Tim Russert, on The Uncomfortable Side of a Question

"Meet the Press" inquisitor Tim Russert was the one on the stand yesterday in the Lewis "Scooter" Libby trial. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

From the moment he hobbled into the wood-paneled courtroom on a single crutch from an ankle injury, Tim Russert seemed very different from the familiar television figure of Sunday morning combat.

He was careful, sober and subdued. He spoke in a flat monotone. He offered responses such as "I don't recall saying that specifically, but I may have," and "You'll have to refresh my recollection on that." Gone was Russert's usual bombast and showmanship.

With the perjury trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby hanging in the balance, the "Meet the Press" inquisitor -- the man who puts all those quotations up on the screen and presses politicians about contradictions and evasions -- found himself on the receiving end of a tough cross-examination.

Russert emerged relatively unscathed yesterday, except for a previously acknowledged memory lapse about a phone call unrelated to the Libby case. But it was a long afternoon for someone who much prefers asking the questions.

It was, at bottom, a case study in the importance of controlling the microphone. On the air, NBC's Washington bureau chief asks the questions, frames the issues or serves up political insight.

On the witness stand, by contrast, even the cockiest pundit is by definition on the defensive. Russert, a lawyer, measured his words and frequently answered the question he wished he had been asked rather than the query posed by Libby attorney Ted Wells.

Libby, who was Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, had called Russert in 2003 to gripe about MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who was hammering both Cheney and Libby on the handling of prewar intelligence involving Iraq's attempts to acquire illegal weapons. Libby says he learned from Russert that Valerie Plame, the wife of administration critic Joe Wilson, worked for the CIA. Russert said repeatedly that Wilson and Plame never came up during the conversation.

Russert likes to have all the documents at his disposal. At one point, Wells handed the witness a report on his interview with the FBI and directed him to review a brief section.

"I can't read the whole thing?" Russert asked.

The FBI summary said that Russert had not completely ruled out the possibility that he had talked about the Wilsons with Libby. "Those aren't my words," Russert insisted.

His apparent strategy was to remain low-key, regardless of the provocation -- precisely the opposite of what compelling television demands. Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie, Russert remained largely motionless, except when slipping on his glasses to look at evidence. As the questioning moved from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to the more tendentious Wells, the only signs of testiness that Russert displayed were a slight tightening of the voice and perhaps a whiff of impatience.

Even when recounting Libby's agitated words about the Matthews show -- "What the hell's going on with 'Hardball'? Damn it, I'm tired of hearing my name over and over again" -- Russert used a tone more suitable for reading a shopping list.

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