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Tim Russert, on The Uncomfortable Side of a Question

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.

He showed a rare flash of emotion, putting his hand to his forehead, when he recalled reading the 2003 Robert Novak column that disclosed Plame's CIA employment -- which happened to underscore his contention that the subject never arose with Libby. "I said, 'Wow, look at this, this is really significant, this is really big.' "

He couldn't resist adding: "I wish I had known before then, but I did not."

Russert's unusual status was underscored when he recalled how the FBI agent sent to question him had first thanked him for speaking to the man's church group during a visit to the NBC bureau.

The newsman was not on trial, but in ways large and small, he defended his approach to journalism, even when that was off the point. Wells asked about a passage in Russert's book about his father, "Big Russ," in which he asserts how getting the news first is important.

"As long as you're accurate, yes," Russert said.

When asked about rumors that surrounded Wilson's mission to Africa to investigate alleged Iraqi efforts to obtain enriched uranium, Russert said: "We try to stay away from rumors. . . . Rumors don't make it on the air."

He said he assumes that phone calls from government officials, such as Libby, are confidential, and that if he wants to use some piece of information he warns the caller, "not to blindside anyone or try to trick them."

Since Libby's call turned out to be what Russert termed a "viewer complaint," not a whispered chat with a confidential source, why, Wells asked, had he initially resisted testifying? Russert used the occasion to deliver a journalism lecture on the "chilling effect" of subpoenas. "We do not want to be involved in a fishing expedition to find out who I talked to," he said.

Russert's most uncomfortable moments involved a 2004 Washington Post Magazine interview, which I conducted, in which he made an error. Russert said then that he challenged the accuracy of a Buffalo News columnist who had sharply criticized him for pressing Hillary Rodham Clinton, during a 2000 Senate debate that he moderated, about her remarks on the Monica Lewinsky uproar. Russert said in the interview that he had not called the columnist, Mark Sommer, to complain, but when Sommer said he had received two angry calls, Russert acknowledged to The Post: "I just plain didn't remember it."

Wells was using the incident to show that Russert's memory on the Libby call might be faulty as well, but the witness seemed more interested in defending his debate performance.

"I was very evenhanded, as I always try to be," Russert said. He is constantly criticized for his "Meet the Press" performance, Russert said, "and if I focused on that, I wouldn't be able to do my job."

Wells sounded incredulous, but Russert, who always tries to get a rise out of his guests, gave the attorney precious little to work with.

How could he have forgotten the call? This was his hometown paper, and Russert was "one of the icons of Buffalo."

"I'm a citizen."

Wasn't he angry?

"Disappointed."

"Was it one of the more personal attacks you've experienced?"

"Probably not anymore," Russert said, and again returned to his role as moderator: "I stand by every question I asked. . . . The debate still stands up."

There was one question that Russert did not have to answer. "Does NBC pay you in excess of $5 million a year?" Wells asked. The judge sustained an objection.

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