chuck_todd_0115Chuck Todd is the White House correspondent for NBC News. He is, frankly, one of the smartest political analysts on network TV—certainly he was among the best covering last year’s elections.

And yet… events this week make it clear that Chuck Todd has no faith in the American justice system, has no confidence in the democratic process, and doesn’t even trust mass-media journalism—his own profession—to do anything for public discourse other than debase it. Apparently even a top-level practitioner of the Beltway media establishment still can’t help but embody its worst systemic flaws.

This all arose when Chuck was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday discussing AG Eric Holder’s possible appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Bush administration war crimes (as I wrote about here). Salon’s Glenn Greenwald jumped all over Chuck’s casually dismissive remarks about the idea, and Chuck (to his credit) agreed to a detailed interview with Glenn. The results were very revealing, and very discouraging.

Here are excerpts (all emphases mine) from what Chuck said on Tuesday…

Todd: Look, let’s take all of these stories in one big thing:  really, the only important thing — the most important thing — the President has to focus on is getting the public’s trust on the economy, and pushing health care. Cheney, the CIA, and in some respects Sotomayor are cable catnip…

[Mika] Brzezinski: …Is this much ado about nothing to get the attention off what needs to be done?

[Pat] Buchanan: Let me ask Chuck this:  it seems to me you got a real problem for the administration if you go forward at Holder’s level …  Aren’t you right into the White House of the Bush administration as soon as you appoint that independent counsel?

Todd: Ultimately, a lawyer gets paid to not tell you what the law is — but to interpret the law, to tell you how far you can push things until you cross a line that a judge will say is illegal. …this is a very dangerous aspect to go after…  I’m sure there are a legal minds that will fight and say I don’t know what I’m talking about here, but it seems to me that’s a legal and a political slippery slope.

And here are key excerpts from the discussion with Glenn yesterday:

Chuck Todd: …Now, are you saying, should there be an investigation? There’s an argument to be made, and in my observation, special prosecutors have become political footballs.  …  So that is, look, in my experience of watching the special prosecutor situation go on over the last 20 years, that I’ve been covering politics, that’s my observation.

Glenn Greenwald: …Do you think that government officials, when they’re accused of committing crimes and there’s evidence to suggest that they’ve done so, ought to be treated differently?

CT: Nobody’s suggesting they should be treated differently. … Nobody is saying it’s not appropriate legally, but there is a political side. You can’t sit here and take away the political conversation and pretend it doesn’t exist in this, and pretend that it isn’t a part of this.

GG: Well, what is that conversation, what is that political conversation that you’re…

CT: The political conversation is this: What message does that send if we have this political trial, and how do you know this won’t turn into a political trial? … That is the experience of how these things have worked in the past, that end up getting turned into a political trial. And then….

GG: What do you mean by that?  What is a political trial?

CT: …If you have this trial, and there is, inevitably, some appeals and … it becomes a legal debate about whether so-and-so can go on trial, or not go on trial, what was allowed … you know, what message does that end up sending? Does that end up harming us down the road?

… I mean, the whole point of those OLC memos was showing that they were getting a set of, that the interrogators were potentially getting legal advice… which is, of course, my — as a non-lawyer — my frustration with the law sometimes — is that the law isn’t clear cut.

GG: But that’s not the role of Justice Department lawyers to stretch the law. The president is not the client of the Justice Department lawyers… They’re not there for that purpose, and if they’re doing that, then they’re bastardizing their duties.

…If a president can find, as a president always will be able to find, some low-level functionary in the Justice Department — a John Yoo — to write a memo authorizing whatever it is the president wants to do, and to say that it’s legal, then you think the president ought to be immune from prosecution whenever he breaks the law, as long as he has a permission slip from the Justice Department?  I mean, that’s the argument that’s being made.  Don’t you think that’s extremely dangerous?

CT: That could be dangerous, but let me tell you this: Is it healthy for our reputation around the world — and this I think is [what] we have to do what other countries do more often than not, so-called democracies that struggle with their democracy, and sit there and always PUT the previous administration on trial — you don’t think that we start having retributions on this going forward?

…I understand where you’re coming from, you’re just saying, just because something’s politically tough doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  That’s, I don’t disagree with you from 30,000 feet.  And that is an idealistic view of this thing.  Then you have the realistic view of how this town works, and what would happen, and is it good for our reputation around the world if we’re essentially putting on trial the previous administration?

We have elections, we also had an election where this was an issue. A new president, who came in there, and has said, we’re not going to torture… Is that not enough? Isn’t that enough?

GG: A hundred people died in detention. A hundred people. The United States Government admits that there are homicides that took place during interrogations. Waterboarding and these other techniques are things that the United States has always prosecuted as torture.

Until John Yoo wrote that memo, where was the lack of clarity about whether or not these things were illegal?  Where did that lack of clarity or debate exist? They found some right-wing ideologues in the Justice Department to say that this was okay, that’s what you’re endorsing.  As long the president can do that, he’s above the law.

…I thought the whole point of having a Justice Department in a civilized country, was that it’s supposed to be immune from political considerations. Wasn’t that the whole lesson of the Alberto Gonzales era? That when Eric Holder sits down as the Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, he makes decisions based on legal factors, as to whether crimes are committed, not based on political factors of the kind that MSNBC likes to talk about.

CT: Of course, on the 30,000 feet level, it is supposed to work that way. But have you ever taken a look at, let’s just look at what this Justice Department is saying here…

Look at the US attorney thing. What did we find out during this whole US attorney scandal? There was no doubt the White House, the previous White House was trying to play politics with US attorney selections. That has been proven. Except what did we also find out — it was perfectly legal.

GG: Who said that? Who said that? … Chuck. First of all, the question of whether or not crimes were committed in the US attorneys case is still a pending matter before several federal courts.

CT: And I believe it should be investigated—

GG: …And if there are crimes that were committed, they should be prosecuted?

CT: And I think — and this is something see more from the legal community — this issue of US attorneys being political appointees, is probably something that needs to be taken up, because I think it’s fraught with peril…

GG: Do you think the U.S. should be bound, is bound by [the Convention Against Torture]? And, I want to ask you:  with regard to the question of whether or not we follow that treaty, why do you describe that as nothing more than, quote “cable catnip”.

CT: Alright. The “cable catnip” comment was this.  This issue, whenever you see the words Cheney and intelligence pop up, and when I use the phrase ‘cable catnip’, it is when something becomes, whether the two polarized parts of our political society, are very entrenched in their views on this, and believe the other side is completely irrational on it. And so, that’s, whenever you have an issue like that, that’s what I describe as ‘cable catnip’. Because it becomes something that is easy to put on television, because you can find a left versus right, which is something that cable embraces to a fault…

GG: And isn’t the best thing to do to immunize that question from political considerations is to say to a prosecutor, the way that we do with every other accusation of crime: take a look at the pure legal issues here?…

CT: I agree, in a perfect world — Glenn, in a perfect world, yes. And if you could also guarantee me, that this wouldn’t become a show trial, and wouldn’t be put, and created so that we had nightly debates about it, that is the ideal way to handle this.

GG: Why not?  What’s wrong with nightly debate about whether our government committed crimes?

CT: Because then it becomes, then you do politicize the issue

GG: The question of whether you prosecute crimes isn’t dependent in any way on whether or not public opinion thinks that you ought to.

…And about a month ago you created a little controversy because you said about the question about whether there should be investigations, about the release of the OLC memos, you said, quote, “Frankly, this feels like a political food fight right now: the hard left, the hard right fighting over this in the blogosphere.”

Some of the people who have called for investigations and prosecutions of Bush-era torture crimes include … General Antonio Tabuga, who investigated the Abu Ghraib crimes, [and] said: quote, “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes; the only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.” Same with Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief-of-staff to Colin Powell; Thomas Pickering and Williams Sessions, former Reagan administration officials [who] wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for investigations.

The idea that this is something that, the idea that the rule of law, that holding our high government officials to accountability when they commit crimes, is a “hard left versus a hard right” or a partisan debate — isn’t that really just an invention of cable news, for exactly the reason that you said, which is that’s how cable news typically understands things, even when that’s not really what the debate is?

CT: …Glenn, you get to a bigger problem here. I don’t disagree with you with this issue, that ever since the Nixon situation, that we have gotten into this situation where investigations in the government of officials have become politicized, in some form or another. … there has been this fatigue about it because the use of prosecutions has been too politicized, to the point where I think it has made it where it’s just unfortunately too easy to dismiss an investigation.

GG: And as a result, powerful politicians know that they can break the law and get away it.

CT: I don’t disagree with your conclusion here.

I’m a huge admirer of Greenwald and the meticulous work he does holding both politicians and journalists to consistent, principled standards. The full interview is much longer than these excerpts, and well worth reading, as are his posts about it.

But let’s boil things down a little here. What is Chuck really saying? And why?

1) He doesn’t trust the justice system to administer actual justice, to enforce the law impartially, not even at its highest level—the DOJ. He’s convinced that any such attempt will inevitably become a political football.

Why might this be? Well, certainly his political perspective, evolving over “the last 20 years,” must have been shaped by the Whitewater investigation against the Clintons. In that case, a small-potatoes investigation over alleged real estate fraud (on which no case was ever built) turned into something much more sordid, sensationalized, and partisan, leading to the impeachment of a popular president over perjury about his personal life. In more recent years, he’s seen the DOJ itself brazenly politicized, made a tool of Karl Rove’s partisan strategizing, as he himself notes. (And it’s distressing to see that someone as well-informed as he is under the mistaken impression that anyone’s been exonerated for that, BTW.)

In other words, certain key events—precipitated by the GOP—have so poisoned the well for high-level investigations of wrongdoing that Chuck’s merely expressing a now-commonplace skepticism that things can possibly work any other way.

2) He doesn’t trust the law itself, opining that the job of lawyers is to “stretch” it and obscure its clarity.

His evidence for this? Well, obviously that it’s exactly what Bush’s OLC did in order to “justify” the policies under discussion.

So why not engage in the sort of investigations and court proceedings that might actually restore the clarity he wants? Because he can’t envision that result; he fears the political reaction would be so polarizing as to prevent any meaningful outcome. Indeed, he fears that even having that legal debate could somehow “harm us” down the road, apparently by making us look like the sort of banana republic that uses its justice system for political retaliation. (That our image in the eyes of the world might actually be improved by holding genuinely corrupt and destructive officials accountable apparently never occurs to him.)

3) He assumes that the public will only see partisan politics, which will therefore completely trump anything the legal system might achieve. The closest approximation of justice we can hope for is an election result.

Why does he believe this? Striving for journalistic balance, he tries to blame “extremists” on both ends of the political spectrum… but the American left is neither organized nor strident enough to justify the accusation. Speaking practically, to a large extent the reason must be that he’s seen the GOP, its media echo chamber, and its grass-roots base politicize every possible issue that comes in front of them, without the slightest regard for principle, consistency, or substance. (Their approach to the current Sotomayor hearings, as I discussed here, is merely the latest instance in a long, long list.) These are people who do seek retaliation for past slights, regardless of the actual merits.

When one side makes everything about partisan power and projects its own flaws onto its opponents to demonize them, someone trying to stand in the middle might understandably (but wrongly) be liable to wish a pox on both their houses.

4) He doubts that any serious and effective public deliberation might result, because his own profession will paint things only in the stark black-and-white tones he decries. Nothing good can come of an issue being “politicized,” because that doesn’t mean people debating the pros and cons in a reasoned way, it means venom and calumny and misrepresentation. He can’t even describe this polarization as polarization, instead trivializing it as “cable catnip”… because the very industry in which he works, rather than trying to shed light into the dark corners of these political spats and speak truth to power as Greenwald advocates, instead actively facilitates, encourages, and programs this sort of debased discourse. The sort of over-the-top hyperbole once limited to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News has metastasized throughout the business.

5) The end result, then, is that in the attempt to salvage even a little intellectual and professional integrity, Chuck evidently feels no alternative but to express disdain for the entirety of the American political, legal, and media systems. To do otherwise is in his eyes to be an unrealistic idealist, to look at things only from “30,000 feet,” to pretend we live in “a perfect world.”

And thus he becomes a creature of the very media mechanism he condemns—not serving or informing the public, but instead imposing an oversimplified and one-sided ideology upon it. Feeding the beast. He makes a limp attempt to claim he was merely expressing the White House’s views about potential investigations, not his own… but even if that’s how the discussion started, that’s certainly not where he took it. (And being a mouthpiece for official views would itself, after all, still be an abdication of his professional duty.)

Things weren’t always this bad, though, and they didn’t get this way accidentally. The current status quo manifested in Chuck Todd’s disquieting attitude can be traced back to specific causes.

In a nutshell:  the “conservative movement” in this country over the last few decades, and especially the last fifteen years, has systematically undermined and corrupted the channels of public discourse… and the levers of government it professes to mistrust yet attempts to control… and even the lawyers and courtrooms that are supposed to stand outside petty political rivalries and keep the system functioning.

There was a time when the Watergate hearings (for example) were seen as a vindication of the American system and its ability to self-correct. Their long-term fallout seems to have been the exact opposite, and Chuck Todd embodies that sense of disillusionment.

The reactionary right has relentlessly dragged everything down to their level. That’s the real slippery slope, the one Chuck fails to see. Granting him every possible benefit of the doubt, even a smart and capable man working in the midst of that environment can apparently find no refuge in anything but pervasive cynicism, and is left unable to imagine that we might still aspire to be “a nation of laws, not of men.”

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2 Responses to “NBC’s Chuck Todd, the ultimate cynic”
  1. Here’s the thing, though. His defense to Glenn is basically incoherent. If Chuck really believes what he’s expressing here, on a conscious level, then how can he possibly go about doing a job that amounts to playing color commentator to a rigged game? He ought to be shouting truth to power, and to the public. OTOH, if he doesn’t believe it, or the ramifications are all just deeply suppressed in his psyche, then what he’s saying is at best a digression and at worst outright disingenuous. Any way you slice it, he should be doing some serious self-examination.

  2. He thinks that the USA has already become that banana republic. That it’s already too late.

    And you don’t.

    So who is correct here?

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