In the Hot Seat
A. I don't think so . . . I was pretty reluctant. I thought that they probably should find someone much better known in the country, someone who would be readily recognized. But his sense was that because "Meet the Press" was in third place in the ratings, that we should try something, and if it was perceived as good quality, that there'd be word of mouth -- and he was right, I think. But it's not something that I ever imagined, growing up in Buffalo or even sitting in this office.
Q. Since you're the bureau chief and you get all this face time, does that cause any tension among your reporters?
A. I don't think so. I work very hard to get them on the air, and they know that.
Q. You had a pretty good career in politics. What did you learn working for Moynihan?
A. Where do I begin? Probably the most important thing is that you can disagree agreeably. Having worked for four presidents, he brought a huge perspective to life and to government and to politics, and that ideas mattered, that you can achieve things, but you can't do it alone and usually can't even do it with ideological rigidity.
Q. When Senator Moynihan first asked you to move from the Buffalo office to his Capitol Hill staff, you expressed some doubt about your qualifications. What did he say?
A. I really became concerned I wasn't the correct fit for his staff. Most of the staff were Ivy League-trained and educated and had deep ideologies and philosophies about politics, and I was sort of considered a pragmatist . . .
And I said, "I'm not sure I belong here." . . . And he said, "You have to understand: What you know, they'll never know, and what they know, you can learn." And he slapped me on the back, dusted me off and sent me on my way.
Q. Were you a pretty good spinmeister with the press? Did you go on background and leak and try to make your boss look good?
A. I enjoyed the press; I always have. And the reason I came to NBC was because [Washington lawyer] Leonard Garment, who was a very close friend of Pat Moynihan's, was a very close friend of Larry Grossman, the president of NBC News . . . And one thing led to another.
Q. In the book, you portrayed this as a fairly casual decision, kind of a lucky accident. But it was a huge career change for you. Did you agonize over this?
A. Well, I was prepared to leave government and politics. I thought I was going to go practice law, and the person who really was very helpful was David Burke, who had worked for Senator [Edward] Kennedy and . . . went on to become president of CBS News. And he said it was remarkably similar to him in terms of the pace and the issues that you deal with. You're only doing it from the other side.
And I realized then that I really didn't want to practice law, that I didn't want to leave the excitement and energy of being involved in the political and media communities. So when I joined NBC, I was very conscious of where I had come from, and therefore I was an executive behind the scenes, and I did that for four years. And for two reasons: one of them to learn the business, but secondly, I wanted to assure everybody, inside and outside NBC News, that I could be objective and [that] I truly had severed all of my political past.
Q. Do you get frustrated when politicians launch into their talking points?
A. Sure. Yeah. I try to anticipate them by saying, you know, "Senator, I know you've said . . .," and you take away at least the first time they say it . . . You instinctively want to lean across the table and choke 'em and say, "Stop! We've heard it!"
Q. That would be good television.
A. The fact is, you would then make your guest enormously sympathetic to the viewing public. When a guest comes on and gives the same answer three and four times, the viewer says, one, "He's not answering a question," and, two, in the words of my dad, "That guy's a phony." And that's devastating. And it always amazes me that the guest would leave and all the handlers are giving high-fives that he had ducked the tough one. He didn't do anything. He made a terrible impression with 5 million viewers who are saying, "Why won't you answer the question?"
Q. A Democratic strategist once told me that candidates were crazy to go on "Meet the Press" because they would only make big news when you have them for lunch. Why do people come on and subject themselves to your sort of patented interrogations?
A. Well, you know, I respectfully disagree with that. I think that people who prepare can come on and do very well for themselves.
Q. But it's a risk.
A. There's a downside if you don't prepare. I think what has happened is, there are so many other formats or forums that are much more casual, where you can come on and leave after five or six minutes. Basically, it's a video press release, and then you can walk out.
But if you really do say, "All right, I have a chance here to talk to 5 million people in the country, which is a lot of people, and they're all politically motivated and sophisticated, but I also can make a much larger impression upon the Washington political and media communities and the editorial boards around the country, and I can say something that I believe in, and it can resonate with a lot of people," that can help make it a reality.
Q. You ever do the Katie Couric-Diane Sawyer thing and book the top guests yourself?
A. Sure . . . You know, if news breaks, everybody grabs the phone and says, "You've really got to come on my program." It never works that way. What you have to do is be in a situation where you talk to people on a regular basis and say to them, you know, "I think you have a very good chance of being the next secretary of state," which is what I said to Madeleine Albright after the election. And I said, "If it happens, your first stop should be 'Meet the Press.' " . . . And she laughed, and she said, "From your lips to Bill Clinton's ears," or something like that. Well, it happened, and she said okay.
Q. I get a lot of e-mail from liberals saying you're much tougher on Democratic candidates than you are on Bush administration officials. I'm sure you've heard this.
A. You know what? I get it from both sides. It's overwhelming. For example, on the Bush interview, those on the right said: "How could you have done that? How could you have been so aggressive, so rude to the president?" Those on the left said, "Why didn't you hit him with this or ask him this?"
Q. It's time to go to the videotape. [Roll video of "Meet the Press," February 8, 2004]
RUSSERT: When you proposed your first tax cut in 2001, you said this was going to generate 800,000 new jobs. Your tax cut of 2003, created a million new jobs. That has not happened.
BUSH: Well, it's happening. It's happening. And there is good momentum when it comes to the creation of new jobs. Again, we have been through a lot. This economy has been through a lot, which is why I'm so optimistic about the future because I know what we have been through. And I look forward to debate on the economy, because I think one of those things that's very important is that the entrepreneurial spirit of this country be strong and the small-business sector be strong. And the policies I have laid out enhance entrepreneurship. They encourage small-business creation, and I think this economy is coming around just right, frankly.
Q. You didn't follow up on that point. Some people would say you let him get away with the claim that the creation of new jobs is happening when there's no evidence that it's happening.
A. I could spend the entire hour on job creation. I could spend the entire hour on weapons of mass destruction. I have 45 minutes, and I have to use it the best that I can.
I think by saying that he promised to create over 2 million jobs and it hasn't happened . . . I'll stand by that question, and I think his response is rather instructive.
Q. You let the president give some pretty long answers. Is it harder to interrupt the president of the United States in the Oval Office than a candidate in your studio?
A. Oh, it's different, you know. As I said, I've interviewed President Clinton twice and President Bush in the Oval Office. If you compare the interviews to when they're candidates it's a different interview, a much different interview, because when you're interviewing the president of the United States in the Oval Office, there's a certain sense of respect, and people around the world are watching, and I'm very mindful of it.
Q. You also interviewed Howard Dean last summer. Let's take a look at that. [Roll tape of "Meet the Press," June 22, 2003]
RUSSERT: How many men and women would you have on active duty?
DEAN: I can't answer that question because I don't know what the answer is. I can tell you one thing, though. We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now . . .
RUSSERT: But how many troops -- how many men and women do we now have on active duty?
DEAN: I can't tell you the answer to that either. It's . . .
RUSSERT: But as commander-in-chief, you should know that . . .
DEAN: . . . I don't know the exact number, and I don't think I need to know that to run in the Democratic Party primary.
Q. Why did you keep pushing Dean on that point?
A. Well, he raised it . . . I mean, Governor Dean came on as the antiwar candidate, and here he was advocating more troops for Iraq . . . And I'm sitting there going, this is interesting: The antiwar candidate is now asking for more troops. So I said, "Well, how many more would you have?" which I think is a very fair question. And he said, "I can't answer that." I said, "Well, as commander-in-chief, you should."
It's very similar, having a sense you may have asked this . . .
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