Paul Waldman hits Tim Russert where I'd like to. Waldman cites an episode during a Democratic candidates' debate at which Russert asks Obama "what's your favorite Bible verse?" I thought at the time it was a silly question, not worth a candidate's time answering. Waldman agrees and extrapolates:
When Obama finished his answer, Russert said to the other candidates, "I want to give everyone a chance in this. You just take 10 seconds." Predictable banality ensued. A foreign visitor unfamiliar with our presidential campaigns might have scratched her head and said, "This is how you decide who will lead your country?"No, we shouldn't. It's a pity, too, because by cooperating with this stupidity we further enhance Russert's image as the toughest interviewer of them all, able to ask ridiculous questions and demand answers!
Indeed it is, because the process is controlled by Tim Russert and people like him. Russert's Bible question encapsulates everything wrong with him, and with our political coverage more generally. It seeks to make candidates look bad rather than finding out something important about them (if you want to explore a candidate's religious beliefs, you don't do it in pop-quiz form and give them just ten seconds to answer). It substitutes the personal anecdote for the policy position, the sound-bite for the substantive answer. It distills the debate into a series of allegedly symbolic, supposedly meaningful moments that can be replayed.
This type of debate question is not about what the candidate believes and would actually do in office, but about how clever the moderator is for cornering the candidate. And above all, it takes a genuinely relevant matter (a candidate's view of the universe) and crams it through a channel by which the thoughtful candidate will be pilloried and the shallow, pandering, overly rehearsed candidate will garner praise.
I have a fantasy that at one of these moments, a candidate will say, "You know what, Tim, I'm not going to answer that question. This is serious business. And you, sir, are a disgrace. You have in front of you a group of accomplished, talented leaders, one of whom will in all likelihood be the next president of the United States. You can ask them whatever you want. And you choose to engage in this ridiculous gotcha game, thinking up inane questions you hope will trick us into saying something controversial or stupid. Your fondest hope is that the answer to your question will destroy someone's campaign. You're not a journalist, you're the worst kind of hack, someone whose efforts not only don't contribute to a better informed electorate, they make everyone dumber. So no, I'm not going to stand here and try to come up with the most politically safe Bible verse to cite. Is that the best you can do?"
But we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for a candidate to say that, particularly not to Russert, who stands atop the insider media establishment.
Waldman goes on to describe Russert's schtick far better than I can. It's a fun read.
Update: Kevin Drum has more on Russert. Lots of great minds thinking alike today.Posted by Linkmeister at October 31, 2007 11:53 AM | TrackBack