Press Box

How To Beat Tim Russert

Get inside his head and shake vigorously.

How to beat Meet

Those who would be president must first run the gantlet that is Tim Russert’s Meet the Press, the highest-rated Sunday morning political show. Already, candidates Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards, Sharpton, Gephardt, Graham, Clark, Moseley Braun, Kucinich, and Dean (twice) have appeared on the show, with Russert humbling practically all. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz writes this week that Dean’s allegedly poor performance on the June 22 Meet the Press has elicited a barrage of what Kurtz calls “negative commentary” from the media, which had previously cuddled up with the candidate.

Russert frustrates the candidates by knowing their positions on issues better than they do—where they’ve stumbled, where they’ve flip-flopped, and where they’re most likely to embarrass themselves under the kliegs. Plotting his interviews out like chess matches, he deploys aggressive openings, subtle feints, artfully constructed traps, and lightning offenses to crack the politicians’ phony veneer and reveal the genuine veneer beneath. But a study of Meet the Press transcripts reveals that Russert relies too heavily on a formula. He can be beat.

One-time grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and permanent white-supremacist nut job David Duke beat Russert badly in March 1999, when he appeared on Meet the Press during his Louisiana campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives. Unable to stick it to Duke with his time-proven techniques, Russert sputtered, steamed, and almost boiled over.

Here’s how to break the Russert code in five easy lessons.

1)Prepare for a Hostile Interrogation

Tim Russert is heavily invested in the friendly Irishman persona, all smiles and sincere, direct questions. But he is not your friend: He wishes your destruction on his show. But don’t play defense on Meet the Press—it will only make you look defensive. Stay cool and poised, as David Duke did, and play offense by pushing Russert’s toughest questions back at him.

Russert quoted heavily from Duke’s scurrilous writings on Jews, blacks, and Martin Luther King Jr., but because Duke knows his own work by heart and has been attacked repeatedly on this score, he found it easy to dismiss King as a Marxist and Kwanzaa as a “pagan religious ceremony” without losing a point to his questioner. By neglecting the element of surprise, Russert lost the match.

Russert loves numbers. Be prepared for budget arithmetic and bone up on the numbers of troops deployed, money spent here and there, and other quantifiables—or, be ready, as Howard Dean was, to dismiss the question when Russert asks you the size of U.S. armed forces and you don’t know offhand. Reject his questions as silly “pop quizzes,” which is what they are. Bring to the interview numbers that he doesn’t know. They’ll make you look smart and throw him off your scent.

Think of Russert as a sniper whom you’re trying to flush out into the open. If you make Russert justify his questions, do it good-naturedly. It pisses him off and destabilizes him. When Russert inventoried Al Sharpton’s sordid background on the air in January, Sharpton flummoxed him with this moxie: “I think you’ve got white candidates with worse backgrounds. …” It’s a ridiculous defense, but it worked. Likewise, Carol Moseley Braun’s brazen deny-deny-deny defense about her past worked on her June 8 appearance.

2)Anticipate Russert’s Research

Russert came to journalism from politics, where digging up dirt—or at least inconsistencies—on opponents is the main event. Russert and the Meet the Press staff comb the newspaper clips and video vaults looking for outrages and contradictions. This is Russert’s main advantage: He knows what the topics are going to be, and you don’t. Make this your terrain by anticipating Russert’s moves. Hire somebody on your staff to prepare a mock oppo-research folder and compose answers for the most challenging questions you can imagine. If you’ve slept with a pony, be prepared to either defend the ride or lie. Russert asked Clinton during the 1992 campaign if there was embarrassing personal conduct in his past that might hinder his candidacy, and he’ll ask you, too.

If you’ve switched your position on anything, or if your views on, say, the balanced budget clash with your advocacy of new tax cuts, expect Russert to grill you. He brags that his show isn’t a press conference where the subject is allowed to dodge the question. If you dodge, he’ll come back twice, thrice, or as many times as it takes to make you crumble. If you can, dispute Russert’s numbers as politicized or as pure conjecture. If you’ve changed your position, emphasize your courage to change your views in the face of new information. If a subject like gay marriage is in the news, anticipate Russert to attempt to snare you with an escape-proof question about it.

Recently, Russert has been reading aloud from scoops in the latest U.S. News & World Report to the likes of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Carl Levin, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. U.S. News returns from the printers on Saturday afternoon, but few people outside of the media/government inner circle see the magazine before Monday. If you’re appearing on Meet the Press, request a copy before going on.

3) Put Russert on the Defensive

Russert loves nothing more than to project large block quotes from an unflattering story in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times and read them aloud to his subject. His second-favorite device is to roll tape from a disquieting interview and then ask a question no more sophisticated than, “I want to give you a chance to respond.”

The block-quote-and-chance-to-respond gambit allows Russert to pretend he isn’t asking the question—the higher authority of the New York Times is—and that he, Russert, can’t be held responsible for any problem the subject might have with the “question.” He’s just honesty’s broker, impartially gathering the subject’s views. I’m not saying this, the press is saying this. And I want to give you a chance to respond.

Don’t let Russert get away with this. Challenge the premise of the news account. Point out how the New York Times has erred on the subject. Or that events have overtaken the Washington Post’s account. Don’t let him confuse you into debating the New York Times. It’s in Russert’s interests to present himself as someone with no opinions and therefore no position to defend, and in your interests to smoke him out and make him defend his premises.

If all fails, filibuster. Some of the block-quote recitations exceed 200 words, and because they rarely contain a barbed question, you can palaver in response for several hundred words and even change the subject without drawing undue attention.

4) If That Doesn’t Work, Concede the Point. Then Make Yours.

When Russert tried to corral David Duke into the position of a Holocaust denier by reading aloud from Duke’s writings, Duke admitted that some Jews were killed—”I don’t know what the numbers are.” He then switched the subject, complaining about the 60 million Christians the Soviets killed and the lack of media showcases on those atrocities. Apparently because this dodge wasn’t in Russert’s script, he abandoned the line of questioning.

Most politicians want the public to view their record as one seamless continuum, a vanity that Russert seizes upon. But when he chastised Duke for once wearing a swastika in public, Duke first pleaded youthful exuberance (“I was 19”) and then conceded the point to make it his by saying he wore it while picketing William Kunstler to protest Kunstler’s support of “Communist principles.” Derailed by Duke, Russert staggered to the next point in his script.

5) Interrupt Him. Interrupt Again. And Again.

It’s easier to be a talk-show guest than a talk-show host. While you formulate your answers, he’s multitasking: Listening to you, summoning his next question, watching the stage manager, and wincing while his producer shouts “30 seconds to commercial break!!!” in his earpiece. Use his confusion to your advantage. He’s worried about the time constraints, the show’s choreography, and the other interviews and round tables coming up. If you don’t beat him in the first quarter of the interview, you can still win the game.

Remember, this is your interview, not his. Too many of Russert’s guests allow him to fling enormous, mattress-sized paragraphs at them that are far too complicated to answer on television. Interrupt him when a question needs clarification. Interrupt him when he’s startled you with something fresh. Interrupt him back when he interrupts you. Interrupt him for the hell of it. It drives him crazy, and when he’s crazy, he loses his place in the script, his face goes a tad red, and he loses his momentum. Duke successfully interrupted Russert in 1999, forcing Russert to request, “Let me finish”—something guests usually say.

While you’re on camera, you might think he’s the master interlocutor, but you’re only this week’s flavor. His staff had only a week to prepare for you. Assign your staff to build the sort of book on Russert’s techniques, rhetorical gambits, and political obsessions that you’d want going into a debate with an opposing candidate. Then study hard.

And, lastly, remember to smile. David Duke did.


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