Those who would be president must first run the gantlet that is Tim Russert's Meet the Press, the highest-rated Sunday morning political show. Already, candidates Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards, Sharpton, Gephardt, Graham, Clark, Moseley Braun, Kucinich, and Dean (twice) have appeared on the show, with Russert humbling practically all. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz writes this week that Dean's allegedly poor performance on the June 22 Meet the Press has elicited a barrage of what Kurtz calls "negative commentary" from the media, which had previously cuddled up with the candidate.
Russert frustrates the candidates by knowing their positions on issues better than they do—where they've stumbled, where they've flip-flopped, and where they're most likely to embarrass themselves under the kliegs. Plotting his interviews out like chess matches, he deploys aggressive openings, subtle feints, artfully constructed traps, and lightning offenses to crack the politicians' phony veneer and reveal the genuine veneer beneath. But a study of Meet the Press transcripts reveals that Russert relies too heavily on a formula. He can be beat.
One-time grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and permanent white-supremacist nut job David Duke beat Russert badly in March 1999, when he appeared on Meet the Press during his Louisiana campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives. Unable to stick it to Duke with his time-proven techniques, Russert sputtered, steamed, and almost boiled over.
Here's how to break the Russert code in five easy lessons.
1)Prepare for a Hostile Interrogation
Tim Russert is heavily invested in the friendly Irishman persona, all smiles and sincere, direct questions. But he is not your friend: He wishes your destruction on his show. But don't play defense on Meet the Press—it will only make you look defensive. Stay cool and poised, as David Duke did, and play offense by pushing Russert's toughest questions back at him.
Russert quoted heavily from Duke's scurrilous writings on Jews, blacks, and Martin Luther King Jr., but because Duke knows his own work by heart and has been attacked repeatedly on this score, he found it easy to dismiss King as a Marxist and Kwanzaa as a "pagan religious ceremony" without losing a point to his questioner. By neglecting the element of surprise, Russert lost the match.
Russert loves numbers. Be prepared for budget arithmetic and bone up on the numbers of troops deployed, money spent here and there, and other quantifiables—or, be ready, as Howard Dean was, to dismiss the question when Russert asks you the size of U.S. armed forces and you don't know offhand. Reject his questions as silly "pop quizzes," which is what they are. Bring to the interview numbers that he doesn't know. They'll make you look smart and throw him off your scent.
Think of Russert as a sniper whom you're trying to flush out into the open. If you make Russert justify his questions, do it good-naturedly. It pisses him off and destabilizes him. When Russert inventoried Al Sharpton's sordid background on the air in January, Sharpton flummoxed him with this moxie: "I think you've got white candidates with worse backgrounds. …" It's a ridiculous defense, but it worked. Likewise, Carol Moseley Braun's brazen deny-deny-deny defense about her past worked on her June 8 appearance.
2)Anticipate Russert's Research