Polls in late October showed Sen. Hillary Clinton comfortably leading the Democratic presidential field. For all his talk of “hope” and “change,” Sen. Barack Obama was trailing Hillary by ten points in the most recent Iowa poll, and the “inevitability” argument was still on the side of the front-running former First Lady.
And then Tim Russert asked a simple question.
“Senator Clinton, Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer has proposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” the NBC host said in an Oct. 30 Democratic debate at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. “You told the Nashua, New Hampshire editorial board it makes a lot of sense. Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver’s license?”
Those three sentences — 46 words — arguably transformed the entire campaign. Clinton’s initial answer was evasive, saying that Spitzer’s plan was an attempt to “fill the vacuum” created by the failure of Congress to enact “comprehensive immigration reform.”
Russert then asked the other candidates for a show of hands: “Does anyone here believe an illegal immigrant should not have a driver’s license?” Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd was the only taker, saying that a driver’s license is not a right, but a privilege, and one that should not be extended to people who are not here legally.
Hillary then attempted to clarify her stance: “I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.”
This set off a back-and-forth between Clinton and Dodd, until Russert rephrased his original question: “Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor’s plan to give illegal immigrants a driver’s license?”
Again, Clinton’s answer was, well, Clintonian. She accused Russert of playing “gotcha,” said “George Bush has failed,” and ended with another reference to the immigration reform that had been rejected by the Senate.
THE EPISODE — a little more than three minutes long in the YouTube video clips that were viewed by tens of thousands — was classic Russert.
A direct question, requiring a direct answer, is a nightmare for politicians engaged in the all-too-common game of blurring the distinctions on difficult issues. Pinning down Clinton on the illegal immigration issue, Russert employed a technique he’d mastered in more than 750 hours of Meet the Press broadcasts since 1991.
Russert had the longest tenure as MTP host during the six-decade history of the program. In the six years prior to Russert’s arrival in the job, NBC had tried four different professional TV newsmen — including Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Garrick Utley and Chris Wallace — to fill the host’s chair. None succeeded like the ex-politico from Buffalo, New York.
The show, as befitted its name, had originated as a televised half-hour press conference, with a panel of journalists interrogating a political guest. Under Russert’s tenure, the format was expanded to a full hour, with the host as the sole questioner.
At first, there was no indication of Russert’s future emergence as the undisputed Sunday news-show king. MTP had been eclipsed in the ratings by David Brinkley’s This Week on ABC, and the addition of Russert did not reverse that situation until after Brinkley’s retirement in 1996.
What ultimately made Russert famous — and his show such a ratings success, averaging some 4 million viewers weekly — was his trademark technique of requiring guests to confront their own prior statements on controversial issues
He’d introduce a video clip of something the guest had previously said, roll tape, and ask his interviewees to defend, abjure or explain their remarks.
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