off out of town in disgrace and then we'll all smoke a cigarette and declare it over. –David Brooks, The News Hour

Sunday, May 19, 2002

When the Going Gets Tough, Cheney Gets Going to the Talk Shows

Will Vehrs
The surest sign that the Bush Administration senses political trouble is when Vice-President Cheney is making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows.

After a week of explosive charges and countercharges—Mara Liasson said “It was so ferocious they got Laura Bush from Europe issuing a statement about politics”—a stern and authoritative Cheney appeared on Meet the Press for the full hour and on Fox News Sunday for a shorter session. The Administration’s other cool customer, Condoleezza Rice, mopped up on Face the Nation, This Week, and CNN’s Late Edition.

Cheney’s commandeering of Meet the Press as the sole guest was a clever strategy. Cheney guaranteed that no other voice would be heard on the highest-rated Sunday morning show. Host Tim Russert’s patiently ran through controversial comment after comment from critics, allowing Cheney to respond (and spin) as a voice of moderation and thoughtfulness.

It wasn’t just Cheney sounding moderate, though. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D, MO), also appearing on Fox News Sunday, struck a different tone than he had earlier in the week. Senate Intelligence Committee members Bob Graham (D, FL) and Richard Shelby (R, AL), sounded downright bipartisan on Face the Nation.

As Brit Hume noted on Fox, “It sounded as if they [Cheney and Gephardt] had decided to call a truce. It’s almost the rhetoric of post-9/11.” Morton Kondracke, also on Fox, echoed that sentiment: “We’re back in patriotism mode.”

Senator Joseph Lieberman (D, CT) was an exception to the “truce” on This Week, criticizing the Administration for its penchant for secrecy.

One can’t help but suspect that both parties face embarrassing revelations and that the country’s intelligence capabilities could be hurt by too much investigation. Heightened alerts about possible additional terrorist threats also contribute to the need for a “truce.” It is not clear if the latest threat warnings are being used by the Bush Administration to quell the political disturbance, are actually higher than usual, or are a serendipitous combination of both.

“Pundit of the Week” is David Brooks, who appeared Friday night on The News Hour. Where many pundits—Mark Shields, Al Hunt, and Kate O’Beirne, for example--chose to evaluate the story as a continuation of the tired Clinton/Bush double standard line, Brooks called that a “kindergarten” approach and instead zeroed in on the dynamics within the Bush Administration:

I guess the central flaw or the central problem the administration made was in pretending that nobody could have foreseen September 11, that the system works, that we don't need a crackdown, we don't need to fire people.

And, then they were in an untenable position because when documents came out, when this Library of Congress report comes out suggesting that people could have predicted it, that people did predict it, not that this information ever made it to the White House, but that it was predictable, then they were stuck.

The fact that the president was briefed on August 6 was a prime example they could have said, listen, this system is broken. We got these vague reports that we didn't know what to do with, but we should have gotten better reports. We should have connected the dots a lot better and we are going to clean house here.

But they decided not to do it. The reason I think they decided not to do it is sort of team loyalty. They've got Mueller; they have got Tenet. They're our guys. We've got good people. We can do it within the executive branch. We don't need outsiders coming in to look at us.

So they were loyal to the people around them. But they really hurt themselves by not admitting they might need fundamental reform

Brooks also got off the best line regarding the political use of the President Bush picture, the one with him talking on the phone to Vice-President Cheney: “I wish he had been on the phone telling George Tenet he's fired.”

Mickey Kaus’s Assignment Desk

Was it loyalty that kept President Bush from firing CIA and FBI personnel after 9/11? Or would bitter fired officials have had the potential to release damaging information that would shift blame toward the Administration?

That August 6th Presidential Daily Briefing

The August 6 briefing the president got was a speculative analysis. There was nothing really there. –Kate O’Bierne

If you take a look at the documents that actually made it to the Oval Office, you could take Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Pairot and you wouldn't be able to figure out what was going to happen on September 11. –David Brooks

There's such little information that he is alleged to have had and withheld, almost everything that has been said was known before about the ineptitude of the FBI. –Bob Novak

Was there a cover-up, in the sense they're not telling us about some of these embarrassments like that memo? --Al Hunt

Take Another Week Off, Bob

CBS White House correspondent John Roberts filled in for Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation. Roberts did a credible job interviewing Condi Rice, questioning her on discrepancies between Cheney’s assessment of the threat and her own, as well as asking, “Would this latest alert be issued if not for the controversy?” “We don’t play games with this,” responded Rice. Roberts passed on Schieffer’s signature ending commentary.

Ari Who?

Asked by Tim Russert about an Ari Fleischer comment regarding the use of box cutters by the hijackers, Vice President Cheney said, “I don’t know what Ari was talking about.”

Honesty Is the Best Policy

For the most part, the White House has not lied. There have been some misimpressions. –George Stephanopolous

Tacky, Tacky, Tacky

Selling that picture was tacky. –Cokie Roberts

I agree with Cokie, it’s tacky. When in doubt, cut it out. –George Will

Of course it was tacky, and of course the Democrats would have done it too. That's how rotten the system is. –Al Hunt

Other Than Tacky

George Bush should just adopt lessons, it seems to me, we learned during the '90s, be like Al Gore, just say, That's not a photograph of me. Don't believe your lying eyes, that wasn't me at all. –Kate O’Bierne

It's not -- you know, it's not the end of the world, but neither is it a good thing that he did. –Margaret Carlson

Commissions, As American as Apple Pie

Mark Shields, commenting on the creation of an independent commission to investigate pre 9/11 intelligence failures:

We do this. It's something that America does. We did it after the Challenger. If you look at the Challenger tragedy, the space shot. We did have the Warren Commission. I mean this was a national tragedy and a national calamity. We want to be absolutely sure like the collapse of a bridge that it doesn't happen again. And to make those structural connections that... corrections that are necessary.

George Will’s Commission

George Will suggested the make-up of a commission and he had a chart ready on This Week. His Democrats are Sam Nunn, Bob Graham, Pat Moynihan, and Lee Hamilton. His Republicans are George Schultz, Richard Lugar, John Danforth, and Robert Kagan. George Stephanopolous noted that these names were the “perennials.”

Will the Real Jimmy Carter Please Stand Up?

The exchange of the week was the Capital Gang’s look at Jimmy Carter after his trip to Cuba:

NOVAK: He's an embarrassment.

SHIELDS: He is a great statesman

CARLSON: Calling an ex-president an embarrassment, that's an embarrassment.

O'BEIRNE: Well, except when he embarrasses himself...

Carlson on Novak

You like a fuss, Bob. You live on fuss. You thrive on fuss.

Bush Warned of Impending Danger

The late night comics are back. –Cokie Roberts

Sunday, May 12, 2002

Mother's Day Trumps Punditwatch

Will Vehrs
Any notion that I could write Punditwatch and participate in Mother's Day festivities gave way to harsh reality early today. There'll be no Punditwatch today. Look for it tomorrow on Fox around noon, assuming I get to the two hours I have on videotape ....

Had I been able to write today, I would have noted Tim Russert's shameless plugging of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg's book, Fareed Zakaria picking fights with George Will, and Al Hunt's "Bush Bashing Binge."

Sunday, May 05, 2002

TV Punditwatch: Meet the Press, Presidential Whistle-Stop

Will Vehrs
Forget the Middle East, forget the farm bill, and forget cloning. This weekend’s pundit highlight was Tim Russert’s declaration on Meet the Press that he was going to play media kingpin for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

Russert, after opening with Secretary of State Colin Powell, gave a half-hour of prime talking head time to Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Edwards is a first term Senator. He’s not a committee chairman. He’s not sponsoring any major legislation that is being debated. But his nascent presidential campaign just received high visibility profiles in US News and World Report, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. By giving Edwards this coveted platform, Russert called the thoroughbreds to the starting gate of the pundit’s equivalent to the Kentucky Derby.

Terence Smith, moderating the Shields and Brooks segment on The News Hour, remarked, “It’s 30 months to the presidential election and there should be a law against discussing it this early.” Of course, he immediately ignored the spirit of this potential law. Russert, to his credit, didn’t even pay lip service to qualms about starting the horse race early.

Russert ensured that other Democratic presidential wannabes would scramble to garner appearances with him on MTP, thereby committing themselves earlier than they might like and possibly going on record about hot-button issues before they had fully polled and developed their positions. He also set up the tantalizing possibility of Democrats criticizing each other, always a ratings grabber.

Edwards faced a cagey Russert. The early questions on the Middle East were relatively easy, with little follow-up. Russert set it up by saying, “What would a President Edwards do?” In a telling reaction, the junior Senator from North Carolina didn’t question that premise. Russert got tougher on domestic issues and turned Edwards around on tax issues when he obviously wanted to stick to his economic talking point: “I believe deeply in prosperity.” Shown a poll that had him well down among Democrats—Al Sharpton at 2% and Edwards at 1%--the Senator joked, “I’m surprised it’s that high.” He disputed an Elon College poll that showed only 43% support in his home state.

No Klutzes Driving Those Bulldozers

“[The Palestinians] are much better at the PR and propaganda wars than the Israelis, who are surprisingly klutzy at it.” --Brit Hume

Cokie’s Safe Haven

Asked her opinion on arming pilots, Cokie Roberts exclaimed, “Airplanes are one of the few places I feel safe from guns!

Powell Responds

Asked about GOP House Whip Tom DeLay’s negative comments on his efforts:

My job is difficult in many respects and I get help from many quarters.

Is he frustrated by Defense Department positions?

I’m not frustrated. We’re in agreement more than we’re in disagreement. I’m not weeping in my beer.

Will he resign?

I serve at the pleasure of the President.

Alderman Musharraf?

On Capital Gang, Ash-Har Quraishi, CNN’s Islamabad Bureau Chief, related this story:

President Musharraf even mentioned in a press conference the other day that one woman said she voted for him 60 times. He said that just proves how much they love him here.

Mark Shields then quipped,

He'd do well in Chicago with that approach.

The Wisdom of David Brooks

On farm policy:

We are learning from our successes not to repeat them.

On the Congressional resolution supporting Israel:

They call terrorists "terrorists," and I think the truth is never not helpful.

Peace Something or Another

Pundits poked fun at the Administration’s effort to characterize the upcoming talks on the Middle East:

They couldn't figure out what to call it. Is it a meeting? Is it a conference? Is it a confab? Is it a bird, a plane, Spider-Man? --Margaret Carlson

Challenge of the Century

There’s an emphasis on reconstructing the PLO as a real government … democratic, transparent, and non-corrupt. Now that’s a tall order. –Brit Hume

Farm Bill Follies

It is a horrible bill. This is just bad economics. –Bob Novak

This is a terrible bill. There are at least four reasons I can think of why he signed it. They're called South Dakota and Minnesota and Iowa and Missouri -- key Senate races and a couple of key House races there, too. –Al Hunt

It's a bill of bipartisan pork. And every time I hear the word family farm, you know, I reach for my wallet, because you know they're just lying. –Margaret Carlson

This bill to my mind is as bad a bill that has come down our purview in the last year surpassing the House stimulus package, which I thought was unsurpassable in its awfulness. –David Brooks

When he does [signs the farm bill], he [President Bush] will forfeit forever his right to denounce big government. –George Will

Bill Clinton, Unilateralist

For all the Republicans attack Clinton for being the multilateralist, Clinton never invited the Europeans and the UN [into Middle East negotiations]. --Bill Kristol

Bill Clinton, Talk Show Host

Our old friend David Gergen once said every President once he leaves office decides whether he was a failed President or a successful President and his post-Presidency is defined by that. I didn't know where Bill Clinton figured himself to be, but this sure as hell ain't Habitat for Humanity. I think it will be a terrible mistake. I think Maury Povich who has a show said, please don't do it, Mr. President. I mean there is something unelevating about it. –Mark Shields

Bill Clinton is still considering offers to be a TV talk show host. Now, that certainly would give him the money and visibility he apparently craves, but he can forget about the respect and standing that he also desires. It would reinforce the charge of Clinton critics that he's not a serious political figure. It also wouldn't help Senator Clinton. Which raises the question, who does this brilliant man listen to, and how do such matters even get on his radar screen? --Al Hunt

A talk show doesn't make any sense. It's not going to happen.. George Stephanopolous