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Martha Raddatz, Putting Herself in the Thick of Things
White House press secretary Dana Perino says she was "touched" by Raddatz's support for her as the second woman, after Dee Dee Myers, to hold the job.
"Martha is a delight to have in the briefing room," Perino says. "Not only does she do the job well -- meaning she's aggressive and tough -- but she knows the issues very well. She does a lot of homework and she asks smart questions. She has a good rapport with the president."
In September, Raddatz went to Iraq in part to interview Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, but his aide canceled the sit-down the day before it was scheduled. After she e-mailed Petraeus to complain, he agreed to take her on a secret trip to Anbar province. By then she had surmised that he was meeting with Bush.
Raddatz's luggage had been delayed for days. After she talked her way into an interview, Bush chided her: "You think you'd dress up for the president."
When Raddatz landed in Pakistan before the government made thousands of arrests, a senior U.S. official e-mailed her: "We could save a significant part of the intel budget by watching your travel plans."
In Pakistan Thursday, Raddatz donned a head scarf and traveled 150 miles to a mountainous province -- largely controlled by the Taliban -- where she visited girls' schools that had been ransacked and stores that had been shuttered. When she hit a huge traffic jam, her Pakistan producer urged her to stay in the car, make sure her hair was covered and look straight ahead.
On Friday, when riot police placed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto under virtual house arrest, Raddatz climbed over a barbed-wire fence and onto the hood of an armored personnel carrier to watch the scene. She later got to shout a question, asking: "Would you like Musharraf to step down completely?" Bhutto said that would be up to the Pakistani people.
Perhaps the most surreal moment came days earlier, when Raddatz went to a diplomatic dinner with Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command. Finding the women gathered on one side of the reception area and the men on the other, she moved away from the women to talk to decision-makers.
"You want to be an honorary man for the evening," Fallon told her.
Tim Russert is accustomed to putting politicians on the spot. But after he repeatedly pressed Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate two weeks ago, the NBC Washington bureau chief was ripped by liberal bloggers who called him everything from a bully to a sexist. Clinton responded during the debate by accusing him of playing "gotcha," and her husband slammed Russert as well.
"A question about whether illegal immigrants should have driver's licenses is hardly a gotcha question," says Russert, who also pressed Barack Obama about the issue. "It's the game, politics 2007. Everyone chooses up sides, and because of the Internet, everyone can be a pamphleteer. I think it's healthy for democracy. But in no way, shape or form should it deter us from asking questions.
"Every campaign's job is to spin and push back, and their supporters try to do the same, to create confusion and turn on the fog machine."
"Meet the Press" is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month, the last 16 years with Russert as moderator. The oldest news program on television is something of a throwback in the YouTube age, but Russert has boosted the audience to 3.4 million, from 2.7 million when he took over. The show is rerun twice on MSNBC.
"It's meat and potatoes," Russert says. "You put the guest in the chair, turn on the lights, turn on the cameras and start asking questions."
The top-rated Sunday show generates plenty of headlines. Yesterday, Russert interviewed Obama -- who first opened the door to a White House bid when he appeared on "Meet" late last year -- and pressed him on Social Security, his relationship with an indicted developer and whether the Illinois senator had actually shown leadership on ending the Iraq war. A week earlier, in his first Sunday morning interview as a candidate, Fred Thompson made news by refusing to back a constitutional ban on abortion. Russert confronted the former senator with 1994 statements in which he said he would not ban early-term abortions, but Thompson said his voting record was "100 percent pro-life."
The host says he has commitments from Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney to appear before the Iowa caucuses -- after making clear that he would devote an hour to them regardless of whether they showed up.
Russert, whose 12-year contract runs through 2012, says he gets plenty of suggested questions before a major candidate appears. "It's amazing. Everyone wants to weigh in -- friends, foes, viewers. We've been inundated."