The Russert Watch

Sunday's Meet the Press, featuring RNC chair Ken Mehlman, was another classic example of why host Tim Russert is fast becoming journalism's answer to the "E-ZPass," those electronic tags that allow drivers to go through toll booths without having to stop. On the show today, Mehlman was allowed to distort, twist, manipulate, obfuscate and "disassemble" his way through every stop on the disinformation highway.

The key to the E-ZPass method is no follow-ups -- or lame follow-ups quickly abandoned. And Mehlman is a master at dealing with those. His technique? Just repeat or slightly rephrase his talking point, and trust that Russert will give up, wave him on and proceed to the next prepared question.

To see a master in action, let's go to the transcript:

Early in the interview, Russert asks Mehlman whether "the president has hit a wall with his domestic agenda? What's the problem?"

The RNC chair dances around the question so deftly his moves should be taught at Arthur Murray: "Tim, I don't think there's a problem," he responds, and then promptly changes the subject to Ronald Reagan before closing with an RNC commercial.

"Before we provided prescription drugs for Medicare, we were told it wasn't going to happen. Before the president was able to move forward with No Child Left Behind, we were told it was stalled. We just passed class-action reform for the first time in six years and that, too, was predicted not to happen."

If Russert were doing his job, he would have countered with some well-aired problems with these three accomplishments: the Medicare prescription drug plan was promised to cost under $400 billion over 10 years but now stands at $724 billion (and, in a stunning giveaway to the drug industry, the government gets no bulk-purchasing discount); the No Child Left Behind Act has been such a massively underfunded disaster that 12 states are considering legislation to get out of it; and the class-action "reform" will just make it harder for injured people to get a fair day in court.

But E-ZPass Russert mentions none of the above. Instead, he waves Mehlman through and moves on to stem cell research about which Mehlman says: "This is the first administration ever that has funded with federal dollars embryonic stem cell research."

Does Russert bother to point out that this is not much of claim, since this is the first administration ever to have had the chance to fund embryonic stem cell research? Of course not. Mehlman is in the GOP Express Lane. No need to slow down for little things like facts. Move right along.

Russert actually allows Mehlman to get away with saying, "So you have an administration that is unprecedented in our commitment to more scientific research," without offering a spit take, a rim shot, or a "Please, Ken, not even I can let you slide on that one!"

Russert then switches to his pet interrogatory method: asking his guest for a reaction to a pointed quote from someone else -- in this case, former Republican Sen. John Danforth:

"By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians. As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way around."

Mehlman bypasses the criticism altogether, leaving Danforth in his rear-view mirror with a condescending, "I think he's a good man. I would respectfully disagree with that." And Russert lets him get away without even attempting to answer a serious charge from a senior member of his own party.

And on and on Mehlman rolls, on issue after issue after issue:

On the deficit, he follows the administration's standard "In An Emergency Break Glass" procedure and seeks refuge in 9/11: "Well, Tim, I would say that what we've suffered, unfortunately, was an attack on this country."

When asked why, even after the president's 100-day tour, 56 percent of Americans continue to oppose his Social Security plan, Mehlman says he "would respectfully disagree with those numbers," then counters them with a bit of complete nonsense: "That same NBC News poll showed that a plurality of Americans believe that Congress is moving too slowly on the question of dealing with Social Security."

Now even if a plurality of Americans saying something actually meant anything, I read that poll three times from beginning to end -- yes, I did have a fun Sunday -- and it says nothing of the sort.

When asked about the latest Pentagon report that, in fact, several Korans were mishandled, Mehlman responds by calling this "unacceptable," but tries to minimize the unacceptability by putting it in "context": "We also need to remember it in the context, in the context of an America that is liberating Muslims."

Well, it's all fine and dandy if we want to look at it that way, but the question is not how we look at it, it's how Muslims look at it. And, unlike Russert, they're not buying Mehlman's "context."

When asked about the Downing Street Memo, which shows that Bush was determined to go to war almost a year before the invasion, and that the intelligence was accordingly "fixed," Mehlman falls back on an out-and-out fabrication: "Tim, that report has been discredited by everyone else who's looked at it since then."

Russert actually manages a follow up on this whopper: "I don't believe that the authenticity of this report has been discredited."

But Mehlman just flashes his E-ZPass again: "I believe that the findings of the report, the fact that the intelligence was somehow fixed, have been totally discredited by everyone who's looked at it."

And so he gets through. And, returning to form, Bulldog Russert just gives up.

They eventually make it to Pat Tillman, and the fact that Tillman's family was deeply offended by the Pentagon's lies regarding the circumstances of their son's death and its attempt to make Tillman a poster child to sell the war.

Mehlman's response is that he "respectfully disagrees" with Tillman's mother.

In fact, Mehlman said he "respectfully disagrees" a total of seven times over the course of the interview. Sometimes he respectfully disagrees with people, sometimes with a report, sometimes with numbers. Mostly, he "respectfully disagrees" with the truth.

But there's something about the way Mehlman says it that makes him come off like a prissy doorman. You know that when he says, "I respectfully disagree," he really means "Fuck off."

"Ken Mehlman," Russert intones in closing, "we hope you'll come back."

And given the obliging treatment he got, you know he will.

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