If the truth be told (and I’m about to tell you the truth based on an encounter I had last year), the late great Tim Russert scared the established politicos to death. Amidst the accolades coming from the Republican and Democratic leaders following his heart attack on Friday, the fact is that Russert was the toughest interrogator in the media. He was a modern-day Howard Cosell (without the bravado), and for the top brass, he was too intimidating.
Ever wonder why Russert was never asked to be the moderator of the presidential debates?
I wondered the same question, and luckily, I found out the answer. I ran into Russert at a National’s baseball game last year and asked him why he was never invited to the big debate. "You’re the toughest interviewer in the business," I told him.
His response. "That’s the problem. When my name was proposed as the moderator, both the Republican and Democratic Party operatives vetoed me because they hated how I went after their candidates with the tough questions."
Instead, the party establishment went with the PBS’s Jim Lehrer, known for his soft inquiries.
Russert re-energized a moribund Meet the Press with his unrelenting grilling of guests. He was always prepared with past statements or video clips that might embarrass a government official. He wouldn’t let candidates get away with evasive answers. Viewers loved his hard-nosed style but politicos were always nervous about what Russert would ask next.
He also exposed the vulnerabilities of candidates. I well remember a series of questions he peppered Republican libertarian Ron Paul on his tax policy (fortunately, Russert was invited occasionally to participate in the primary debates). Congressman Paul said he favored abolishing the IRS and the federal income tax. Russert zeroed in on the implications of this radical surgery. He demanded, “Since the income tax represents 60% of federal revenues, what government agencies would you eliminate?” Paul didn’t have a good answer. Russert’s probing exposed Paul’s naivete. Ron Paul would have been smarter to recommend a flat tax rather than outright abolishing the income tax, as ideal as that might sound.
Despite being a thorough-going social democrat, Russert seldom played favorites. Anyone, Republican or Democrat, could be the subject of his devastating cross-examination.
I can now say with some authority: Tim Russert will be sorely missed — not by the politicians and their handlers, but by the voters and citizens of this nation.
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