In the Hot Seat
Q. You researched the possibilities of my questions in advance?
A. When you called "Meet the Press" and asked for the Howard Dean transcript and the George Bush transcript, I said I see where he's going . . .
Q. Were you surprised that Dean raised a lot of money on the Internet after that interview, where his performance was pretty widely panned?
A. No, because Joe Trippi was, and is, very clever.
Q. His former campaign manager.
A. What they realized halfway through the interview, there were some potential problems with the substance, and so they went on the Internet and said, you know, basically you see what's happening to our guy.
Q. Russert's beating him up.
A. Let's rally the flag against this Washington insider or whatever the hell it is. But that's okay, I mean, that's part of politics. I do think that that interview with Governor Dean was very instructive as to the potential problems he was going to have . . .
One of the fiercest critics of my comments about Dean was someone who believes very deeply that there should be more tax cuts, not fewer, and that every time I ask a politician about deficits resulting from tax cuts, that I'm pushing a personal agenda, that I don't like tax cuts. I don't have a view on tax cuts . . .
Q. You don't have a view on tax cuts? Or you don't let your personal views affect the kind of questions you ask?
A. I don't have a view on tax cuts, I really don't. What I've tried to do in my life is come to a point where I know both sides of the issues so well that I almost confuse myself, and I can see the merit of both sides. Okay, if you want to do tax cuts, you can stimulate the economy, and, okay, if you go too far on tax cuts, you're going to create deficits. I understand both sides.
Q. You're like a lawyer who can argue either case.
A. Yeah, that's true.
[I later called back to ask Russert a couple of questions about his April 18 interview with Democratic presidential candidate Kerry.]
[Q. Why did you start off the interview by asking him flatly, "Do you believe the war in Iraq was a mistake?"
[A. The one question that George Bush has a considerable edge on is in saying what he believes. Senator Kerry had voted to authorize the war. I asked the president whether he thought he had started the war under false pretenses. I wanted to give each man an opportunity to rethink where they are now, as opposed to March 2003.
[Q. When did you discover that 1971 footage of a long-haired John Kerry on "Meet the Press" saying he had committed "atrocities" in Vietnam and that the nation's leaders were "war criminals"?
[A. I had the audio-only two years ago. Through a lot of diligence and luck, we were able to find (the video) three or four weeks ago.
[Q. What did you make of how he handled that (Kerry said he had spoken in "anger" and was "excessive")?
[A. I was really fascinated by his answer, that he talked about it in a reflective way. I was sitting there as a listener, watching a presidential candidate on live television dealing with a very delicate issue.
[Q. Do you now have visions of moderating a Bush-Kerry debate in the fall?
[A. I don't think my style lends itself to that.]
Q. Let's look at your punditry record. I'd put it up on the screen, but I don't have a screen. January 6, 2004, on the "Today" show, Matt Lauer asked you whether Dean was, quote, unstoppable. You said: "Right now something would have to interfere with Howard Dean's movement towards the nomination. He clearly is on his way to it unless something untoward happens."
Two weeks later, Dean was trounced in Iowa. Were you wrong?
A. Was I wrong? I think he was on his way to the nomination. I think the intervening event was the extraordinary negativity that erupted between [Dick] Gephardt and Dean. And then, ultimately, in the scream, which I thought was kind of a striking event. But at that stage, do I think that he was the front-runner? Absolutely, yes.
Q. You also said: "In New Hampshire three weeks from today, he's considerably ahead in the polls." Don't you and everyone else in journalism rely too heavily on polls, which can change in a second?
A. Probably. Probably. But they're instructive, in that if you didn't have independent polls, you couldn't possibly help interpret this thing you're being given by either side because they have their tracks, their own polls . . .
I really do try to avoid being a predictor and prognosticator, and when I do analysis, it's based on reporting. And three weeks out of Iowa or whatever it was . . . the Kerry campaign and the Gephardt campaign all said to me, "We're not sure we can stop this guy." And they were very open about it. And I don't say that because they tell me in confidence, but it helps my reporting.
Q. On January 19, 2004, the day of the Iowa caucuses, Matt Lauer asked you, "Which candidates can survive a setback in Iowa?" And you said: "Howard Dean. He has a revenue source on the Internet; he has an organization in the states and a future." Did you miss the boat on that one?
A. Oh, no. I mean, he did survive. He went through New Hampshire --
Q. And got clobbered there, too.
A. He had the money to run a very competitive race in New Hampshire. You will recall throughout the day because of the, quote, exit polls, which people were relying on, I mean the early reporting on many of the cable outlets was that, you know, Dean had run better than expected. So, I mean, Dean hung in there and through Wisconsin.
Q. One controversial moment in your career was in September 2000, when you moderated the debate in the Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Congressman Rick Lazio. You asked if she would apologize for branding her husband's accusers as part of a right-wing conspiracy. You asked, "Do you regret misleading the American people?" That caused quite a stir. Did you go too far on that?
Q. Absolutely fair game?
A. Oh sure. I mean I believe the question before that, or the question after that, was [when] I showed a commercial that Congressman Lazio had run, which had dummy footage of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. They had pictures of Moynihan and Lazio walking down the hall. They had never walked down the hall together; they were superimposed. And I said to him, would he apologize to the people in New York, or would he acknowledge now that that was phony footage in effect. And then I [asked Clinton the question] because I was talking about the whole issue of credibility, [and she] had gone on the "Today" show and said, "This is all part of people who are opposing my husband; it's not true and all part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. . ."
I have no problem asking difficult questions of either Democrats, independents or Republicans, and that's a case in point.
Q. On the [Monica] Lewinsky matter, Mark Sommer, a Buffalo News columnist, said you were "like a bull in a china shop." He said you chose "sensationalism over substance." He said Russert "embarrassed himself and his profession." Pretty tough stuff.
A. Yeah, but he wrote an apology or a retraction. [Actually, a clarification.]
Q. Did you call him?
A. I didn't call him. He got his facts wrong in that column in a big way . . . Can you imagine a debate with Hillary Clinton running for the Senate from New York and not talk about her comments?
If Rick Lazio had said that it was a left-wing conspiracy against him, would it not be fair game? . . . I never mentioned Monica Lewinsky; I never mentioned sex; I was talking specifically about Hillary Clinton's comments when she was on the "Today" show. The accusations were false, she said, and they were the result of a vast right-wing conspiracy. So, I mean, it was a perfect --
Q. It was her own words. The question is, should it have been part of the Senate campaign? And your answer is, obviously, yes.
A. Well, of course, just [like] Lazio's credibility in using phony footage. I mean, you have to be evenhanded in these things, and to this day I'm amazed, well, when you say cause a stir, it was largely amongst party activists supporting Hillary Clinton. And I fully expected that . . . You get it from the left and the right, and I think that kind of confirms you're doing a pretty good job.
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