Who Gets What

Maybe it isn’t just self-promotion driving the “Today Show’s” heroic house-building efforts. Maybe NBC honchos heard ratings-savvy voices telling them, “If you build it, he will come.”

Well, this morning he came, and he brought his wife with him. President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush submitted to an “exclusive” interview with “Today” anchor Matt Lauer from a Habitat for Humanity/”Today Show” construction site in Covington, Louisiana — quite the “get,” as the TV types say.

So what do the various interested parties — the White House, NBC, NBC’s viewers — get from a “get” like this? Let’s take a look. (Italicized parenthetical comments are ours.)

Lauer made good right away on his promise of a “no-holds-barred” interview, leading with something that was more friendly request than question — “Give me a sense of the biggest change you’ve seen in the past six or seven weeks in this area” — followed by another affable statement-as-question — “As you see the progress you also see how much remains to be done.” This set the Bushes up nicely to talk first about the great work the administration has done and then humbly acknowledge the hard work still ahead.

Next, Lauer appeared to probe the president’s motives for appearing on “Today”: “Is this one of those situations where you’re trying to get a second chance to make a first impression (aided and abetted by us)?” And then, suddenly adopting Bush’s man-of-the-people syntax, Lauer let fly that he “talked to a prominent Democrat in Louisiana who said this type of an appearance — while it’s great to see you here rollin’ up your sleeves and grabbin’ a hammer and helpin’ with this wall — that it’s a photo op.” Lauer returned to the shocking “photo op” charge two questions later, helpfully providing the president with a response: “If someone says to you, ‘OK … this is a photo op,’ but if that inspires someone else to grab a hammer, then that’s mission accomplished?” (Matt, the White House was with you up until your unfortunate word choice at the end of that question/statement.).

After a couple of reasonable questions about financing the hurricane reconstruction efforts, it was on to Harriet Miers, where Lauer gets points for timeliness of topic, but demerits for the questions themselves. Lauer wondered, for one, whether the president was “taken off guard a little bit … by the amount of criticism” surrounding his choice of Miers. And, Lauer asked, is the president “convinced” Miers will be confirmed? (Lauer, for one, is apparently convinced, as he twice referred to Miers during the interview as “Judge Miers,” catching himself the second time.) Lauer did a decent job with another timely topic — Karl Rove’s role in PlameGate — even asking an (alas, fruitless) follow-up question when the president danced around his first query.

Next up in the question queue: Iraq, followed by bird flu. Again, points for timeliness, demerits for the questions themselves — What does Bush expect will happen in Iraq as we approach the October 15th constitutional referendum? And, is the president “confident” there is a plan to handle a possible bird flu outbreak in the U.S.?

The last word was given to the First Lady, whom Lauer asked “what toll” the past five years had taken on her husband, what with 9/11, the war in Iraq, the hurricanes, and all.

So, in sum, what did everyone get from this? NBC got bragging rights (other news outlets had to quote from “Today’s” interview) and, it hopes, ratings. The White House got a photo op. And Lauer himself? Well, one thing we’re pretty sure he didn’t get was a miffed, Carole Coleman-style post-interview telephone call from the president’s handlers.

And viewers? What did viewers get?

Cotton candy, which goes down surprisingly easy first thing in the morning.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.