Leading up to his second inaugural this week, President Bush has embarked on an aggressive public relations campaign, granting interviews to media outlets ranging from the Washington Times to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Yesterday David Gregory, NBC’s chief White House correspondent, got a crack at the man who calls him “Stretch.”

Gregory began with a question on the upcoming election in Iraq, moving on to pre-emptive wars in the future, Iran, and gay marriage before getting to Social Security.

Gregory set up the question, “Let me ask you about Social Security. You said this past week, speaking to younger workers, that they have to imagine a system that is ‘flat bust,’ your words.”

As CJR Daily pointed out last week with the help of CBS MarketWatch’s Rex Nutting, “The Social Security system cannot go ‘bankrupt,’ for it has no creditors. By law, the trustees will continue to pay reduced benefits even if the trust fund is exhausted. Payroll taxes will continue to come in and benefits will continue to be paid.” So when Gregory introduced the question by quoting a Bush talking point that is not factually accurate, CJR Daily expected Gregory to follow with a challenge.

Silly us.

“Democrats call that a scare tactic,” is all that Gregory could muster up in front of the president.

As expected, Bush took the puffball from Gregory and used it to emphasize his position that Social Security should be fixed right now and that private accounts are part of the answer.

Now, it’s doubtful that Bush would have directly answered Gregory even if he had asked a tough question. But at least Gregory would have asked. And at least NBC viewers would know that the president’s rhetoric does not match reality.

Instead, Gregory took the easy way out, hiding behind “Democrats.” The result was an NBC interview that was more a sounding board for the administration’s talking points than a critical look at its message.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.