Instead of dissipating, the cult of Tim Russert has only swollen in the six months since his death. One measure of the cult's staying power has been the media's incessant speculation on who would replace him as host of Meet the Press. Would it be NBC News' political director, Chuck Todd? An "ensemble of hosts" led by Todd and correspondent/MSNBC anchor David Gregory? NBC had approached Gwen Ifill about the job, the network was said to pine for the return of Katie Couric, and even Ted Koppel was being considered as a long shot. And though nobody asked him, USA Today founding editor Al Neuharth nominated Bob Costas for the slot.
The media fuss wasn't so much about the importance of who was good enough to sit in Russert's chair but—like the over-coverage of Russert's death, funeral, and memorial service—another demonstration of the Washington press corps's extraordinary high regard for itself. All the conjecture reinforced the notion that the people who ask politicians questions are so very, very important. But Meet the Press draws an average of only 3.7 million viewers, making it a TV flyspeck compared with ABC's Dancing With the Stars, which recently drew an audience of 21 million.
Having finally settled on David Gregory this week as the new moderator, NBC News brings much-needed relief to a harassed nation of news consumers. Yet the cult lives on in the utterances of Gregory, who genuflected toward his predecessor, telling the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that "[s]ucceeding Tim Russert is humbling" and the Los Angeles Times how "daunting and humbling" the new assignment is.
Note to Gregory: It's only a gig. Please get on with it.
Gregory seems to be a fine choice as moderator: Although a pathetic dancer, he has a reputation for being a tough, fair reporter. If you have a reputation for being tough, it makes it a lot easier to be tough, which I reckon he will exploit on Meet the Press.
But what kind of tough? The most difficult aspect of a Sunday-morning show is source maintenance. Until Sunday show moderators obtain subpoena power, they've got to keep politicians feeling good about themselves or else they won't come on. Russert was a master of source maintenance, which made his show a destination for politicians. For all his legendary hardness as an interviewer, most of Russert's pitches were hittable. For example, throwing up on a screen those trademark graphics that proved that his interview subject had flip-flopped was completely overrated. A politician had contradicted himself? Is a hypocrite? Double wow. As Tom Carson wrote for Esquirein 2004, "Russert rarely shows much interest in which position is wrong." This shtick was completely beatable.
Gregory comes to his post at an opportune moment. After an engaging presidential campaign, the whole nation remains fired up about politics. An activist Congress stands ready to change all the rules, and the economy has gone MIA. All we need is a new war some place in the world and the table would be completely set.
Gregory won't shake up the show right away. He'll both avoid impersonating St. Russert, lest anyone make unfavorable comparisons, and lull the loyal Meet the Press audience back into its comfort zone. After getting them there, he should begin remaking the show. First step:
Get rid of the Russert regulars. Who hasn't heard enough from James Carville and Mary Matalin by now? Hasn't plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin run out of gas? Doesn't William Safire phone it in? Can't NBC do the right thing and give Andrea Mitchell her own show? And why does the mere sight of David Broder, Bob Shrum, E.J. Dionne, or Peggy Noonan on television make me want to kill myself?
Blacklisting these usual guests from the Meet the Press round table and recruiting a younger band of participants would mark the passing of an era and acknowledge the arrival of a young president. It's not even a very radical step. Russert was known to experiment with formula, adding Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh to the mix. So it's not too much to ask some new voices to suit up for play. The office politics of such a move will be tricky. Betsy Fischer, Russert's executive producer, is Gregory's executive producer. It would be a pity if she insisted on turning the show into a permanent memorial service for her old boss.
For starters, I'd have the Gregorized Meet the Press Rolodex add Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times,who had a great run covering the Obama campaign. Nobody knows more about the next president and is more resistant to his charms than Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times. Helene Cooper, who just moved over to the New York Times' White House beat, is a fine reporter. As resident progressive egghead, sign up Thomas Frank, who now writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal. Add George Mason University economic professor Tyler Cowen, a regular New YorkTimes contributor, as counterweight. Also allow me to put in a good word for two of my Washington Post Co. colleagues: Washington Post editorial writer and columnist Ruth A. Marcus files consistently excellent op-eds these days, and Terence Samuel, deputy editor of The Root, who also writes for the American Prospect. Samuel commands an original, wicked mind.Next step:
Invent a great gimmick. Russert had a dozen gimmicks. He had the flip-flop graphic. He had Buffalo. The Bills. His blue collar. The whiteboard. His dad. Gregory needs a similar signature, and I've got just the thing. Good politicians are evasion artists, able to field a difficult question without answering it and making it sound as though they did. When confronted with such maneuvers, Gregory could pursue his prey with three follow-up questions. If the politician didn't answer satisfactorily, Gregory could give his best grin and say, "Senator, that's three and you're out" and move on to the next question. If deployed artfully, "That's three and you're out" could become the most feared phrase in political reporting and just maybe it could get politicians to respond truthfully. After that:
Add a reported segment. Every Sunday talk show tries to generate news for the Monday newspapers by prodding a politician to say something interesting. The politicians know this, so the smarter ones know well enough to drop a bomb or bomblet and frag for the moderator. Instead of relying on guests for news, a Sunday show could break the mold by filing a reported story that makes news. (The lack of reported news stories on the Sunday show is one of economics. Reported stories are about 10 times more expensive to produce than studio chatter.) Lacking the budget or gumption to break news, Gregory's show could at least broadcast a reported segment that put into context the top story that everybody was about to discuss. It's not a revolutionary idea: Jack Smith used to file Sunday stories for This Week With David Brinkley. Finally:
Get out of the office and stay out of the office. As Washington bureau chief for NBC News, Russert could sponge up details and tips from his reporters. I'd have Gregory, who isn't bureau chief (and shouldn't be), walk the political beat all week in preparation for his show and not let his Today assignments get in the way of his real work. If he runs the show more like a reporter and less like a Washington institution, he'll already have a leg up on Russert.
Perhaps I overdosed on the political talk shows when watching them was part of my job description. Send diagnoses to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)