Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened by the sudden, unexpected death of Tim Russert, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press program since 1991, last Friday at the too-young age of 58. Meet the Press is television’s longest-running show, having debuted in 1947, and Russert was its longest-serving host.
He was cut down far too soon by the same insidious, previously-asymptomatic, sudden cardiac death that was at least similar to what also claimed, among others, Bing Crosby in 1977; our own Murray Rothbard in 1995; and John Ritter in 2003. According to coverage of Russert’s passing, three-hundred thousand Americans suffer sudden cardiac death each year, taken from their loved ones with no warning and no previous signs or symptoms.
While it’s a terrible shock for the family and friends, apparently it’s an ideal way to go for the person who dies. On the June 16 episode of CNN’s Larry King Live, Dr. Mehmet Oz, New York cardiac thoracic surgeon, responded to the question of whether Russert suffered with, "I suspect he did not have much pain because as soon as you develop fibrillation, within seconds you pass out. From that perspective, it’s the way I’d like to pass away, but I would rather do it when I’m 90."
Predictably, Russert was lauded by the entire political and media establishment for his career: for being an icon; for being impartial; for not being afraid to ask tough questions.
In my last column, I wrote that politics at high levels of government basically consists of a symbiotic relationship between politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists and the ruling elite, where the politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists earn higher incomes than they could elsewhere on the market through voluntary trade (and receive other perks which, depending on what they’re after, include things like celebrity; prestige; influence; and indulging their control-freak personalities by forcibly running others’ lives), in exchange for perpetuating the system (such as the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical-industrial complex, and the Federal Reserve) by which the elite profit at the expense of the average person.
Perhaps nobody profited from that relationship more than Tim Russert. The very fact that the establishment media is praising him — and that he reigned over a mainstream, influential program like Meet the Press for 17 years, is proof that the praise of what a great journalist he was is false. As Lew Rockwell quipped, rather than asking tough questions of politicians, Russert acted more like their butler or valet.
Any LRC reader who’s been around since last year remembers how Russert treated Ron Paul last Dec., when he had him as a guest, after ignoring him all year, only when Ron’s popularity grew to the point that he could no longer be ignored. Instead of mixing in the usual softball questions, he pelted Ron with rapid-fire questions for 30 straight minutes, sometimes not even letting Ron finish answering one question before interrupting him with the next. He rarely (if ever) looked Ron in the eye. He cast Ron’s advocacy for amending the constitution as being inconsistent for a constitutionalist. When Ron called the so-called Civil War unnecessary, Russert claimed we’d still have slavery without it. In short, Ron was treated quite differently than most of Russert’s guests.
What some newer LRC readers may not know is that something like that happened before.
"I resent the question."
Harry Browne, nominee of the Libertarian Party in 2000, was (also reluctantly) invited by Russert to be on Meet the Press that year — which, to the best of my knowledge, is the first time, before or since, that the LP candidate has appeared on the program.
With all of this talk about Russert the past few days, I couldn’t resist digging up my tape and revisiting what happened.
First, the background information: Russert gave third-party candidates Ralph Nader of the Green Party and Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party each an entire half-hour segment on Meet the Press earlier in 2000.
Like Ron Paul in 2007—2008, Harry had received literally 1—2% as much mainstream media coverage in 1999—2000 as the major candidates, and Lexxus-Nexxus reported at one point late in 2000 that Buchanan had received 60 times more coverage than Browne that year, and Nader had received 80 times more. Browne also had about $2 million to spend, while Buchanan had $12 million — partially because Buchanan accepted the federal matching funds the party had earned from Perot’s 1996 showing, while Browne refused what he had earned from 1996, although it was significantly less than Buchanan’s amount.
Despite all of those disadvantages, Harry was the most popular candidate on the Internet that year (which admittedly meant less in 2000 than it does now) and — more importantly — was tied or above Buchanan (who always polled lower than Nader) in almost every major poll all year. By Sept., Harry was not only at least tied with Buchanan nationwide (depending on the poll), but he was out-polling both Nader and Buchanan in several states, and was also polling higher than the margin of error between Bush and Gore in several states.
During an Oct. edition of Meet the Press, Russert announced that he was holding a third-party debate on the program the following Sunday between Nader and Buchanan.
Given his accomplishments that year, Harry set out to discover why he hadn’t been invited too, which he described thusly in his campaign journal, which was sent regularly throughout the year to about 30,000 subscribers, "This morning the campaign released an email on LibertyWire, telling supporters that we’ve been rebuffed by Meet the Press. The program has scheduled a debate for this Sunday between Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, and didn’t include me. When Jim Babka, our very able press secretary, called Meet the Press to plead our case, he was rebuffed by the show’s producer — who said it just wasn’t u2018in the cards’ that I would ever be on the show, even though I’m running even with Buchanan in the polls. When Jim asked what we had to do to qualify to be on the show, she said she resented the question.
"Our email message asked people to blitz the show with emails and phone calls, requesting my presence. The first day at least 600 emails reached the show, and the phone calls overloaded the voice mail system.
“On top of that, a week ago Tim Russert was on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. During the show, Brian Lamb mentioned that C-SPAN had received over 150 emails from viewers wanting to ask Tim Russert why he didn’t have me on his show. He gave the usual lame explanation that they couldn’t have all 255 registered presidential candidates on, and so they focused on the two with the most support. Then a caller pointed out that only seven candidates were on enough state ballots to win, and that I had as much support as Buchanan does.”
That was a shockingly dishonest answer by Russert, and no one in his position could possibly be that stupid: Yes, there were about 250 presidential candidates officially recognized by the FEC in 2000, which meant only that they had filed the necessary paperwork. But only 15 of those were on the ballot in even one state; only five besides Bush and Gore were on enough ballots to mathematically be able to win the Electoral College; and Browne was on 49 state ballots — more than any other third-party candidate.
Harry continued, “Apparently, the powers-that-be decided to throw in the towel — sort of. Two days later, the producer called Jim Babka and invited me on the show. But instead of having a half-hour to myself, as Nader and Buchanan have each had during the campaign, and instead of being on with Nader and/or Buchanan, I would be on with Howard Phillips and John Hagelin. This allows Meet the Press to say they’ve given me a platform, while at the same time making the point that I’m in the bottom tier of candidates — making their decision to have Buchanan and Nader on alone seem justified.
“So here I am. Although I’ve done two debates with Hagelin and Phillips this year, this is the first show that’s treated me as one of three lower-level candidates — something that happened regularly in 1996.”
Harry didn’t mention that Hagelin and Phillips, with whom he was forced to share his time, were each polling at 0.1—0.2%, while, again, he was polling 1—2% nationally — at least tied with Buchanan, and 3—5% — in third place behind Bush and Gore, in some individual states. (I’m not arguing against Russert having Hagelin and Phillips as guests; in fact, as presidential candidates who were on enough state ballots to mathematically be able to win the Electoral College, he should have. The point is that Browne clearly had much more support than them, and if he was going to be lumped together with anyone, it should’ve been with Nader and Buchanan.)
What follows is a transcript of Harry’s appearance on Meet the Press on Oct. 22, 2000. While not all of Russert’s questions were hostile or misleading, some of the questions show how misleading he could be, and I’ve included them all for completeness and because Harry was so magnificent. The segment was 19 minutes; as with Ron Paul last year, there were no commercials. I didn’t watch it with a stopwatch, but it seemed like the time was roughly divided equally between the three candidates. If that’s accurate, then Harry got less than seven minutes — about one-third of what Buchanan and Nader got if their segments had commercials and less than one-fourth if theirs didn’t (which is more likely).
RUSSERT: “This is from your party brochure: ‘ . . . widespread gun ownership will make neighborhoods safer.’
‘It’s time to re-legalize drugs and let people take responsibility for themselves.’
“Some Americans watching that will step back and say, ‘Is he really for gun-toting people roaming the streets providing free drugs for everyone?’ “
BROWNE: “Well, we have gun-toting people roaming the streets; they’re called criminals. They have no regard for gun laws whatsoever. They don’t buy their guns in ways that involve background checks, or registration, or licensing, or any of these things. Those gun laws apply only to you, and me, and to other innocent citizens. I want to live in a neighborhood where a criminal has to fear that somebody in the neighborhood owns a gun when he starts deciding which house he’s going to break into.
“As far as the drug laws are concerned, before we had drug laws in America, we didn’t have the widespread drug problems we have today, because the pharmaceutical companies ran the drug business — not criminal gangs in the inner cities. All the Drug War has brought us is widespread drug use, with gangs preying upon children at schools; all the Drug War has brought us is a hundred or two-hundred thousand innocent people in prison who have no business there, making it impossible to keep the murders, rapists and child-molesters in prison, so they get out on early release and plea-bargains.”
RUSSERT (interrupting): “So if anybody wanted heroin, or speed, or marijuana, they could have it?”
BROWNE: “When it was perfectly legal for a child to walk into a store and buy heroin, children didn’t walk into stores and buy heroin, because number one: it wasn’t forbidden fruit; and number two: nobody was preying upon them in schools; they no interest in it whatsoever. Bayer sold heroin in this country as a pain-reliever and sedative. It was perfectly safe. But once it was turned over to criminals, it became a very dangerous drug — just as bathtub gin was a very dangerous drug in the 1920s, when gin was illegal. Prohibition doesn’t work, it has never worked; all it does is tear our country apart, and we have got to end it. If I’m elected president somehow, on my first day in office, I will pardon unconditionally everyone who’s in federal prison on a non-violent drug offense.”
RUSSERT: “The defense budget is about $290 billion a year. How much would you spend?”
BROWNE: “About $50 billion a year could defend this country better than it does now. But we would not have the gigantic national offense. We would not have the ability to annihilate other countries. We would not have the ability to meddle in other countries’ affairs, and we would not be putting your children at risk of fighting and dying in a foreign war, or terrorists attacking your city. We would be the beacon of liberty for the entire world, and not the world’s policeman.”
“We have a $1.8 trillion government. Government at all levels is taking nearly half the national income. It’s meddling in your bank account. It’s monitoring your e-mail. And the question people need to ask is, ‘Do you want smaller government?’ And if you want smaller government, all of these grand proposals to reform our schools, to reform our healthcare system, are not going to work, and you know they’re not going to work. And you know that we’re not going to be able to close the borders, that people are going to get into this country no matter what the government does; the government hasn’t kept drugs out, it hasn’t stamped out poverty — “
RUSSERT (interrupting): "So open up the borders to immigration completely?”
BROWNE: “The borders are open! Why is it so hard for people to understand that anyone who wants to get into this country today gets into this country?”
RUSSERT (interrupting again): “And anyone who is here illegally you would make a citizen?”
BROWNE: “I don’t care whether or not they’re citizens; what I care about is that, if we do have programs to close the borders, once again it will affect you more than it will affect the immigrants. They will make you carry an identity card. You will be stopped by policemen and asked to prove that you are a citizen. Your employer will be sanctioned for inadvertently letting an illegal immigrant go to work in your company. It will not keep the immigrants out, but it will be one more nail in the coffin of freedom in the United States for American citizens.”
“The answer is to shut down the welfare state. Shut down the welfare state, and people will filter themselves out. They will only come here for the land of opportunity. If we leave the welfare state intact but close the borders, then we’re going to have less freedoms in the United States, and we’re still going to have a welfare state, and we’re still going to have big government, and were still going to have government prying into every aspect of our lives, as we do now. The answer is to reduce government. We never solve problems through government. We haven’t solved the education problem. We haven’t solved the healthcare problem. We haven’t solved the drug problem. We haven’t solved the poverty problem. We haven’t solved any of these problems. What makes anybody think that now we’re going to close the borders and we’re going to solve the immigration problem?”
RUSSERT: “Mr. Browne, abortion?"
BROWNE: "I want to abide by the constitution. The federal government has no business legislating on common crimes of any kind; there should be no federal laws against murder, rape, hate crimes, discrimination, any of these things, because law enforcement was meant to be a state and local function. And what we need to do is to get the federal government completely out of this question; it should not subsidize abortions; it should not outlaw abortions; this should be left to the states, and people can gravitate to the states that they find most compatible."
RUSSERT (addressing the wasted vote question): "Mr. Browne, would it make a difference to a libertarian if either George Bush or Al Gore was president?"
BROWNE: "No. You know, I know, everybody watching this show knows that four years from today, whichever of them is elected, government will be bigger, more expensive, more obtrusive, and more oppressive. If you vote Republican or Democrat, you are giving up. You’re saying u2018I’m never going to be free. America will never be a free country again. I will never get smaller government. So I’m just going to vote for the one I think will take me to hell at the slowest-possible rate.’"
It’s perfectly legitimate for Russert to challenge anyone, including Harry, on his views — although, had Harry been on for 30 minutes, Russert would’ve had time to engage in more of a conversation and make sure none of his questions sounded too hostile or one-sided — had Russert wanted to do that.
But to be the great journalist his memorials purport him to be, he would’ve had to similarly play Devil’s Advocate with all of his guests. When does anyone remember Russert ever challenging a statist, establishment politician not on their personal inconsistencies; nor with trivial, contradictory evidence to their views; but with fundamental questions about their support for, and the legitimacy of, things like the Drug War; the income tax (or having a federal government the size it was at the time he was conducting the interview, regardless of how it was funded); Social Security; the military-industrial complex; the pharmaceutical-industrial complex; the Federal Reserve; etc.? To ask the question is to answer it.
The assertions about Russert doing thorough homework on each guest, looking for inconsistencies; and about him not appearing partisan in favor of either Republicans or Democrats, are true to the best of my knowledge. But they’re also not very important; the appearance of two parties is an illusion, and grilling a certain candidate or politician on previous inconsistencies may call into question the integrity or consistency of that particular person, but it doesn’t raise fundamental questions about the system. That allowed Russert to maintain the illusion of being a "tough interviewer" while no more fundamentally challenging the system, which his career was built on perpetuating, than any other journalist.
Harry wrote about his appearance in his campaign journal, "When the show ends, for some reason all four of us remain seated at the table on the set. A waiter brings in orange juice and several selections of food. Russert starts eating and there’s some small talk. I decide to light into Russert, asking him u2018So why didn’t you have me on with Nader and Buchanan — knowing that I had as much support as Buchanan?’
"In the give and take that follows, I get the expected responses from Russert: u2018You’re here now, aren’t you?’ u2018We can’t have five guests on at once.’ (Courtesy restrains me from saying that he knows and I know that Phillips and Hagelin don’t count.) u2018I’m the only Sunday host who’s given any attention to third parties.’ And so on.
"I say he’s overlooking the one authentic man-bites-dog story of this campaign. A celebrity candidate, Pat Buchanan, has received $16 million in taxpayer money and wide press coverage, while a complete unknown who turned down federal money and has about 1/50 the press coverage is running even with him in the polls. Isn’t that news? Russert says it is, and that’s why I’m here. (It isn’t why I’m here; if it were, he would have said something about it on the air.)
"Finally, I ask him why he doesn’t point out publicly that the only reason America seems to be a two-party country is because the two parties in power have maintained that power by using the force of government to impose ballot-access laws, limit campaign donations, raid the government treasury to run their campaigns, and exempt the Debate Commission from campaign and income-tax laws so it can promote the politics of the two main parties. Russert agrees whole-heartedly but doesn’t answer my question as to why he never points this out on the air.
"I tell him that I bear no hard feelings but that I’m baffled as to how Meet the Press makes its decisions regarding what is news."
I’m not: Harry Browne raised fundamental questions about the system. Russert’s job as an establishment gatekeeper was to distract people with trivialities; personal foibles of individual candidates; and the phony right-left, Republican-Democrat paradigm; and to make sure that views like Browne’s never got a mainstream hearing. When, as happened with Ron Paul last year, Harry proved to have enough support to cajole Russert into having him as a guest, Russert’s job then was to give him as little time as possible, make him seem as fringe as possible, and make him and his views seem as nutty and disreputable as possible.
Tim Russert: 1950—2008
Personally, Tim Russert seemed like a genuinely good guy. Numerous anecdotes poured in about how often he would call or send a card to someone he barely knew, just because he heard they were having problems. He undoubtedly did much good in his personal life, and he sounds like the kind of person I would’ve liked to have as a friend. He seemed to care a lot about his family, and especially seemed to watch closely day-to-day over his elderly father, "Big Russ," of whom he wrote and spoke frequently and fondly. My heart aches for his friends, co-workers, and especially his family, who had their loved one snatched from them with no warning, far too young, and without a chance to say goodbye.
But professionally, he was not a "great journalist," because a great journalist searches for the truth and asks fundamental questions about the status-quo. He was successful at rebuilding Meet the Press into the highest-rated Sunday morning news program. He was successful at becoming a celebrity and making a lot of money. In short, he was a successful media animal. But his very tenure at an establishment mouthpiece like Meet the Press is de facto evidence of his real professional legacy, of which this article’s transcript, and the gushing tributes this week from establishment politicians and journalists, are further proof: Tim Russert was a shill for the state and the power elite who control it.
Even so, all condolences to everyone who knew and cared about him, and may his soul rest in peace.
Johnny Kramer [send him mail] holds a BA in journalism from Wichita State University. He is one of the authors of the first-ever biography of Ron Paul, Ron Paul: A Better Way, which will be released in Fall 2008 by Variant Press. For more information on his work, or to hire him as a writer, editor, or to speak at your next event, please visit his website.