Originally published: April 10, 2008
By Ed Stannard
Register Metro Editor
NEW HAVEN -- Tim Russert uses his television stage on Sunday mornings to give newsmakers an opportunity to give honest answers to tough questions.
That's how the "Meet the Press" and presidential debate moderator described his role when he addressed a sold-out audience at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts at Southern Connecticut State University Wednesday evening. Journalism is important to give Americans the information they need to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems like the Iraq war, Social Security and global warming, he said.
Russert gave his audience a primer on how America went from a Supreme Court-decided presidential election in 2000, to the 2001 terrorist attacks, to war in Iraq and to what voters face now: "A big election about big issues between big candidates. … The differences are going to be very clear."
"We're not going to wave a wand and fix Iraq or fix Social Security." Tim Russert Political analystRussert said he's optimistic that Americans can come up with solutions to the challenges facing them, but he said the presidential candidates need to trust the voters to listen to solutions to complex problems, to put aside partisanship and to find "common ground."
"This is not easy," he said of the challenges facing the nation. "It's difficult and complicated. We're not going to wave a wand and fix Iraq or fix Social Security." An open discussion would require the candidates to be willing to discuss their positions in depth.
But an hour-long conversation with Russert is not necessarily what they're looking for. In fact, when he invited each candidate on to "Meet the Press," two of them, both now ex-candidates, put him off. "I finally had to say, 'Gentlemen, you leave me no choice. I'm going to have a virtual interview.'"
Russert said he would tell his audience, "If he was here, this is what I would have asked him." The campaign staffs didn't believe he would do it, he said. "Oh yes I will," was Russert's response.
"I want viewers to be able to say. 'OK, there's a level of consistency there, there's a level of intellectual thought I can follow,' or is this person being expedient, (saying) I want to tack left or I want to tack right."
Russert warned that with the baby boom generation set to retire, tough choices will have to be made. "If we do nothing about Social Security and Medicare and the defense budget continues where it is. … You can eliminate all of the rest of government, all of it … and you'll still have a deficit."
Asked whether the news media spends too much time on which candidate is ahead in the campaign and not enough on such issues, Russert said both are important. "I don't think you can do one to the exclusion of the other."
He said the closeness of this year's Democratic nomination campaign has people more interested than usual in the delegate count. "I think one of the reasons people in this country are interested in this race is because it is so close and exciting."
Democracy requires an informed electorate as well as an informed government, Russert said. He pointed out how faulty intelligence about Iraq before the 2003 invasion led to the war, which two-thirds of Congress approved and which 80 percent of the public supported.
Russert said he read the recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate, which was given to Congress in 2002.
Most of them didn't read it," he said. "It's filled with caveats" about how big a threat Saddam Hussein was.
In November, he said, voters will be given a clear choice on how to proceed in Iraq, since the Democrats and McCain have sharply differing views. "It is important that all of us then take advantage of this opportunity," he said.
Ed Stannard can be reached at email@example.com or 789-5743.
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