NBC's Matt Lauer, Making the Least Of an Opportunity

Lauer missed opportunities to present challenging questions to the disgraced Idaho senator.
Lauer missed opportunities to present challenging questions to the disgraced Idaho senator. (By Virginia Sherwood -- Nbc Universal)
By Tom Shales
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

One thing, at least, was made painfully clear by Matt Lauer's interview with Sen. Larry Craig on NBC last night: Matt Lauer is no Mike Wallace. Lauer was anything but hard-hitting or confrontational with the Idaho Republican, arrested in June for alleged homosexual solicitation in a Minneapolis airport men's room.

For Lauer, self-important co-host of NBC's "Today" show, the interview was obviously seen as a potential career- and credibility-builder, but even when he did ask an arguably tough question, he essentially apologized for it. He prefaced a question about whether the senator might be bisexual by saying to Craig, "You're going to have to forgive me for this."

What? This is a journalist practicing journalism? Lauer's like a virgin veteran, an old hand who seems inexperienced. Diane Sawyer, to name one example, would have done a much better interview. Anyone on "60 Minutes," Wallace or another member of the vaunted team, would have done a better one. Lauer's former "Today" co-host, the much-maligned Katie Couric, also would likely have done a more effective job.

Craig -- seated on a couch in what looked like the family den next to his wife, Suzanne -- pleaded guilty to nothing during the interview except having pleaded guilty (to "disrupting the peace") in the first place. "It was a very, very big mistake," he said of his hasty decision to enter the plea to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct. He should have called his lawyer immediately, he said: "I sought no counsel. I made a very big mistake."

Lauer wore his concerned, caring face throughout the interview, but he appeared to be an actor in a role, with every facial expression, gesture and use of props (a pair of glasses, a pen) calculated for effect. Craig was less than convincing in his denials, even if the airport incident did sound, as it has from the beginning, like a case of entrapment.

When in an airport bathroom, apparently, or when in any public convenience, the rule is that a man can bump feet with the person in the next stall but must never tap his foot at any time, lest he send out a signal that he wants to have sex then and there. Craig said he may have bumped the foot of the cop in the next stall when Craig sat down, but he denied ever tapping his foot. Bumping yes, tapping no; perhaps airport men's rooms should have signs posted that warn of these peculiar rules.

And never, ever reach under the wall to the next stall, which Craig said he did when trying to remove a piece of stray tissue from the bottom of his shoe. The arresting airport cop insisted that Craig reached under the divider with his left hand and his palm upward, yet another alleged gesture that constitutes a gay-sex overture.

It might be funny -- and late-night comics had a field day, as clips showed -- if it weren't, on various levels, so terribly sad.

But Lauer shied away from one of the more troubling aspects of the case. Craig, it was reported, had long been the subject of speculation as to his sexual proclivities, while in his role as a senator, he consistently opposed gay rights, including the granting of marital status to gay partners who live together. Lauer never brought up the issue of hypocrisy: the unseemly possibility that Craig essentially condemned homosexuality while partaking of gay sex himself.

Craig himself brought up his voting record and said of homosexuality, "I don't approve of the lifestyle." Lauer should have followed up; why did he call it a "lifestyle" and what about it does he disapprove of? At one point, reading from Craig's history, Lauer said the records included "a guy who claims you 'cruised' him -- whatever that is." This, it seemed, was Lauer's way of winking into the camera and saying, "I'm not gay."

You hardly have to be gay in 21st-century America to know what the phrase "cruising" means. It was even the title of a movie starring Al Pacino. Lauer needs to worry less about his own image and more about getting valuable information when conducting an interview. It seemed highly likely that Craig and his wife agreed to sit down with Lauer because they knew they had nothing, really, to fear.

Craig said he has been the victim of "gladiator politics," thrown into the arena like a Christian tossed to waiting lions, and he expressed disappointment in Republican colleagues, especially presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for abandoning and criticizing him when the story first broke. There was a touch of the crybaby to Craig's protestations, as there was to Lauer's remarks on Tuesday's "Today" show about the interview having been a difficult one for him to do.

Ah yes, this was another chapter in the Matt Lauer Story more than it was an interview at all. But those who loved it and didn't get enough in an hour-long prime-time special were advised they could see still more of the interview on NBC's Web site and on this morning's "Today" show. The interview was plugged for two nights in a row by Brian Williams on his otherwise exemplary "NBC Nightly News."

The interview should have produced some water-cooler talk, some revelation that everyone would be discussing today. But the best excuse for water-cooler talk in the interview was what a mediocre job Lauer had done conducting it.

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