Last month, near the end of the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, moderator Tim Russert -- known as "Washington's toughest interviewer" and perhaps the most influential journalist in America -- had one last chance to pin the candidates down with his legendary common sense, persistence, and no-bull style. This is what he asked, first to Barack Obama:
"There's been a lot of discussion about the Democrats and the issue of faith and values. I want to ask you a simple question. Senator Obama, what is your favorite Bible verse?"
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?"
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. And like every skillful and experienced Washington hand, Russert knows that the way to the top is to pretend that for all the Georgetown cocktail parties you attend, for all the money you make, for all your heart flutters when the powerful treat you with deference, in truth you may be in Washington but you're not of it. No, deep down you're just a regular guy from the wrong side of the tracks, standing up to the effete swells of the ruling class.
As much as any politician, Russert has constructed a persona for the benefit of the public, an identity meant to give him the authority that his actual work might not. Like most well-designed personas, it has a basis in truth but has been polished and honed to a fine sheen.
The core -- if not the entirety -- of this persona can be summed up in the word Russert invokes at every opportunity, wielded like a talisman of authenticity: Buffalo. Buffalo, where the salt of the Earth trudge home from their exhausting blue-collar jobs, where the cheap beer is guzzled in corner bars, where the grime sits heavy on the walls of crumbling buildings, and the mills have all left town. Buffalo, where the young Russert got to know the real Americans on whose behalf he now speaks. Buffalo, which can bestow working-class credibility, even on a man who makes a reported $5 million a year and spends his summers among the decidedly elite at his second home on Nantucket. Although Buffalo is not technically in the "heartland," for Russert it functions the same way as the country's middle does for Republicans, as a shorthand of virtue, a geographical location out of which springs the values of modesty, piety, industriousness, and, most of all, the lack of privilege.
A look at Russert's press coverage shows how the image is reinforced. Peppered among articles chock full of admiring references to his allegedly tough interviewing style, one occasionally finds profiles like one from 2001 in Reader's Digest titled, "Our Man In Washington: Tim Russert's blue-collar smarts give politicians no place to hide." It had all the incisiveness the magazine is known for:
Unawed by power, unwavering in his interview technique, Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, is tough and plain-spoken, with one foot placed squarely in the working-class neighborhood in upstate New York that he grew up in.
"Tim never forgets where he came from," says his sister Betty Buckenroth. "He carries Buffalo around in his bones."
And it shows. With cheeks where his jaw line should be, and the overall look of a man who never met a steak he didn't like, Russert is that rarest of creatures in national politics -- an average American inside the Beltway. Our man in Washington.
I feel more represented already. "Tim Russert is the anchor as everyman, the big talker with the street smarts, the man who hobnobs with presidents but aims his delivery at the working stiffs," wrote Howard Kurtz, with typical skepticism, in a 2004 piece in the Washington Post. Like many a celebrity profiler, Kurtz casts the most mundane act, when undertaken by a famous person, as an almost heroic manifestation of extraordinary character. Marveling at the fact that when Russert interviewed Yogi Berra, he got the Hall of Famer's autograph for his son and father, Kurtz writes that the event "makes clear that Tim Russert, media superstar, hasn't forgotten where he came from."
If an interviewer forgets to bring up Buffalo, Russert surely will. Asked by Kurtz how he avoids getting an inflated ego when he spends time interviewing presidents (a softball question designed just for Russert; try to imagine Kurtz asking the same thing of Tom Brokaw), Russert responded, "If you come from Buffalo, everything else is easy. Walking backwards to school, for a mile in the snow, grounds you for life." When Bill Moyers asked Russert whether he relied too much on the word of Bush administration officials during the run-up to the Iraq War, Russert replied, "Look, I'm a blue-collar guy from Buffalo. I know who my sources are. I work 'em very hard. It's the mid-level people that tell you the truth." Any questions about his being too close to the establishment are met with "Blue-collar! Buffalo!", brandished like a cross before the vampire of accountability. Russert may be the only journalist in America who considers all his conversations with government officials off the record unless they request otherwise -- an extraordinary gift to the powerful and an inversion of ordinary journalistic practice -- but that doesn't make him an insider. Because he's from Buffalo.
And one easy way to bring his hometown into any episode of Meet the Press is to invoke the Buffalo Bills, which Russert does again, and again, and yet again. It's his way of saying, "See, I'm just a regular guy -- I like football! And not only that, I have a favorite team, the one from my blue-collar home town!" That Russert no doubt actually prefers the Bills to other teams makes it no less of an affectation.
If nothing else, at least we're deep enough into the presidential campaign that we don't have to suffer through Russert's endless "Are you running for president? Are you? Are you?" quizzing of potential candidates. But that's what passes for being a "tough" interviewer these days: the pose of confrontation rather than genuinely challenging questions, the query designed to embarrass rather than enlighten, the worship of, rather than the challenge to, conventional wisdom.
The two parties' nominees will be decided three months from now, and we can be sure that in that time, at least one or two candidates will have their campaigns upended by the answer they gave to an absurd question, delivered by Tim Russert or someone like him, about what their favorite Bible verse is, or whom they want to win the Super Bowl, or what kind of beer they like. "Aha!" the reporters will shout, as though they actually unearthed something revealing on which the race for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth should be decided. The one whose tiny little mind devised the question will be praised to the stars for his journalistic acumen.
And they'll continue to wonder why so many Americans are so cynical about our electoral process.