Democratic Presidential hopeful Howard Dean is getting the treatment. The acerbic physician and former governor of Vermont has raised more money and gained more popularity than expected. As a result, the pundits who examine political candidates' viability have turned their gaze on him. In June, Tim Russert and a clique of Washington pundits and reporters who follow Russert's lead pronounced Dean unfit. According to a flurry of news stories and columns, Dean's appearance on Meet the Press with Russert on June 22 was an embarrassment for the candidate and a disaster for his campaign.
People who saw the show or read the transcript might well ask: What was the big deal?
The New York Times and The Washington Post pulled out the following "embarrassing" details: Russert quizzed Dean on the exact number of U.S. military personnel on active duty. Dean said there were between one and two million. The correct number is, in fact, right in the middle-1.4 million. Russert asked Dean how many troops are currently stationed in Iraq (a constantly fluctuating number). Dean said it was "in the neighborhood of 135,000 troops." The number is really 146,000, the Times pointed out.
How would President Bush do on a similar pop quiz? My guess is our current commander in chief couldn't answer those questions. But Russert made a big deal of Dean's failure to produce the precise figures from memory.
"For me to have to know right now, participating in the Democratic Party [primary], how many troops are actively on duty in the United States military-when that is actually a number that's composed both of people on duty today and people who are in the National Guard . . . it's silly," Dean said. "That's like asking me who the ambassador to Rwanda is."
"Oh, no, no, no. Not at all," Russert replied. "Not if you want to be commander in chief."
Russert planted a seed that grew into a tree, casting a big shadow of doubt on Dean as the Post, the Times, and the Sunday morning pundits asked, "Is Dean Presidential material?"
The New York Times called the show a "debacle."
Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Post, summed up a host of other bad reviews: New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets called Dean's interview "perhaps the worst performance by a presidential candidate in the history of television." The Dallas Morning News quoted unnamed Democrats comparing Dean to Republican landslide victims George McGovern and Walter Mondale. ABCNews.com said "the politico-media establishment continues to look at him as an anti-war pipsqueak . . . decidedly not ready for prime time."
What's really going on here?
Certainly Tim Russert has a reputation for being a tough interviewer, and for not letting anyone off the hook.
But as comedian and media gadfly Bob Sommerby pointed out on his website The Daily Howler (www.dailyhowler.com), Russert's treatment of another governor who was running for President was completely different. In his first interview with candidate George W. Bush in 1999, Russert actually supplied some numbers:
Russert: "In your speech, you said that arms reductions are not our most pressing challenge. Right now, we have 7,200 nuclear weapons; the Russians have 6,000. What to you is an acceptable level?"
Bush: "That's going to depend upon the generals helping me make that decision, Tim. That's going to depend upon the people whose judgment I will rely upon to make sure that we have a peaceful world."
But if it was OK for Bush to fob off detailed policy discussions on a future team of advisers, for Dean the rules were different.
Before his combative interview with Dean, Russert went to Bush Administration officials at the Treasury Department to ask for budget data to attack Dean's plan to roll back the Bush tax cuts. Predictably, the Administration generated figures that showed a reversal of Bush tax policy would be a disaster for middle class Americans.
Parroting the Bush line, Russert challenged Dean: "Can you honestly go across the country and say, "I'm going to raise your taxes 4,000 percent [for married couples with two children] or 107 percent [for married retirees] and be elected?"
Dean stuck to his guns. "Were those figures from the Treasury Department, did you say, or CBO [the Congressional Budget Office]?" he asked. "I don't believe them."
Russert persisted: "But in the middle of an economic downturn, Howard Dean wants to raise taxes on the average of $1,200 per family."
Dean was vindicated the next day. In a short piece on June 23, The Washington Post noted the release of the Treasury Department report, calling it "a highly selective analysis of the cost to families of rolling back scheduled tax cuts" and quoting a Brookings Institution economist who poked holes in the figures. "The research was prepared at the request of Meet the Press," the Post noted, adding: "The analysis does not include single people or lower income couples, two groups that benefit little from Bush's cuts."
Is Tim Russert a stalking horse for the Bush Administration? Or does he just have it in for Howard Dean?
Peter Hart of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting sees a subtler dynamic. The problem for Dean, according to Hart, is something like the problem Al Gore faced in the last election. Reporters just don't like him much. Indeed, Dean had a reputation in Vermont for being impatient and sometimes downright rude. Newsweek recently ran a piece that described Dean getting annoyed and sarcastic with members of the national press corps.
"He doesn't seem to like journalists, and the feeling is mutual," Hart says. That leads the press to jump on unflattering stories, even if they're not quite accurate. A public stumble that might be overlooked in another candidate could become the dreaded Jimmy-Carter-attack-rabbit episode. Look for more anecdotes about Dean losing his cool and getting his facts mixed up, says Hart.
The Washington press corps can be like a gang of mean junior high school kids. But there is more than fickle dislike for a certain personality in the media tarring of Dean. Dean is an outsider. As the most identifiably progressive candidate-or at least the one with the most money, since Dennis Kucinich, who is running to the left of Dean, hasn't raised millions and has been almost completely ignored by the press-Dean sticks out. The "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," which Dean claims to represent, is not much in evidence in Washington these days.
To the inside-the-Beltway media, which lives and dies by connections, contacts, and conventional wisdom, "there is something appealing and at the same time unappealing about someone who comes from the outside," says Hart. "They need to take an extra look. They need to neutralize him by showing that this guy isn't ready for prime time." That's because, at bottom, what most stands out about Dean to Washington insiders is that he's not an insider himself. That threatens their sense of superiority-not just of the insider candidates in the field, but also of the press corps that follows and anoints them. "Political veterans, insiders, would never get a pop quiz," says Hart.
Can Dean survive the drubbing? Yes. After all, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush were all governors with little or no military experience. All had to face questions about their preparation for office. Carter even espoused some establishment-shaking ideas about regulation and reform. But Dean needs to do two things to protect himself from being fatally marginalized, one of which he is already doing. First, he needs to stop being needlessly prickly with the press. (He hasn't done that yet.) And second, he must keep on speaking directly to voters, through his remarkably successful website and in his more plentiful public appearances than the candidates with the inside track. The public, leaving aside gatekeepers like Tim Russert, are less interested in a candidate who can pass a rigged, on-the-spot civics test than they are in someone with the brains and guts to aggressively take on George W. Bush.
Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive.
Copyright 2003 The Progressive