Tim Russert suffered a heart attack at NBC News’ Washington bureau on Friday afternoon and died at the age of 58. As he was eulogized on air by NBC colleagues Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, David Gregory, Howard Fineman, Keith Olbermann, and Andrea Mitchell, I thought of a moment when he tried to give Vice President Dick Cheney a decent grilling days before the invasion of Iraq.
That March 16, 2003 edition of Meet the Press was a good moment for Russert. By this point, it was clear George W. Bush was committed to attacking Iraq. Still, Russert hurled sharp queries at Cheney, questioning several fundamentals of the Bush-Cheney case for war. Cheney did manage to slip by–but only because he was willing to deny reality:
MR. RUSSERT: If your analysis is not correct, and we’re not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators….
MR. RUSSERT: The army’s top general said that we would have to have several hundred thousand troops there for several years in order to maintain stability.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I disagree. We need, obviously, a large force and we’ve deployed a large force to prevail, from a military standpoint, to achieve our objectives, we will need a significant presence there until such time as we can turn things over to the Iraqis themselves. But to suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don’t think is accurate. I think that’s an overstatement.
MR. RUSSERT: We’ve had 50,000 troops in Kosovo for several years, a country of just five million people. This is a country of 23 million people. It will take a lot in order to secure it.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, but we’ve significantly drawn down our forces in Kosovo and in the Balkans…..
MR. RUSSERT: Every analysis said this war itself would cost about $80 billion, recovery of Baghdad, perhaps of Iraq, about $10 billion per year. We should expect as American citizens that this would cost at least $100 billion for a two-year involvement.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I can’t say that, Tim….
There were plenty of times when Russert–like most prominent figures in the media–could be criticized. But this was one of many instances when he posed the right questions and did so in a vigorous and facts-based manner. He did not succeed in forcing Cheney to speak candidly about the challenges of the Iraq war, but, then, Russert was responsible only for the questions he asked, not the answers the politicians gave.