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Russert Watch: Ted Kennedy and the Long Lens of History

Apr 23, 2006 | Updated May 25, 2011

Welcome to another edition of Russert Watch. This week "Meet The Press" trumpeted an "Exclusive!" with Senator Ted Kennedy, which confused me a bit since I'd just seen him on "The Daily Show" this past Thursday night (watch here, and see why Jon Stewart calls him "the Snoop Dogg of the Senate"). Kennedy was on to discuss his new book, "America: Back on Track" and, of course, all the ways in which America was currently not on track. Also on the show were WaPo's David Broder, the LA Times' Ron Brownstein, the Washington Times' Tony Blankley, and former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, discussing the White House shake-up, and whether it was really a shake-up at all. Interesting show today, particularly the second half -- I give Tim and Co. credit for assembling a terrific and knowledgeable panel for this discussion. Read on or watch it for yourself here.

But first -- Senator Kennedy. Tim and he had a wide-ranging discussion touching on Iraq, Iran, Medicare, and Johns Kerry and McCain. This discussion was notable for a few things, but what struck me was Kennedy's continuing references to analogous examples from the past and effective placement of current events within the context of history. So often the discussion is about the now -- should this-or-that be done or have been done and, of course, that old saw about how you can't see the true picture now but eventually the long lens of history will reveal all. Kennedy took that long lens this hour and looked back at the Korean War, Vietnam and World War Two (and then Russert turned that long lens back on Kennedy himself, but we'll get to that later).

They started off, of course, with Iraq -- Kennedy is an advocate of withdrawal from Iraq, saying that the U.S. military ought not to be used as a "crutch" to prop up a regime that isn't getting its act together. (NB: He made the same "crutch" reference with Jon Stewart who asked whether you shouldn't be the crutch if you were the one who broke someone's legs.) Tim's version of that question is to ask Kennedy if that wasn't just cutting and running. Go get 'em with kneejerk Republican talking points, Tim! Kennedy turns that nicely on its head, pointing out the oodles of "cutting and running in the administration when it comes to truth!" Point Kennedy. Also, if I may say so, the man is wearing an absolutely fantastic tie (simplicity is elegance, Mary Matalin).

The transcript is not yet up so I unfortunately cannot remember his Korean War reference, just that he had one and it drew an interesting parallel to today. He did say that we were coming up on the same amount of time in Iraq that the U.S. was in World War II. It's just kind of amazing that he has been on the political forefront of these significant events for almost half a century as the third-longest serving Senator (after Strom Thurmond and a rapidly-gaining Robert Byrd).

Tim asks Kennedy if he "has he lost patience" -- Kennedy uses the opportunity to point out that he actually never had any, given that he had opposed the war back on the Senate floor (calling it "the best vote I cast in the United States Senate" in another line previously heard on the Daily Show. Yay for Tim's exclusive!). Tim plays the super-scary "what if" game -- what if we leave and there 's a bloody civil war? What if al Qaeda moves in? Here's where Kennedy's institutional memory kicks in: feh, he says, we heard similar arguments after Vietnam. "The time has come," he says. "We have seen the Americans do what they can do." Says Tim disbelievingly: "So if it became a terrorist state like Afghanistan you'd just leave it it alone?" "Cut and Run" hangs in the air. So, too, does my confusion about what he means about Afghanistan -- is he talking about the pre-invasion Afghanistan of 2001 or the current Afghanistan, which has a central government and is trying to inch toward order? My friend's brother is actually in Afghanistan, and my impression was that things were relatively stable (relative to the regional standard of "wildly unstable"). Coincidentally, as I am Googling "Afghanistan" my friend's brother actually calls, literally from Afghanistan. So we ask him. He says that sure, there are terrorists in Afghanistan, but that the difference is that the government is not actively sponsoring terrorist activity -- they're trying to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban, and it's a matter of them having the sufficient capacity to do so. My point here is this: Russert is clearly fearmongering here while simultaneously playing fast and loose with the facts. Comparing post-invasion Iraq to Afghanistan implies that we're talking about post-invasion Afghanistan, and post-invasion Afghanistan is NOT a terrorist state. Warning darkly that Iraq is in danger of becoming so steps up the rhetoric but clouds the issue.

On to the calls for Rummy's resignation. Tim asks if it's "appropriate" for these generals to call for Rummy's resignation, thereby floating the notion that it's might be inappropriate for them to do so. Damn straight it's appropriate says Kennedy: "What the military understands is accountability." Kennedy also notes that he actually called for Rummy's removal after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, thereby reminding us that not only is he the Snoop Dogg of the Senate, he is also the resident Cassandra as well.

Tim reads from "America: Back on Track" pulling a quote that says "our actions in Iraq may have had the consequence of accelerating the development of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea." Is that true? Kennedy basically says: duh. "We've been weighted down in Iraq for three years," he says, tying up resources for redeployment elsewhere and thus emboldening Iran, who meanwhile has provided support to Hamas (see above re: terrorist state). Well, says Tim, what should we do about it? Kennedy sanctions sanctions, but that's not what Tim is looking for: he wants to know if Kennedy would have the military option on the table. Yes, says Kennedy -- the military option, NOT the nuclear option. "I would not rattle the nuclear sabre," he warns, calling it "counterproductive" twice, which means he really means it. "Not on the table? What if? What if? Osama!" yelps Tim, rattling a few sabres himself. Yes, says Kennedy, what of him? Wasn't there an effort to catch him once upon a time? "We had them on the run! We had them in Tora Bora in the mountains there! And we effectively abandoned that to move in to Iraq. The idea that he hasn't been captured today is a real blunder by the administration."

Er, right then, moving on: Tim asks about immigration. Kennedy says he wishes the president "would become involved"; Tim licks invisible chops and hauls out the record to split invisible hairs, noting how Kennedy was quoted JUST THIS MARCH saying that "President Bush has been courageous on this issue." Fine, says Ted, but is he courageous enough to "go the last step?" Tim switches gears, noting that Kennedy is often accused of being "too quick to compromise with Republicans" and noting Kennedy's criticism of Harry Reid. This part feels like the speed round of a game show, less about the big-picture of the issue than making quick partisan points and moving on. Russert tries to get Kennedy to take a stand on McCain, and Kennedy says no dice, accusing Tim of "trying to drive a wedge between him and his good friend John McCain" -- zing! It's an interesting point but good to remember that these guys have known each other/worked together for years, and that friendship sometimes CAN cross party lines. Kennedy has no problem with McCain going down to Liberty University to talk to the kids. And if you think that's a strong vote of confidence, how's this one about John Kerry: "If he runs, I'm supporting him." And so the lines are drawn.

Wrapping up: Kennedy wants more ambitious medicare; Kennedy thinks that kids should have a right to college education, dammit; Kennedy points out that this country is graduating a tenth of the engineers that India is. Gaak. That's the sort of statistic that makes you snap to attention. Kennedy also has no patience for gouging at the pump: "This is not a time for greed." Ex-Exxon president, he's talking to YOU.

Take it home: Kennedy predicts that the Dems will take back the House and the Senate. Why? How long you got: incompetence re: Katrina, cronyism re: government jobs, sweetheart contracts re: Halliburton. Americans have had enough. Oh reeeeeeeaaaaaally? asks Tim, whipping out his trump card: Kennedy's first appearance on "Meet The Press" in 1962. A very short clip ensues, showing a young Senator Kennedy (a dead ringer for Matt Damon, btw) talking about some Massachusetts political scandal involving Democrats, about which the young Kennedy is saying something about how it's irrelevant who did what. Gasp! This 44-year-old out-of-context snippet of footage MUST mean that Kennedy is a FLIP-FLOPPER! Come now, Tim -- that's reaching, even for you.

Commercial! All around the world, people are learning about coal, trusting ING, fighting the tough battles with Eliot Spitzer and galloping on horses with Paul McCartney.

And now we get to our favorite part of MTP: bullet points! David Broder, Dee Dee Myers, and Ron Brownstein made some excellent points in the second segment, and yes I did mean to leave out Tony Blankley (who was far more cordial to his fellow panelists than he usually is on the McLaughlin group, where shouting people down is the only way to be heard). Oh, Tony, I'm kidding, except not really. Read all about them here, and here:

  • On the firing of the CIA person who leaked to Dana Priest: Broder thinks that, just as it's the government's responsibility to keep its secrets under wraps, so too is it the gov'ts place to deal with lapses. Brownstein says it's not so simple -- "this administration does not come to this with clean hands." He thinks you can't leak your version on the one hand and use the other to smack down people leaking the stuff you wish had stayed hidden. Tony Blankley sees it all as indicative of "a decreasing level of discipline." Naughty, naughty.

  • White House Shake-Up? Whither Rove? Brownstein doesn't see an internal musical chairs as much of a shake-up; Broder thinks Josh Bolten is doing a good job. (FYI: Newsweek has a good piece on this). Brownstein notes that "Karl Rove's relationship with the President is the source of his power. not his title."

  • Dee Dee Myers has some really interesting observations on McLellan's departure. She says that his "credibility was rocked" because he had presented information to the press corps that he had taken from on high in good faith (which, interestingly, she cautioned strongly against doing in any White House). She notes the increased pressure of the video record in 2006: "You couldn't use that video ten years ago," she says -- there was no place to put it. Now with proliferating cable shows and the internet "there's a tremendous appetite for video" -- and, I offer, a tremendous increase in the number of available eyes to watch and analyze it.

  • I don't recall who said this (transcript still not up) but someone made the point that "This administration isn't interested in having a better relationship with the press" -- and says that it's up to Bolten to change that, if that's a priority. Broder says that currently the administration has "no sense of obligation to keep the press informed or to keep the public current."

  • Brownstein (I think) points out the difference in strategy, from appealing to the mass media to becoming "more focused on targeted niche vehicles of communication to communicate with voters" including "some of the more overtly partisan news sources" (which shall remain nameless but possibly not next-press-secretary-less). Says Broder: "Niche strategy gets you to 52% on a good day -- on a bad day you get it to where you are now." Agrees Ron: "You're basically only speaking to half the country." Wow. It's sad to think that it's the strategy of the government to capitalize on the red-blue divide rather than try to bridge it.

  • Whither Ronald Rumsfeld? Sorry, Tim called him "Ronald" and I'm not mature enough to let that pass. "I'm the decider and I decide what's best" is discussed -- Broder thinks debating Rummy's fate is a waste of energy if it's already a done deal. Russert cites Russert, saying he heard that to Bush it would be like "firing himself." Blankely thinks Rummy is A-OK, actually. Ron thinks the "I Am The Decider" statement "says more about the President than anything else." That's the overriding message of his presidency.

  • Meet the Press minute: long lens of history part two featuring George Christian, press secretary to Lyndon Johnson. His take on the relationship between the Presidency and the Press, circa 1969: "It should be an arm's-length relationship -- I think the President should be free to criticize the press and the press should be free to criticize the President... God save the Republic if we ever have a President who is sensitive to criticism." (Insert voracious-reader-of-newspapers joke here). Christian's upshot: "Tell the truth and keep your sense of humor -- if you try to do that the other things will come along." Poor Scott McLellan, challenged on both counts.

  • Er, why is the Stanley Cup on "Meet The Press"? Did someone get confused and mistake David Broder for a goalie? (Lame hockey joke, sorry -- let's not make this MTP write up any messier than it has to be). Aha -- Tim's a hockey fan -- go Sabres! Rattle, rattle away.

  • That's it for this week -- we'll see you again next Sunday for some more good times on the dial -- because if it's Sunday, it's Russert Watch.