TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks Mull Campaigns, Reflect on Russert’s Life

June 13, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks weigh campaign news as the race between Barack Obama and John McCain gains steam, and they reflect on the career of NBC's Tim Russert, who died Friday from an apparent heart attack.

RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, is this the week that the presidential campaign really started to take shape, we can see the outlines of it and the plans of attack?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think so, Ray. I think that, you know, we found out this week — most candidates revealed their tax plans — that we have a Democrat running against a Republican.

I mean, John McCain’s tax plan — John’s a maverick, and I acknowledge his maverick inclinations and record — but this was about as solidly supply-side economics as you’re going to get anywhere and as faithful to the orthodoxy of Republicans when it comes to raising taxes, which is not the third rail. It’s the Eleventh through the First Commandments of the Republicans.

But Barack Obama actually is going to raise taxes on one of his most dedicated, loyal and swooning constituency: upper-scale, higher-educated, well-off people.

And, you know, it’s kind of refreshing to hear somebody say, “Base taxes on ability to pay.” It’s sort of an old and established and, I think, valued tradition.

But I guess what was missing in the whole debate was somebody to come up and do what was done 22 years ago, and say, “Hey, this system is rigged. I mean, we’re just going to change it and tweak it here. Let’s take the whole thing on frontally and overhaul it,” like they did 22 years ago, with Ronald Reagan, and Bob Packwood, and Danny Rostenkowski.

RAY SUAREZ: Over a long campaign, are we likely to see at least some chipping away, some more of what Mark wants to see?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, they’ve talked about — McCain has talked about adopting the commission approach. And he’s got an actually reasonably specific plan to totally gut the tax code, but that’s certainly not what has come out.

As Mark said, it’s a pretty conventional race. You know, these guys are both, in theory, unusual candidates. And the Economist magazine, which is a very smart magazine, said they’re the best America has to offer.

But as Mark said, it’s a pretty traditional, conventional race. On tax policy, McCain is for dropping the capital — the top corporate tax rate to attract more business. Obama is more for redistribution, taxing the wealthy.

Even on the way the campaign is being run, there was some talk earlier, a couple weeks ago, that they would have these town meetings. McCain offered to have a bunch of town meetings.

They’ve now gotten in a fight. Obama doesn’t want to do that, maybe two or three. McCain is rejecting that offer. It’s now looking extremely unlikely that we’ll get anything unusual in the way the campaign is being run.

So I’d say we’re seeing a pretty traditional Republican-versus-Democratic race. Probably, on balance, bad news for the Republicans.

Obama rolls out anti-smear campaign

David Brooks
New York Times
I happen to think most of the stuff that's floating around out there is stuff that comes out of the fringe. There's weird stuff that shows up in every election campaign.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing Barack Obama's campaign did do this week was roll out a new Web site meant to set the record straight, they say, and answer some of the criticisms that are being whispered around the country about he and his wife.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, there are those criticisms. I still, frankly, think it's a fringe phenomenon. If you go to the Web site, there are some people who say Barack Obama refuses to take the Pledge of Allegiance, and then they show him showing, he does, in fact, take the Pledge of Allegiance.

I happen to think most of the stuff that's floating around out there is stuff that comes out of the fringe. There's weird stuff that shows up in every election campaign. I, frankly, don't think this is a core part of the campaign.

RAY SUAREZ: But can you still dismiss it as fringy when, for instance, Rush Limbaugh's 5-million-plus viewers on hundreds of radio stations hear it again and again on daily shows...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are some things -- you know, there's the Muslim thing, which some people have said, though I don't think Rush Limbaugh has said that. There's the lapel pin thing, but when you actually look at a lot of those, the things that are on that site, I didn't think they're too many things people are going to fall for.

MARK SHIELDS: I do disagree. I think that, in this case, Ray, there's an emerging Republican strategy, which is to get to Barack Obama through Michelle Obama, to identify her as the angry, more militantly black part of it. Already we get her being identified in National Review as "Mrs. Grievance" in a photo.

And you're right. I mean, we have on Fox the statement, on Fox television, "Obama mama," which is intended -- in the African-American community -- is someone who's born, a child outside of wedlock...

RAY SUAREZ: You mean "Obama's baby mama"?

MARK SHIELDS: His baby mama, excuse me. And then the idea that one of the few spontaneous moments of the entire campaign, in my judgment, where they did, in fact, kind of touch fists the night he won, that it was a terrorist activity, and that was raised on Fox.

I think it is in their interest to address these. I mean, when you -- and, David, I know had the same experience -- you run into voters who, during the primary, were upset about Reverend Wright and his utterances and the fact that he'd been in the church for 20 years, and then, a paragraph later, will tell you, "Well, it isn't that, as much as he's a Muslim."

So there was almost a contradictory libel going on about him, or misinformation. And I think it's an acknowledgment that the Internet, the Web has become so central.

He would not have emerged without it. It was not simply money. It was enthusiasm; it was organizing; it was an advantage he had over both John McCain and Hillary Clinton. And it reaches into the water coolers all over the country. And I think that's...

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, there are sort of two issues. One is the issue -- you know, some of the charges that have been made, which I agree are completely bogus, some people said she used the word "whitey" in a phrase, which she did not do.


DAVID BROOKS: But then the trickier issue, I think, is how you address Michelle Obama, because her speeches are quite partisan. She does give political speeches.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, she's campaigning for her husband.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, she's campaigning for her husband. So can you now, in today's world, where you have these strong spouses giving tough speeches, can you come back at that person? I think it's perfectly fair.

She's an adult. She's giving adult speeches, substantive, political speeches. I think it's completely fair to come back at her on that stuff. It's obviously not on the stuff that's made up.

Impossible to govern sans insiders

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[I]n this current environment, where obviously John McCain's own campaign lobbyists have been identified, scrutinized, analyzed, and paralyzed, in many cases, it was only understandable that Obama was going to get the same treatment.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, this week, one of the triumvirate named to find a vice presidential running mate for Barack Obama left the campaign. Mr. Johnson had some loans that started to get some attention from Countrywide, one of the more notorious lenders in this whole mortgage meltdown. He was gone, like that. But what does this show about the campaign?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it shows a lot about the year. I mean, I've known Jim Johnson for 37 years, so, I mean, I want to say that right upfront.

And I think the idea that, four years ago, he could play the identical role for John Kerry and his background, the vetting of the vetter never became an issue.

But in this current environment, where obviously John McCain's own campaign lobbyists have been identified, scrutinized, analyzed, and paralyzed, in many cases, it was only understandable that Obama was going to get the same treatment.

And I think that we've had -- but for the subprime mortgage crisis and the emergence of Countrywide, we probably never would have known about this. But the vetters better be vetted or better vet themselves if they're going to get out there in public, because they're going to get this kind of scrutiny in 2008.

The irony is this: Jim Johnson's job was not to pick a running mate, or whoever has that job that he now has abandoned, or given up. It's based on his knowledge, his information, his contacts, which is invaluable, to know if, in fact, somebody the candidate is seriously looking at has a problem that, if it was 20 years ago, that is going to emerge in the campaign.

That's what the vetter does. The vetter really does woodshed prospective candidates and find out, presumably in advance, before the embarrassing moment when that candidate, nominee has to leave the ticket.

And if you don't go to Washington insiders for their help in that, you're really somewhat at the mercy of events.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, what did you make -- David, what did you make of that transition this week?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I thought it was -- what James Johnson did is indefensible. The loan was indefensible. He had to go. Nonetheless, the hostility toward all lobbyists, that all lobbyists are evil is out of control.

Barack Obama, if he's elected, his major problem will be getting the stuff he wants to do enacted. To do that, you need lobbyists. You need insiders. You need people who actually know how to put together a complicated piece of legislation, get you 60 votes in the Senate.

There's a limited universe of people who know how to do that. Some of them are lobbyists, and some lobbyists are pretty decent people. Some are not-so-decent people.

The job of the president is to pick out the people that you need to get that certain kind of job done. If you ban lobbyists from your administration, your campaign, if you ban lobbyists from your administration, you're just not going to have an effective administration.

RAY SUAREZ: But there was an interesting sort of subtext to all of this floating around this week, that if you pick people who are long-time hands, so-called Washington insiders, if you shake them hard enough by the ankles, eventually something sordid drops out, that, oh, well, this just comes with the territory, you've got to accept a certain amount of that.

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think that's entirely true. I think there must be two honest lobbyists out there.

But I do think, you know, the skills that a Lyndon Johnson had, that a Richard Darman had, those are rare skills. They're especially rare today. And if Tom Daschle can't serve in an administration because his wife was a lobbyist, then something is out of control.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, don't go away, gentlemen. We're going to take some time out now to remember a major political player here in Washington, journalist Tim Russert.

Tim Russert dead of heart attack

David Brooks
New York Times
When you hung around [Russert] on the campaign trail or went in to do his show in the green room or brunch afterwards, he was just a happy guy. He loved politics; he loved sports; he loved hanging around.

TOM BROKAW, Former Host, "NBC Nightly News": It is my sad duty to report this afternoon that my friend and colleague, Tim Russert, the moderator "Meet the Press" and NBC's Washington bureau chief, collapsed and died early this afternoon.

RAY SUAREZ: With that, the former "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw announced this afternoon that Tim Russert had died.

TOM BROKAW: This was one of the most important years in Tim's life for so many reasons. He loved this political campaign. He worked to the point of exhaustion so many weeks, not just on "Meet the Press," but on MSNBC.

RAY SUAREZ: Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press" since 1991 and the network's Washington bureau chief, collapsed and died at work today after suffering an apparent heart attack.

Russert lived and breathed politics. He was recently named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world.

Yet another list recently, that of Television Week magazine, called him the fourth most powerful person in television news. And Washingtonian magazine dubbed Russert "the best journalist in town."

TIM RUSSERT, Host, NBC's "Meet the Press": Good evening, and welcome.

RAY SUAREZ: He hosted five debates in this presidential primary season alone.

TIM RUSSERT: And my thanks to the NBC News political dream team...

RAY SUAREZ: As well as hosting his signature "Meet the Press" show Sunday mornings. He was the program's longest-running host, having moderated for 17 years. He was just the ninth permanent host of the longest-running program in network television.

He's been a familiar face to viewers in critical times, such as the cliffhanging count of the 2000 election in Florida.

TOM BROKAW: Five hundred and sixty-five votes.

TIM RUSSERT: And there are some votes...

TOM BROKAW: That's not even a wide spot in the road.

TIM RUSSERT: There are still some votes that have not been counted.

RAY SUAREZ: Despite all the national acclaim, Russert defined himself as a boy from Buffalo, who just last week was in his hometown, moving his aged father to an assisted living facility.

In fact, Russert wrote two best-selling books, "Big Russ and Me," about his father, in time for Father's Day 2004; and "Wisdom of our Fathers" in 2006.

"NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams spoke this afternoon of his colleague and another influence Russert had over Washington.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, Host, "NBC Nightly News": In the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, as you come down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House, is the new and glorious Newseum. On the facade of this magnificent five-, six-story-high building are etched the words of the First Amendment. That was Tim's idea, and it will go on as perhaps his most lasting physical monument in Washington.

RAY SUAREZ: He was the husband of Maureen Orth, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. Their son, Luke, is a recent college graduate who's begun a career in radio sports broadcasting.

Russert didn't make much time for introspection about his role in national journalism, but he did talk with the NewsHour's Terence Smith in 2003 about how he saw his work.

TIM RUSSERT: I read everything that is written or said by my guests. And so rather than allow them to come on, which is why many times politicians prefer formats of three or four or five minutes, where they can come on with their prefab answer, pre-packaged answer, spin, if you will.

However, if you sit down at "Meet the Press," and I'll say, "Senator, or Mr. Secretary, you have said," and you take away the spin, and by asking the next question, or you say, "Well, that's an interesting point, but let me show you what you said last year."

RAY SUAREZ: In complex times, Russert said his goal was simple.

TIM RUSSERT: My job is to elicit information from the guest, what he or she thinks. That's what's important.

RAY SUAREZ: Tim Russert was 58.

Russert widely admired in his field

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[T]he most positive thing you could say about somebody who came from the neighborhoods Tim came from, Ray, and who walked with princes and presidents and prime ministers was he never forgot where he came from.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Shields and David Brooks are still here with me.

Mark, you knew Tim Russert for a long time.

MARK SHIELDS: A long time. And Tim, as anyone who knew him, was around him for longer than five minutes, was from Buffalo, and he -- working-class, middle-America Buffalo.

And the most positive thing you could say about somebody who came from the neighborhoods Tim came from, Ray, and who walked with princes and presidents and prime ministers was he never forgot where he came from.

And he used to kid that the neighborhood he was born, you were born a Democrat and baptized a Catholic.

And he never showed the tilt of partisanship. Once he went in journalism, his fairness, his preparation were unmatched, I think, by anybody. He was a remarkable person who was true to his faith, true to his family, and true to his, I think, serving his country.


DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I guess the sense of immense sadness that fell over a lot of us who knew him was just strong. I mean, it's just amazing to think that this great election, this great story, he won't be here to know how it all turns out, and that's kind of amazing.

And I'd just add to what Mark said, the happiness of the man. When you hung around him on the campaign trail or went in to do his show in the green room or brunch afterwards, he was just a happy guy. He loved politics; he loved sports; he loved hanging around.

He'd sort of last-name me, "Hey, Brooks, come over here," sort of that thing. He was just great fun to be around. And, as Mark said, a small-d democrat, never put on airs, never lost touch with who he really was. And so I think that's why the sadness is really very profound around here.

RAY SUAREZ: And had a big influence. If you did badly on his show, that was a hit below the water line, wasn't it?

DAVID BROOKS: His show was the giant. And he could get away with the tough questioning that he did because of his own personal geniality. People still liked him, even though he was really tough.

MARK SHIELDS: He was absolutely -- as he said in that interview with Terry Smith, I mean, he -- the preparation was complete on his part. And, boy, you went on there at your risk, if you were going to go on and try and skate.

As Ross Perot learned in 1992, having really mastered the campaign, been a major force, and he went on to Tim's, and he really never recovered from "Meet the Press," when Tim asked him to come out with the specifics from his generalities.

I mean, but that was only one example, Ray. It was just absolutely exceptional journalism he practiced.

And I agree with David. He loved politics. That was contagious, and that was good for politics, that it came through. Tim never sniffed, looked down his noise at them, or pretended that somehow they were morally inferior to him, or to other citizens. He cared deeply about the process.

RAY SUAREZ: So did his guests have to work hard, too, bring their A game?

DAVID BROOKS: They came nervous, and it went on and on. And he would have the questions, the quotations. "You said this in 1967, which is exactly the opposite of what you're saying now," and you would watch them squirm. And that was how he shed light on politics.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, David, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: You can watch an excerpt of our 2003 interview with Tim Russert on our Web site at