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Russert Shrugged

Russert Shrugged

September 9th, 2008  |  Published in Reporting commentary

Earlier this year, I was walking a pair of Jack Russell terriers, along the Inter-coastal waterway in West Palm Beach with my son Julian after watching a Clinton Obama debate. My son remarked “I bet we wont see that in the papers tomorrow.” He was referring to Obama’s statement that if al Qaeda made a comeback in Iraq after, as president,  he had pulled American troops out he would send them back in. I laughed in agreement for my own reasons but never asked my son exactly why he had this thought.  Just recently I noticed an example of just the same phenomena from February debate pointed out by Christopher Hitchens in a late July article in Slate.

On Feb. 21, Sens. Obama and Hillary Clinton had one of their “debates” in Austin, Texas. The question of the surge—just then beginning to show serious and lasting results—came up. Sen. Clinton, of course, having apparently been decisively out-lefted by Obama at the beginning of the campaign, felt compelled to put the sourest face on all matters Iraqi. And then Campbell Brown of CNN asked the following question:

Sen. Obama, in the same vein, you were also opposed to the surge from the beginning. Were you wrong?

At that point, sitting at home, I suddenly realized what Obama ought to do if he wanted to show that he was capable of thinking on his feet and stealing a march on his rivals. He should praise the surge without withdrawing from his opposition to the war. And so he did, in the following words:

Well, I think it is indisputable that we’ve seen violence reduced in Iraq. And that’s a credit to our brave men and women in uniform. In fact, you know, the First Cavalry, out of Fort Hood, played an enormous role in pushing back al-Qaida out of Baghdad. [APPLAUSE] And, you know, we honor their service. But this is a tactical victory imposed upon a huge strategic blunder. [LAUGHTER] And I think that when we’re having a debate with John McCain, it is going to be much easier for the candidate who was opposed to the concept of invading Iraq in the first place to have a debate about the wisdom of that decision [APPLAUSE] than having to argue about the tactics subsequent to the decision. [LAUGHTER]

Not bad for a performance in the liberal-skewed primaries and (with its rather obvious nod to the local heroes of Fort Hood) not entirely unpremeditated, either. I felt almost sure that this—”Obama Has Kind Words for Surge”—would be the headline next day. Instead, there was no mention of it to speak of, and most people with whom I later talked seemed not to have noticed the moment at all. In some way, the notion that Obama was beating Sen. Clinton mainly because he was more anti-war than she was the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story; and no statement that was in any way incompatible with it could be considered newsworthy. I took this up with the late Tim Russert, who shrugged a bit and added that the line of the evening—”Change you can Xerox,” a vulgar taunt about Obama’s alleged plagiarism from Sen. Clinton via Sidney Blumenthal—had swiftly become the agreed headline among those who decide these things. Really, there are times one is ashamed to be in the profession.

So why did Tim Russet shrug? It’s too late to ask him, so I emailed my son yesterday asking him what went through his mind when he made his prediction. He answered:

Simply put, I didn’t expect the MSM to report on Obama’s Iraq comment because his comments did not fit into the storyline.

Indeed. From the beginning, the agreed story has been that Iraq is a quagmire, just like Vietnam. (Which, in fairness,  is different from Obama’s or others opposing the war on its own merits from the beginning.) Remember that Afghanistan was reported as a quagmire before it wasn’t and Iraq was so reported before it was. Now Iraq apparently isn’t any more and Afghanistan arguably is. Got that? Unfolding reality is confusing and changeable and not to be confused with Vietnam or even Neville Chamberlain for that matter.  Sometimes a presidential candidate and the media’s interests are similar but ultimately they diverge. One deals in agreed stories, while the other has to engage with reality as it arises or fail. Here I think we see Obama beginning  to talk like a president dealing with the military and political situation in Iraq and the media protecting their investment in their meme. Yes, they may be helping Obama maintain his support from the anti war left by ignoring what he is saying, but what I find revealing is that they are as willing to put a candidate they have been criticized for overly supporting into a cone of silence as they are someone they dislike to suit their own interests.

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