Russert Watch: 6-8-08

In which the round table chews on the news and misses the beef

Tim Russert’s round table of square minds marked the end of Hillary Clinton’s campaign with a summary parsefest, but the NBC correspondents’ knowing chat was curiously distant from the primary tenor and content of her concession speech.

The money quote Russert selected from Clinton’s Saturday speech was the same money quote that the other networks selected: “Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be, and that is why I will work my heart out to make sure that Senator Obama is our next president.” NBC’s David Gregory called her speech “gracious… graceful,” adding that “she hit all the right notes.”

But with all attention on atmospherics, the heart of Clinton’s speech slid out of view. On Saturday, what Hillary Clinton dwelled on was her—and her party’s—objective of “deep and meaningful equality-from civil rights to labor rights, from women’s rights to gay rights, from ending discrimination to promoting unionization to providing help for the most important job there is: caring for our families.”

The American electorate is frequently heard to say that they don’t know what the parties or candidates stand for—and here was the second-ranked candidate stating most articulately a Democratic worldview: “Being human, we are imperfect. That’s why we need each other. To catch each other when we falter. To encourage each other when we lose heart. Some may lead, others may follow, but none of us can go it alone. The changes we’re working for are changes that we can only accomplish together. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights that belong to each of us as individuals. But our lives, our freedom, our happiness, are best enjoyed, best protected, and best advanced when we do work together.”

Which, of course, did not keep the roundtablers from parsing just the politics. Andrea Mitchell acknowledged that in February, when journalists “were focused on her comeback in New Hampshire, the real story was that, behind the scenes, [Obama’s people] were coming up with this plan for Super Tuesday that the Clintons didn’t have. The Clintons were focused on the big states.” Obama, she said, mastered the fieldwork in small states. “The field operation that Barack Obama put out there was so far better than anything that the Clintons had.” Chuck Todd made the parallel point that “the biggest myth of this campaign was that somehow the Clintons controlled the apparatus. They didn’t.” Even before the campaign began, he pointed out, the Clintons were so far from controlling the Democratic apparatus as to have witnessed the rise of Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi—neither of them cogs in the Clinton machine.

All hands emphasized how Hillary graduated from Tuesday’s non-concession to Saturday’s graciousness, with the pithiest explanation coming from Mitchell. To Russert’s question, “What happened between Tuesday and Saturday?” Mitchell deftly replied: “Charlie Rangel.”

But then it was off to the colorful electoral map, the usual speculation about prospects in red and blue states, the giddy prospect of an electoral college tie, and the sort of gaseous gobbledygook that puts the e back in empty, not least this aper├žu from Ron Allen, who covered the Clinton campaign for NBC News: “The issues are clear, the candidates are clear, and that’s why I think it’s more likely than not that there’ll be a—the electorate will go one way or the other.” Ya think?

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.