Wednesday, June 25, 2008

This, that and the other thing


"Meet the Excess": NBC News Washington bureau chief and "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert died Friday at the too-young age of 58. I knew him only as the master of the chat-show interview—tough, knowledgeable, evenhanded—and a joyful analyst of American politics. What we've all learned since is that there was so much more to Tim Russert than Tim Russert, public man. His life as a father, son, husband and man of faith. His acts of goodness and grace over a lifetime. His kindness to friends and strangers.

Sometimes these things turn the untimely passing of the famous and not-so-famous into a gift of inspiration and hope for the living. Tim Russert's full life was such a gift.

I write this because it's true, and because I want to be clear that what I'm about to write isn't about Tim Russert. It's about the Washington, D.C., media's, and particularly NBC's, unhinged coverage of Russert's death. Really, hasn't it all been a mite overblown? Has the Beltway media lost all sense of proportion? Breaking into regular programming to announce the news, devoting entire news programs and giving hours of special coverage to his life and death—this is narcissism on stilts.

The guy was a TV journalist and a good one, but he covered the story; he wasn't the story, no matter how much celebrity the cameras conferred on him. Would the media gods have unleashed this whirlwind if, say, the treasury secretary died?

True, ours is a celebrity culture and an age of excess. Still, I wonder if the news consumer's balderdash-detector doesn't spur the opposite response when the media goes on one of these benders. Does all the navel-gazing hyperbole end up creating some contempt for the idolater and even the idolized? The real Tim Russert doesn't deserve this.

A tipping point: Gas at $4 a gallon has done what years of fuel-efficiency standards and lifestyle hectoring failed to do: Get us out of our gas guzzlers and into subcompacts and hybrids, or out of our cars entirely. Those who would like Americans to be more European have said we've reached a tipping point, and so we have, perhaps more than they would like. We're now seeing that, while Americans favor greater fossil fuel efficiency, they also want more fossil fuel available to use efficiently. According to the latest Rasmussen Reports poll, 67 percent of voters say that drilling should be allowed off our coasts—85 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of unaffiliated voters.

Back to the '90s: Barack Obama was on ABC's "Nightline" the other night in a nostalgic mood. "What we know," he said "is that, in previous terrorist attacks—for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center, we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated."

That's partly true and wholly irrelevant. Yes, some responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing are in prison. But many escaped prosecution. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was one. The 9/11 architect wasn't nabbed until President Bush decided the law enforcement approach hadn't protected the victims of the second World Trade Center attack.

Andrew McCarthy was lead prosecutor in the first trade center case that Obama deems a model. He's written a new book on the experience: "Willful Blindness." Here's what he wrote Wednesday at National Review Online about the time between the 1993 blast and 9/11. "[W]hile the enemy was growing stronger and attacking more audaciously, we managed to prosecute successfully less than three dozen terrorists (29 to be precise). And with a handful of exceptions, they were the lowest ranking of players."

Treating the perpetrators of these attacks as criminal defendants didn't just result in missed prosecutions and arrests. Prosecutors had to turn over "mounds of intelligence" to the defendants in the proceedings with harmful consequences.

I grew up with a kid who was a hero in the first trade center bombing. He wasn't so lucky on 9/11. Pardon me if I don't long for Obama's pre-9/11 approach, especially since we haven't had another attack since we started treating terrorists as wartime enemies rather than criminal defendants.

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