At the end of September, the 29th annual Emmy awards for News and Documentary television were held at Lincoln Center in New York. Among the many awards and honors handed out that evening was a Lifetime Achievement award given to Tim Russert for a career in political journalism marked by an exceptional ability to ask hard questions and hold his interview subjects accountable for their answers. The program for the Emmys described Tim during his 24-year career at NBC as "a tenacious interviewer famous for confronting the mighty with statements they once made and might regret." There are a thousand anecdotes that reflect Tim's passion for hard questions. Tim once famously asked Vice President Dick Cheney, "If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the America people are prepared for a long, costly and bloody battle with significant American casualties?" Before his death earlier this year, that brand of speaking truth to power made Russert the standard bearer for the fourth estate.
On hand to accept Tim's Lifetime Achievement award were his son Luke and wife Maureen Orth. Orth, an accomplished journalist herself, spoke passionately about how much Tim would have enjoyed this election season. She concluded her remarks saying, "We need you Tim -- we need you for Barack, and for John, and for Joe, and for Sarah... especially for Sarah."
Those words have never been truer than in the first and only vice presidential debate of the 2008 campaign on Thursday night. For 90 minutes, Sarah Palin evaded the questions that were put to her in the debates. In a show of defensive bobbing and weaving that would have made Muhammad Ali look flat-footed, Sarah Palin continually dodged question after question put to her by moderator Gwen Ifill. From the first question regarding whether the Congressional bailout represented the best or worst of Washington, Palin relied on folksy nostalgia to avoid serious answers (she responded to that question with a story about asking people on the sidelines of soccer games how they feel). When Ifill asked her to respond to Biden's comments on McCain's health care plan, she responded, "I would like to respond about the tax increases." Asked about economic plans, she responded discussing her ticket's energy plan. When the conversation was about sub-prime mortgages she spoke of energy again. Question after question, exchange after exchange, a Teflon coated Palin used a combination of colloquialisms, deflections, and even winking to try to convince the audience that she was actually engaged in a debate. However, the series of non sequiturs, obfuscations, and maniacal devotion to talking points -regardless of question asked- gave the impression not of someone who was debating but rather someone who had crammed really hard for a test the night before, and was determined to simply regurgitate what she had memorized regardless of its relevance to the discussion at hand.
In Palin's defense she was certainly using the classic media manipulation technique of playing to her strengths. Any political candidate over the course of a campaign receives extensive media training in how to take the question asked and manipulate it to talk about the preferred subject. This is Washington Media Relations 101, and any press secretary can give you a crash course in it. Sarah Palin isn't alone in using this technique. In fact you could pick several examples from Thursday's transcripts where Biden only partially acknowledges the question. Hillary Clinton was perhaps one of the most strategic question dodgers in recent memory. Watching a White House press conference these days is more like watching grabbling than conversation. But Governor Palin set a new high water mark for political switchcraft when she acknowledged to Sen. Biden "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people." Unfortunately, that was about as straight as it got all night. It's troubling when an proponent of the Straight Talk Express, one half of Team Maverick (is it possible to have a team of mavericks?), won't answer questions about the issues pressing the American public (other than those deemed important by her); it draws into question the efficacy of even debating at all.
In 1858, a gentleman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln was running for the US Senate seat held by Senator Stephen Douglas. They debated seven times, for three hours each time: hour long opening statements, hour and half rebuttals, and rebuttals to the rebuttals were allowed a mere half hour. By no means would I expect debates in the modern era to reflect the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 19th century. However, the level to which Palin refused to stay on subject, the glibness of responses, and the dearth of content, created a new low mark on the barometer of our public discourse.
At the end of the ceremony honoring Tim Russert, his son Luke stood up to say a few words. He reflected on his dad's love of news, sports, and of the pugilism that is an inherent part of the art and science of politics. The Sunday morning altar that politics worships at is the house that Tim built. Meet the Press, and the respectful, firm, and even friendly way that Tim held his subjects' feet to the fire became a test and a rite of passage for every major candidate for almost the last two decades. At the end of the awards night, Luke ended by saying that there were some "big shoes" to fill for political journalists now that his dad was gone.
We know Luke; we were watching Thursday as well.
Kaj Larsen hosts a daily election show, The Current Election, at 7:30pm PST/10:30 PM EST on Current TV.
Kaj Larsen is an award-winning journalist for Current TV. He is a former US Navy SEAL, and an executive board member of the Center for Citizen Leadership, a non-profit dedicated to mentoring wounded veterans into public service. He holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
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