Suzy DeFrancis, the White House deputy assistant for communications, has explained that President Bush chose to go on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday because "the president felt that was a forum in which he could reach a large number of people and that Tim was known to ask probing questions." True, Russert can be hard on his guests, as any number of Democratic presidential candidates from John Edwards to Howard Dean to Wesley Clark can attest. But another Tim Russert seems to emerge when faced with the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney – who so frequently misled both his host and the country the last time he appeared on the show that the White House itself all-but repudiated his remarks – and most particularly President Bush. At these moments Russert becomes, by his own admission "respectful" of the office, and turns into – let's say it: a pussycat.
The interview may have been quite a coup for Russert and NBC News. It resulted in more the double the number of usual viewers; nearly 15 million. But journalistically, the hour proved a missed opportunity and ultimately, disservice to the American people. As with Cheney, Russert failed to ask the kind of tough questions and follow-ups that might have forced the president give some answers to questions he obviously (and understandably) prefers to avoid. Like Russert, we are limited by space constraints, and so must limit ourselves to just a few of these areas, and can not even cover these topics in the depth they deserve. But we offer the questions below dealing with the decision to go to war, the Kay Report, the commissions of inquiry, and the president's curious inability to document his history in the National Guard, as an indication of just how much information potentially lurked beneath the surface of Sunday's polite exchange:
To: Tim Russert
Fr: Eric Alterman and friends.
Re: What you should have asked the president:
1) Regarding the Road to War:
A) Sir, in July 2003, you claimed speaking of your decision to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein, "We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." You have since repeated this claim sir, and frankly, I don't understand it. After all, as we are all aware, Hans Blix and his fellow U.N. inspectors were in Iraq doing their jobs at the time you decided to begin the war. Were you trying to mislead the American people with this twice repeated comment, sir? To confuse them? Were you, yourself confused?
B) Sir, you've admitted on repeated occasions that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and no convincing evidence has been found to link him to the attacks or to Osama bin Laden in any meaningful way. So what did you mean when you said, You can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror. Why not? Isn't the job of presidents to make exactly these distinctions? What else can't you distinguish between?
C) Mr. President, when you asked Congress for permission to go to war against Iraq, you wrote in a letter that you needed to do in order "to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." Again, if you have no evidence for any connection between Hussein and 9/11, weren't you seeking your power to go to war on the basis of false pretenses?
D) What Tim said:
Russert: Mr. President, the Director of the CIA said that his briefings had qualifiers and caveats, but when you spoke to the country, you said "there is no doubt." When Vice President Cheney spoke to the country, he said "there is no doubt." Secretary Powell, "no doubt." Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "no doubt, we know where the weapons are." You said, quote, "The Iraqi regime is a threat of unique urgency. Saddam Hussein is a threat that we must deal with as quickly as possible."
You gave the clear sense that this was an immediate threat that must be dealt with.
President Bush: I think, if I might remind you that in my language I called it a grave and gathering threat, but I don't want to get into word contests. But what I do want to share with you is my sentiment at the time. There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America.
Missed follow-up: But sir, with all due respect, it is not a "word game" when you promise the American people that you are taking the nation to war on the basis of a threat that turns out not to exist. You repeatedly said you were certain, "there is no doubt" – period. And yet, we now know, there was plenty of doubt, in the CIA, the State Department, and elsewhere. Did you mislead this nation and the entire world? Do you owe us an apology?
E) Sir, Colin Powell now admits he might not have supported the war if he knew what he knows now. Is this a problem for you? Doesn't the Secretary of State speak for the U.S. government in foreign affairs? Do you worry that Secretary Powell may know something you don't sir?
2) On the Kay Report:
A) When asked, in Poland, where are the weapons of mass destruction, you said, "We found them." Vice President Cheney claims that "conclusive evidence" now demonstrates that Saddam Hussein did in fact have weapons of mass destruction. Yet we know from the Kay Report that no such weapons have been found. Were you lying, sir? Was the vice president?
B) David Kay said that he believed that Saddam's weapons were destroyed in the mid 1990s. Doesn't that mean that the previous administration was successful in eliminating Saddam's weaponry?
C) When Diane Sawyer pointed out that weapons of mass destruction "are not the same thing as the desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction," you replied, "What's the difference?" Do you really not know, sir? Should you be making decisions to start pre-emptive wars against the express wishes of the U.N. Security Council and most of the world's population if you don't?
F) But Mr. President, with all due respect…some 530 American families' lives will never be the same. It sounds as if you're saying that these families made the ultimate sacrifice because your administration miscalculated. Is that so? And why haven't you attended a single military funeral? (Thanks to Mike Tomasky)
3) On the WMD commission:
"Sir, when you say, 'I want the truth to be known. I want there to be a full analysis done so that we can better prepare the homeland, for example, against what might occur.' Can you explain why you designated as co-chairman of the new intelligence commission a federal judge with a long career as a Republican dirty-tricks operative? (Thanks to Charles Pierce)
4) On the 9/11 commission.
You say sir, you "have given extraordinary cooperation with Chairmen Kean and Hamilton," but in fact the members of the commission have repeatedly said that they have found the White House and the pentagon to be extremely uncooperative and they have repeatedly had to use the threat of subpoena to review the documents they say they need. Are they lying sir?
5) Did Bush "desert" the National Guard?
Just to refresh your memory, sir, regarding the controversy over your National Guard service in 1972 and 1973, we've found the following: First, there are no records showing attendance at any drills for the five-month period from May to September 1972. Zilch. In September 1972, you were grounded from flying. Next, beginning in October 1972 and continuing through July 1973, we find both pay records and "ARF Retirement Credit Summary" records demonstrating that you did receive credit for attending drills.
Here things get a little confusing. ARF is the Air Reserve Force, and it's not clear that this is the same thing as the Texas Air National Guard. What's more, fitness reports from the Texas Guard indicate you did not show up for drills during this period. For some reason, your records from the Texas Guard end abruptly in May 1972 and the ARF records pick up in October 1972. Based on this admittedly incomplete record sir, I'd like to ask:
A) Why did you skip your physical and allow yourself to be grounded in 1972?
B) Were you involved in any kind of disciplinary action while in the Guard? Specifically in 1972?
C) Were you transferred to the reserves in 1972? If so, why?
D) Did you drill with your unit (the 111th) in late 1972 and 1973? Or were your drills during that period with the reserves?
E) What, exactly, were you doing, sir, between May 1972 and October 1972? And if you can't remember, why can't you?
(Thanks to Kevin Drum, www.calpundit.com)
F) And finally, sir, if, as you say, you supported your government in its efforts to win the war, why didn't you enlist to fight alongside your fellow American soldiers in Vietnam? Al Gore did. John Kerry did. Why didn't you? (Mike Tomasky)
An aside, Tim, you might also have considered saying something like: "I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize, publicly, to Gen. Wesley Clark, for insisting that there was something inappropriate about his refusal to upbraid his supporter Michael Moore for raising this issue at a rally. Obviously, the mere fact I am spending valuable time on it today is indicative that it is not something that media should sweep under the rug, as we did during the 2000 election."
6) General: An Era of Responsibility:
A) "Sir, can you cite, please, a single instance in which you have taken personal responsibility for any unpleasant or untoward thing that has happened on your watch?" (Thanks again to Charles Pierce).
Editor's note: For more information on the president's interview, see our special edition of the Progress Report.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Book on Bush: How George W (Mis)Leads America.