I'M not quite sure how I landed on MSNBC Saturday night--an accidental button push by a thrashing shipwreck victim; my Poor Wife was off at a school function--but I was immediately greeted by David Gregory opining that the massively unfair shit being hurled at the two remaining Democratic Presidential hopefuls is their own damn fault for keeping the race going this long. With logic like that, how can you not be hooked?
It was The Tim Russert Show, something I trust MSNBC gets to air for free based on the discrepancy between what Russert is paid and what he delivers on Meet the Press; there's no other explanation for it. Seated next to Gregory was Chuck Todd, the pollster guy NBC is grooming as the next Pat Caudell (Lucky You, America of 2028!).
The reader is forgiven for not remembering that Mr. Riley was, he believes, the only person in America who actually watched a 2001 C-SPAN panel, moderated by Steve Roberts and including such journalistic co-conspirators as David "Dean" Broder and Kit "Too Bad 'Steno' Was Already Taken" Seelye, as they gave their profession straight As for its performance in the just-concluded 2000 Presidential elections. Reader, try to imagine a greater violation of the laws of Spacetime than according high marks to the coverage of Bush-Gore. Hell, try to imagine being a journalist and actually showing up for the panel instead of taking the opportunity to throw yourself out your office window. And try to imagine what I've done, without success, in an attempt to eradicate the memory.
The following is my transcript of three minutes from the Russert show. I think it's a remarkable document on almost too many levels to count, but that the most remarkable thing about it is that it's hardly remarkable at all: this, in 2008, is the level of "political insider" discourse in the most powerful nation on Earth. I'm going to try not to interrupt any of the speakers, but I'm not making any promises:
RUSSERT: The response to the ABC debate with the liberal blogosphere has been extraordinary. Really racheted it up--Charlie Gibson went on World News Tonight--reported on it right after the debate. Wh, the number of...statements...on the ABC web site, tens of thousands. You [indicating Todd was up] 've been involved in a lot of NBC, MSNBC debate preparation. What's your analysis of what happened that night?
Okay, we may have mentioned this before, but you cannot watch Tim Russert for any appreciable length of time without noting how rare it is for a fully-formed, cogent and coherent idea to come out of the man's mouth. Yes, yes, we know that Nabokov had his lectures printed on index cards and read them verbatim; that was not his main line of work, and we have separate proofs of his genius. What's Russert's excuse? He doesn't add anything to the national discussion that couldn't be added by any other hump with three shots of Bushmill's Black in him, except Russert's known in better restaurants. It's all well and good to say, oh, everybody knows he didn't mean ABC was debating The Liberal Blogosphere!, but this is not a grammatical quibble, and Tim Russert is not a guy who suddenly finds a microphone thrust at him. How'd The Liberal Blogosphere get in there in the first place? Why do his questions so often sound less like questions and more like somebody reading the glossary in the back of the questions book? We think the answer is a) his mind is untidy, and not in an interesting, Quentin Crisp's apartment sort of way, but in a Gwyneth Paltrow caught without make-up sort of way; and b) he's managing the debate, much the way a poor zoo elephant practices abstract expressionism. In fact they both hold the brush the same way.
Now then, we don't have Lexus/Nexus, and god knows we haven't wasted any more time on Russert than necessary over the years, but we seem to recall that when Hillary Clinton, in the midst of an extraordinary, and extraordinarily naked, political bombardment referred to a Right Wing conspiracy of substantial proportions she was fitted for a tinfoil hat. Yet when people howl that a Democratic Presidential debate, in the final days of a closely-fought campaign, is moderated by a pair of goofballs who imagine all America is asking about flag pins just before the electricity is shut off and the tractor repossessed, these same folks find it necessary to identify the hubub as coming from the mosh pit of Left Blogtopia. Hmmm.
You or I--or anyone who's ever been responsible for the actions of a three-year-old even for a moment--might ask whether the questioning was fair, or appropriate; given a certain level of partisanship we might ask if the reaction was excessive. We are highly unlikely to turn to a pollster and ask for his analysis of "what happened that night", because we already know what happened that night.
But we are not Russert, though like him we now turn to Chuck Todd. A couple things before we dive in: I've transcribed a number of teevee conversations over the years, and I'm not particularly good at it. I expect to go over and over things to make sure I've got them right (in longhand). But I had never, ever, before been forced to transcribe someone's remarks phonetically. Frankly, the disorganization of Chuck Todd's thought processes would suggest some as yet undiscovered neuropathy if one did not already understand the sirens' song of the One-Eyed Bitch Goddess and her High Priest Russert's expense account dinners. I think if one had access to the MSNBC archives one might locate the exact moment when young Chuck's soul flew from his mouth and dissolved into dew. It's long gone now, never to return, something I hope the beginning of his comments can still make clear when turned into print; this is a man who still has to watch his shoes while he dances. It's not pretty, but it's not particularly sympathetic, either.
The other, related, thing is this: I tried to take this down accurately. Believe me, I've got a half-hour invested in the damn thing, easy. If you'd like, feel free to cut and paste
wherever you feel necessary.
TODD: Well, I, I think that, y'know they, th...look, they made a deci...it's tough. And I think that my guess is that the ABC guys said to themselves there are two audiences for this debate. One is Pennsylvania voters, but the other, by the way, is superdelegates, so we better make sure we ask questions that both audiences want to have asked.
[Okay, I know I said I wasn't going to interrupt, but, what?]
And I think that when, and they went through and they feel like they asked all those questions, y'know, you do wonder if they changed the order a little bit, kept the same amount of time, but changed the order they probably wouldn't have got it, hit as much. But I think what's interesting about what you brought up is the intensity of "Obamanation", if uh, uh, I guess, to borrow a Red Sox Nation phrase, but they are a devoted group of people beyond which I don't think we've seen, really, we saw a tay, a taste of this in '04 with Bush and sort of his supporters, but I think what we're seeing a taste of is this is, this is just a glimpse of what the Democratic Party fight could look like if for some reason Clinton gets the nomination or appears to be grabbing the nomination away from Obama. MoveOn has already, y'know, pushed [the?] Obama support, y'know, they've already started a petition campaign against ABC and, other media outlets, y'know, apparently all of us are going to get hit by them. I, it, this is a intense group of supporters that may not...accept...a result that isn't Obama as the nominee to the point that they may destroy the Democratic Party.
Here's a thought experiment, assuming you survived all that: what sort of situation would cause you to give an answer like that? Untold riches? Pliant supermodels? A gun held on your family?
Okay, so Chuck Todd is to the Internet Quote Farmer what six producing zucchini plants are to the home cook. He's workin' the Russert Glossary Technique as best he can (superdelegates! Obamanation! MoveOn!), Pennsylvania voters want to know about lapel pins and Bill Ayers (though why this shouldn't mean we ask the Senators about the Steelers' draft picks or Lindsay Lohan's sobriety goes unanswered). In the midst of blathering about the unprecedented devotion of Obamanation we suddenly bring up George W. Bush '04, a man whose Republican halo had already begun to tarnish by that point, apparently because the script calls for MoveOn to be equated with the Swiftboaters, despite the fact that the Swiftboat shit was parroted by the nets while this is being discounted (at least sur la table Russert; I happened to see the ABC coverage and Gibson was fair about it). Then--in the grand tradition of distracting the rubes while the pickpockets work the crowd--a big fireworks finale consisting of...Obamanation destroying the Democratic Party! USA! USA!
Shit. Oh, here's David Gregory. Maybe he's not insane:
GREGORY: I've got a slightly different view of this, uh. One thing is I think that institutionally journalism is under fire, and, from both sides people are spending a lot of time attacking us and trying to divine our motives. And I'm not saying
[read: of course I am]
that we shouldn't be held to account and there's room for criticism in areas but, uh, I think this goes overboard, number one.
[and we've already be inundated with number two. sorry.]
Number two, I'm not quite certain that they approached it, uh, to the various audiences here. Look, Obama has been in trouble. He deserves some tough questions and scrutiny. There have been things that he has said and outside events that are really testing him. He is on the precipice of closing this deal and getting this nomination.
[precipice, n. L16 (Fr. précipice or L. praecipitiium, f. praeceps, praecip[it]-headlong, steep, or praecipitare PRECIPITATE v.) 1 A precipitate fall or descent. Freq. fig. L16-M17. 2 A high cliff, crag, or steep mountainside from which one might fall; a vertical or very steep rock face. E17. 3 fig A dangerous or hazardous situation. M17 Senator Obama currently occupies the verge of the nomination; should his final push fall short he will wind up merely dry-shod and wistful, not a crushed and lifeless snowboarder now lacking both common sense and motor skills.]
He should face some tough questions. Hillary Clinton has gotten a rough ride at various points because she's been losing. She went from this Inevitability Air [sic] to all of a sudden being on the ropes. The press as a body likes to dissect why that's happened.
You cover winners and losers differently. He has been ahead, she's been behind. This dynamic could change. He had all the sudden fallen behind. [sic] Why? Let's examine that. Let's ask these questions that you are going to be asked down the line. How do you handle these things? People may not like the content of these questions but how he deals with those questions, how he deals with distraction, with perception, with external events is every bit of what he's going to face when, if he becomes President of the United States. And I think it's illuminating for voters to get a sense of how he handles it.
Professor* Todd? You will note how the experienced streetwalker handles the really disgusting requests with aplomb. I was, of course, stopping and starting and going back to get all this, and I still could not ascertain the exact moment when Gregory realized he'd wandering into that "The Front Runner Gets The Rough Questions" minefield. That's an old pro at work, especially seeing as how his two very companions had used that as an excuse to gang-tackle Hillary last Halloween, and seeing as how a) they hadn't stopped in the interim, as she went from Inevitability Air to Also-Ran Stinkola, and b) her tough-gal response garnered nothing but catcalls, while Gregory was right in the middle of criticizing Obama for not being tough enough in response. It was clear that he did understand this by the time he'd said it, but he managed not just to keep going but uncork a fireworks display based on Journalism's Patriotic Duty, goddam it, and if it's old-fashioned to be a Patriot well then I'm proudly old-fashioned, goddam it! and never had to mention MoveOn a'tall.
And damn if we didn't stand up and salute the teevee after that.
We say again: if you answered all your six-year-old's questions like that, how long before she'd be hailing passing cars in an effort to get away? In fact, where'd the Question go, exactly? Is there really a MoveOn petition campaign to make ABC quit asking Barack Obama tough questions? Is it really possible that these guys don't get it? Isn't the answer to both those questions the same?
* Todd's speaker-bureau bio says, "Accompanying his extensive media presence is his work as a graduate level professor at the Johns Hopkins University." So far as I can tell, making allowances for the, uh, odd wording, this professorship is news to the Johns Hopkins University.