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Russert and the Jewish questions

What to say about Tim Russert that hasn’t already been said? Not much.

But two separate Jewish-cringe-inducing moments come to mind that help explain why so many people loved (and some hated) his aggressive interviewing style.

Most recently there was the much-discussed Louis Farrakhan question during the February 26 debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Many liberal bloggers and Obama believers cried foul, saying that Russert had crossed the line, even for him. Of course, plenty of Clinton backers and Jewish conservatives thought it was a perfectly fine line of questioning.

As the post-debate debate raged, my memory flashed back to a February 2003 episode of “Meet the Press,” when Richard Perle was the one sitting in Russert’s hot seat, as the Bush administration prepared for war. This time, though, the NBC bulldog was pressing from the opposite political advantage point.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

The key moment on “Meet the Press” came when host Tim Russert read from a February 14 column by the editor at large of the Washington Times, Arnaud de Borchgrave, who argued that the “strategic objective” of senior Bush administration officials was to secure Israel’s borders by launching a crusade to democratize the Arab world. Next, Russert turned to one of his guests, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a key advisory panel to the Pentagon.

“Can you assure American viewers across our country that we’re in this situation against Saddam Hussein and his removal for American security interests?” Russert asked.

“And what would be the link in terms of Israel?”

It was a startling question, especially when directed at Perle, the poster boy – along with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith – for antisemitic critics who insist the United States is being pulled into war by pro-Likud Jewish advisers on orders from Jerusalem. But Russert is no David Duke, nor even a Patrick Buchanan. He is generally regarded as a balanced, first-rate journalist in sync with the zeitgeist of Washington’s media and political elite. If Russert is asking the question on national television, then the toothpaste is out of the tube: The question has entered the discourse in elite Washington circles and is now a legitimate query to be floated in polite company.

Russert asked tough questions. And, yes, once in a while one of them may have been off the mark or inappropriate in someway. But he asked what was on people’s minds – and it didn’t matter which side of the plate his guest swung from, whether it was a Richard Perle or a Barack Obama. One week that could mean giving voice to the world view of Mearsheimer & Walt loyalists, another channeling the anxieties of Commentary readers.

Click here and Jump ahead to 6:18 to hear Russert make the point in his own words (and the words of the show’s founder, Lawrence Spivak).

Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

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