“When I run for president,” Tim Russert would tell candidates who tried to turn his interviews back on him, “I’ll answer all your questions.”
If Russert was anything, he was skeptical. As the longtime moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, Russert gave viewers the impression that he’d both heard everything before and that this kind of thing — no matter how unique any new movement may have seemed — had already happened. Every event had a historical precedent, and so did every tactic and every lie and every political sidestep. Russert had a long memory, and he knew what questions to ask.
Russert died ten years ago today, on June 13, 2008. A decade on, journalists and moderators are still trying to live up to his legacy for asking the right questions. Whenever I try to think of who is carrying his baton today, with the same rigor and acuity, I’m overwhelmed by the memory of how much we trusted him.
Fans of Meet the Press feel Russert’s absence daily, perhaps never more so than throughout the 2016 election. Russert was a walking fact-checker, with the ability to recall just the right detail to rebut false statements immediately with truthful, well-sourced evidence to the contrary.
So many of us wish Russert could interview Trump today — that he was still alive to ask him serious questions, to surround all of Trump’s responses with truthful context, and to guide so many political discussions that have gone so far off the rails.
Watching their October 24, 1999 interview, I have so many questions of my own. How did Russert take a Trump presidency this seriously in 1999 when, more than one year into his first term, much of the electorate still hasn’t? How is it that, nearly twenty years later, Trump is saying so many of the same things? When did American audiences lose respect for asking any of these questions, let alone for the people who insist on asking them?
If Russert could interview Trump today, would this interview change at all?
RUSSERT: Let me show you what you said about women in your book and give you a chance to respond. This is helpful.
TRUMP: All right.
RUSSERT: “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they’re real killers. I’ve seen women manipulate men with just the twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.”
TRUMP: Well, you know that. I mean, you’re married to an incredible woman. And I’m sure she manipulates you beautifully.
RUSSERT: When women see or hear that on the screen, however, don’t they say, “Donald. Donald Trump. Isn’t that a little bit over the line?”
TRUMP: I think they respect it. I’m saying women may be beyond us, you and I. I mean, they’re smart, they’re cunning.
RUSSERT: “They’re killers.”
TRUMP: They’re killers in many respects.
RUSSERT: That’s what you said.
TRUMP: Absolutely. I’m not saying all, but I’m saying in many respects. And I’ve seen women that are so tough they make us wince.
RUSSERT: Let me move on to some issues. But first —
TRUMP: You haven’t met any of those women?
RUSSERT: When I run for president, I’ll answer all your questions.
RUSSERT: One of your former wives — Marla — had this to say and let me put it on the screen, give you a chance to respond: “If Trump is really serious about being president and runs in the general election next year, I will not be silent. I will feel it is my duty as an American citizen to tell the people what he is really like. But I can’t imagine that they would really elect him, would they? … His drug is attention.”