Searching for more proof that celebrity Beltway journalists enjoy warm, friendly relations with Republican presidential hopefuls? Look no further than last week's cozy sit-down between NBC News anchor Brian Williams and GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani.
According to the running tally posted at MSNBC.com, where video of the full 34-minute interview is hosted, the Q&A has been viewed fewer than 6,000 times. But it deserves far more attention since it conveniently captures how the media landscape is unfolding for the 2008 campaign, where prominent Democrats are bedeviled by all sorts of probing press inquires while their Republican counterparts skate through the primary season without a media care in the world.
And that's thanks to people like Brian Williams.
I watched the Giuliani interview last week and was busy taking notes when I wasn't picking my jaw up off the floor. That was partly because of the forced, old-friend vibe that permeated the interview, but mostly because Williams never asked Giuliani a single uncomfortable question. The treatment stood in stark contrast to the relentless and often factually challenged grilling Williams and his NBC News colleague Tim Russert unleashed on the Democratic front-runner at the Philadelphia debate two weeks ago. Not to mention the type of loaded, contentious questions Williams posed to Democrats when he moderated their debate (solo) in South Carolina in April.
Sitting down with Giuliani though, Williams suddenly lost his edge and was content with lobbing vague questions, refraining from meaningful follow-ups, and allowing Giuliani to attack Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at length for being on "the defensive" in fighting the war on terror and for promoting "higher taxes for the whole country."
The result was a virtuoso performance for Giuliani at the expense of Williams, who seemed more intent on befriending the candidate than in seriously questioning him. To paraphrase comedian Chris Rock, I'm not saying the Giuliani campaign should buy blocks of air time and run the entire Williams interview as a long-form promotional ad. But I understand.
Let me put it this way: Williams' first question to Giuliani was met with a hearty laugh by the candidate, and Williams' final question to Giuliani was met with a hearty laugh by the candidate. (Cackle alert! I counted at least four very loud Giuliani outbursts in response to Williams' questions. Hmm, what was Giuliani trying to hide with his guffaws?)
And did I mention the buddy-buddy vibe? Here's how Williams, on his blog, described meeting up with Giuliani just prior to the interview. The backslapping is practically audible:
I greeted Rudy Giuliani in the hallway of the Capitol Hill Club in Washington. Right in front of some gathered onlookers, he walked up to me and enthusiastically blurted out, "You were GREAT!" After hesitating for a bit, I asked, "At WHAT?" And then he smiled and it dawned on me: our interview today was more than the usual reporter/newsmaker interrogation. It was a meeting of former hosts of Saturday Night Live. (Giuliani's turn came on November 22, 1997).
I'm not suggesting that every extended interview that a candidate grants to a TV personality has to be a 10-round boxing match, a gotcha-fest. That's not even appropriate. But there needs to be a balance between the conversational and the consequential.
The NBC interview had added significance since Giuliani, up until very recently, had been reluctant to do lengthy television interviews. As Ruth Marcus noted in The Washington Post last week, "Among Republicans, Rudy Giuliani, who's accessible on the campaign trail, has been the Garbo of Sunday talk, turning up just once -- on Fox, naturally."
Williams, a regular Rush Limbaugh listener, had 30 minutes to ask the candidate any questions he wanted. It's instructive to examine the questions Williams did, and did not ask, Giuliani.
Williams' first topic of discussion was about baseball, specifically why Giuliani, as a lifelong New York Yankees fan, would publicly announce, while campaigning in New England, that he was going to root for the Yankees' bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox, in the World Series. But the way Williams raised the topic made it plain that he thought the issue was silly, and the query served more as an icebreaker than a serious question about perhaps the campaign season's most blatant bout of pandering. And that's why Giuliani responded to Williams' soft question with a hearty laugh.
How did Williams signal the trivial intent of the question? He began the query with a serious tone and expression by referring to a "tragic day for most New Yorkers," but then quickly revealed that the "tragic day" was in reference to the fact that former New York Yankees skipper Joe Torre had just accepted a job with the Los Angeles Dodgers. (That segued into the Yankees/Red Sox question.)
Get it?! The "tragic day" wasn't a reference to the terrorist attacks of September 11, because Williams flipped the script and turned it into a baseball question. And that's what made Giuliani laugh. Priceless. No wonder Williams hosted SNL.
When Giuliani eventually explained that he rooted for the Red Sox because he always roots for the American League team, Williams never asked Giuliani why he publicly mocked Clinton as a flip-flopper after she offered a somewhat similar rationale for deciding to root for the Yankees as a Cubs fan growing up in Illinois; because she needed a favorite American League team.
And by the way, Williams' second question to Giuliani was whether he'd spoken with Torre recently, and whether the manager would face a "tough transition" to managing on the West Coast.
See, folks, just a couple of guys kicking back and talking baseball.
Williams soon asked Giuliani about his one-time protégé and former New York City Police chief Bernard Kerik who, at the time of the interview, was just days away from being indicted. But Williams never bothered to detail what Kerik's legal troubles were. (Answer: corruption, mail and tax fraud, obstruction of justice, and lying to the government.)
And after Giuliani admitted to not knowing enough about Kerik's allegedly criminal behavior, Williams' follow-up question made no reference to a front-page New York Times article that had run just days earlier, in which the newspaper detailed how Giuliani and his aides were briefed repeatedly about questions surrounding Kerik's behavior but that Giuliani continued to ignore the warnings and promote his close friend.
And that's how the interview unfolded for more than 30 minutes, with Giuliani never in danger of facing a tough question, and Williams never in danger of making news with the interview. Here were some of the lowlights:
- Williams never asked Giuliani about the ad his campaign aired in New Hampshire that centered on Giuliani's misleading citation of "meaningless" statistics on the five-year survival rate for men diagnosed with prostate cancer in the United States, as opposed to the United Kingdom. He also failed to ask why, after it was documented that he cited irrelevant and outdated statistics, the Giuliani camp announced it was going to keep using the inaccurate information.
- Williams did not ask Giuliani why he failed to show up to a single meeting for the prestigious Iraq Study Group before quitting the elite panel. Or why he quit, citing "previous time commitments," when, at the time, he was out making millions of dollars in speaking fees.
- Williams did not ask Giuliani why his private consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, continues to employ his childhood friend Alan Placa even after a Long Island grand jury report in 2003 accused Placa, a Catholic priest, of sexually abusing children, as well as helping cover up the sexual abuse of children by other priests.
- Williams and Giuliani discussed the Vietnam War at length but Williams never asked baby boomer Giuliani how, or where, he spent the contentious war. (Hint: It was thousands of miles away from the bloodshed in Vietnam.)
- When the topic of Giuliani's children was discussed and Giuliani stressed that he was not "parading them out there" on the campaign trail, Williams did not ask if that was because, based on press reports, Giuliani's adult children have refused to campaign with him.
- When the topic of 9-11 was discussed (several times), Williams did not ask Giuliani why many New York City firefighters bitterly oppose his candidacy.
- Williams did not ask Giuliani why his consulting firm adamantly refuses to disclose any information about the clients it represents.
- Williams did not ask Giuliani about his shifting (i.e. flip-flopping) positions on hot-button conservative issues such as abortion and gun control. Instead, Williams concluded the utterly painless interview by asking Giuliani if his message to Republican voters will continue to be, "Take me as I am." A laughing Giuliani answered: "That's the only message I have!"
It's no exaggeration to suggest that Williams' interview with Giuliani represents a primer on how not to conduct a serious, lengthy interview with a presidential hopeful. It really was just a complete waste of time in terms of drawing useful information out of Giuliani as Williams ignored virtually every obvious question regarding Giuliani's campaign to date. (A waste of time unless, of course, you're a member of the Giuliani communications staff.)
But maybe Williams is just a lightweight whose time with the candidates is meant to draw out their personality and not poke them with sharp questions. That's true of his dealings with Republicans. But Williams has a different set of rules for Democratic hopefuls.
Just contrast the Giuliani feel-good interview with Williams' performance moderating the Democratic debate in April, where he routinely asked loaded, buffoonish questions that appeared to come right off GOP oppo research.
For instance, in his first question of the night, Williams linked Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid to treason:
WILLIAMS: Senator Clinton, your party's leader in the United States Senate, Harry Reid, recently said the war in Iraq is lost. A letter to today's USA Today calls his comments "treasonous" and says if General Patton were alive today, Patton would "wipe his boots" with Senator Reid. Do you agree with the position of your leader in the Senate?
What kind of presidential debate moderator quotes from a random, hateful letter to the editor that claims Democrats are "treasonous"?
Moments later, Williams regurgitated more GOP talking points by asking Sen. Barack Obama if he was disrespecting U.S. troops by opposing the war in Iraq:
WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, you have called this war in Iraq, quote, "dumb," close quote. How do you square that position with those who have sacrificed so much?
As The Daily Howler noted last spring, Obama's "dumb" quote was from 2002, before the battlefield fighting and dying had begun in Iraq. But Williams yanked the quote out of context to suggest the Democratic hopeful in 2007 was calling the war "dumb" while thousands of U.S. soldiers were risking their lives.
And then there was this question to John Edwards, complete with more firmly embedded GOP talking points:
WILLIAMS: Our most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicated a majority of Americans approved of last week's Supreme Court decision to make so-called partial birth or late-term abortions illegal. ... A lot of American families find this just a hideous topic for a discussion. Is this a case, do you think, of the Supreme Court and the public with opinions in one place, and yet a lot of elected officials [i.e., Democrats] in another? [Emphasis added]
And yes, it's true that Williams' second question to Edwards at the debate was about the candidate's expensive haircut, even though, just days earlier on national television, Williams had conceded that the Edwards haircut story was "silly" and there was "no reason for us to continue talking about it." The second question.
The Edwards cheap shot came during what Williams described as the "Elephants in the Room" section of the debate where he asked loaded queries that "may be uncomfortable": Why is Obama a crook? Why does Edwards get fancy haircuts? Why do Republicans want to run against Clinton? And why can't Joe Biden stop talking?
The "uncomfortable questions" addressed "perception issues," Williams explained at the debate. In other words, the exact type of questions Williams never dreamed of asking the GOP front-runner, Giuliani.
It's that kind of blatant double standard that makes it increasingly obvious that if Democrats are going to capture the White House next year, they're going to have to do it in spite of the press, which has morphed into an active oppositional force. And they're going to have to do it in spite of people like Brian Williams, who feel obligated to unleash half-baked gotcha questions on Democrats, while tossing softballs to Republicans.