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An Interview of Tim Russert

Aired December 21, 2002 - 09:29   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, "THE NOVAK ZONE": Welcome to "The Novak Zone."
I'm Robert Novak at NBC's Washington headquarters, talking to Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC and host of "Meet the Press."

Tim, you have the hottest Sunday talk show, highest in ratings, gets most attention. What's the secret? How do you do it?

TIM RUSSERT, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, NBC: I took over 10 years ago, Bob, and went to see Lawrence Spivak, the founder, a man you know well. And I said, Larry, what's the secret of "Meet the Press"? What's the mission? And he said, Learn as much as you can about your guests, and his and her position on the issues, and take the other side. And if you do that on one Sunday with the Democrats, the next Sunday with the Republicans, the next Sunday with the independents, people are going to say you're fair, you're objective, you're persistent, but you're civil.

NOVAK: Tim, you were a hot young Democratic operative, great future. Was that a tough decision, to leave the party? I think you changed your party registration to independent. And was that a -- did you do a lot of soul-searching (UNINTELLIGIBLE) before you did that?

RUSSERT: I was amazed how easy it was. Twenty years ago I joined NBC, was an executive behind the scenes for several years. I believe my training in government politics has made me a better journalist, a better reporter, because I understand both sides of the issues. I know players on both sides of the aisle. I have no problem asking tough questions of Democrats or Republicans because of -- I'm confident and comfortable with what I know about particular issues and about the games politicians play.

NOVAK: Tim, "Meet the Press," if you look back at the old kinescopes, which I know you've done, you find four guys sitting on a sofa, you know, and for most of the years of "Meet the Press," over 55 years, it was mostly members of the print media asking questions. Marvin Kalb, one of your predecessors as moderator, says it's not -- should be called "Meet the Russert" rather than "Meet the Press."

Was that a tough decision to decide to become a sole questioner? It's obviously a better show now, but was that a difficult decision for you to make?

RUSSERT: When "Meet the Press" was the only television program in the public affairs arena, I think the format really didn't matter much. But now the politicians are so trained, so sophisticated and skilled at spinning and avoiding answering, that if you have four or five people asking one question, you have no time for follow-ups. And what I have found in "Meet the Press" recent history is that it takes the third, fourth, fifth time trying to pull the truth out of a politician.

And so it was the events of the world and the political circumstances and their training in spin control that mandated our change.

NOVAK: You know, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, potential Democratic candidate, was riding high, he was going on all the programs and doing well. And he came on your program and he fell on his face. Now, I don't think he had bad hair day when he came to "Meet the Press." What is the hurdle that you could give that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) have a attractive politician like John Edwards collapse?

RUSSERT: Politicians get in a frame of mind where they can give their stump speech on "Meet the Press." We will preserve Social Security, we will have a strong defense, and we'll cut taxes and we'll balance the budget. And we'll say, OK, fine, now, let's go through those carefully. What taxes are you going to cut? Which programs are you going to expand? What are you going to do, specific -- Wait a minute, senator, you're objecting to the Bush tax cut, what specifically? How would you change it? What would you do?

And when you get -- you peel off the veneer and you force people to focus their attention. I am told by anyone who's ever worked at the White House that the best way to get a decision made is have a presidential news conference, because the president must make a decision on how he's going to answer a question. So too with a candidate. You cannot come on "Meet the Press" and give your stump speech. You have to articulate and defend your views.

NOVAK: You press all of the people you interview on this question of cutting taxes, how are you going to -- where are you going to find the money to cut taxes. The Media Research Center, which is a right-wing conservative organization, often puts your questions as an example of left-wing bias. Are you campaigning for a tax increase when you ask these questions?

RUSSERT: No. What I'm trying to do is test the information, knowledge, of the candidate. If they don't want to cut taxes, why? If they do want to cut taxes, why? I also think it's imperative that I ask questions on the spending side. How are you going to sustain programs like Medicare and Social Security, prescription drugs? I've often asked Democrats, and I said to them, Well, wait a minute, now, if you're going to accuse the Republicans of cuts in Medicare when they're trying to limit the growth, then why shouldn't a repeal of the tax cut be considered a tax increase?

They have a hard time with that question. And I believe that when I approach things in that way, people say, Ah, Democrat or Republican, he comes at it equally from both sides.

NOVAK: Tim, you can get just about everybody on your program. You often get them before anybody. Is there somebody you can't get on your program?


NOVAK: Who is it?

RUSSERT: The pope.

NOVAK: Pope?

RUSSERT: I've tried. And I actually have a letter agreeing to come on "Meet the Press," but it never happened, and I wish it would have, because it was in the middle of the collapse of the evil empire. I believe he played a fundamental role because of his stature as a Pole and leader of the Catholic Church. I would love to ask him what he thinks now about what's going on in the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world. It's an opportunity I wish I would have, and I probably never will.

NOVAK: And now the big question for Tim Russert of "Meet the Press."

We're about to enter a phase of intense Democratic competition for the presidential nomination. I'm not asking you to endorse anybody or even predict anybody. Just tell me, of all these wannabes on the Democratic side, who so far is the most effective in the "Meet the Press" format?

RUSSERT: Well, John Kerry came on "Meet the Press" and announced he was filing his exploratory committee and answered some very tough questions. All the other candidates, I believe, will be coming on within the next month or two, so I'll have an opportunity to compare and contrast.

You know, the one thing we know about is that whoever has raised the most money by January 1 of the presidential election year, since 1972, the candidate of either party has been the nominee.

NOVAK: So does it -- it makes -- it's more important how much money they raise rather than how good they are.

RUSSERT: But how they raise money is important, and how do they do that? They have to create an impression, a buzz about themselves, and the way to do that is master the issues, articulate their positions. Noplace better to do that than on "Meet the Press" and "THE CAPITAL GANG."

NOVAK: Thanks for the compliment.

Tim Russert, thanks very much.

RUSSERT: Merry Christmas.

NOVAK: Merry Christmas to you.

And thanks for all of you for being with us again in "The Novak Zone." TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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