Get those ratings up, Russert!
Jude Wanniski
March 29, 2000


To: Tim Russert, Meet the Press
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Calm Down, Tim...

As I've made clear over the years, Tim, I've been one of your great admirers, for the way you have conducted yourself on Meet the Press. Which is why it pains me to say I'm beginning to suspect that you've been advised to juice up the show to get the ratings up.

Instead of your old charming self, with pointed questions sweetly posed to your world-famous guests in a style suitable for Sunday mornings, in the last several episodes you have been interrogating. If a peaceful and prosperous world is tuning out the Sunday talk shows, I don't think you can persuade it into coming back with screechy hype. Your show this last Sunday was doubly troubling, because someone persuaded you to pump up the rumor that North Korea is building a Scud missile plant in the Sudan and the Khartoum government is planning to sell the whole factory to Baghdad!

Wow! Saddam will soon be able to rain weapons of mass destruction on his neighbors! Stop the presses!

Of course, you had William Safire's column of last Thursday to go on, "Saddam's Sudan?" But even Safire warned his readers that "intelligence operatives who have no ax to grind...pondered the report at interagency meetings and doubt its accuracy." Nonetheless, Safire decided to devote the rest of his column to a scenario in which it might be possible.

If you had made this clear when you pulled your faithful audience into the next 15 minutes of your show with the scary rumor, they could have switched to Sam and Cokie or Face the Nation. But, no, you left that part out.

Instead, who do you introduce as your expert witness, to confirm the rumor that intelligence operatives with no ax to grind had pooh-poohed? None other than Richard Butler, the Australian politico who ran the United Nations weapons inspection program in Iraq, until he was removed 18 months ago because he had lost all credibility in his UNSCOM post. This is because instead of inspecting, which was his job, he had become a media star for his willingness to give interviews at the drop of a hat about what the Iraqis were hiding that he could not find.

Here, Tim, I think you know as well as I that there has never been any intention of our government lifting the economic sanctions on Iraq, even if Saddam would agree to stand on his head and spit nickels. Yes, you had Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on the show, following Butler, to express major concern about this fictitious Scud missile factory. Lott, alas, is in the pocket of the war caucus on Capitol Hill that has justified the deaths of more than a million Iraqi civilians, including 500,000 children, on the grounds that Saddam is hiding something nobody has found.

Of course, Butler said he was not surprised to learn that Baghdad was involved in these shady dealings with Khartoum and North Korea. He had not been there for 18 months, but insisted that while he was still there, he knew the fiendishly clever Iraqis had managed to locate a cache of fuel that would only work in Scud missiles. Here, when I expected a little interrogation from you, Tim, instead you let this nonsense pass without lifting a finger.

The story on its face is preposterous. Where did it come from? Bill Gertz of the Washington Times six months ago wrote a single paragraph in one of his Pentagon dispatches. Some overheated watchdog in the Pentagon got a report that a North Korean official and an Iraqi official were seen in Khartoum at the same time, and perhaps this is what they were up to!

Can you imagine how difficult it would be for North Korea and the Sudan and Iraq to pull this off, to sneak a factory from Pyongyang into the Sudan and then sneak it into Iraq? Isn't it possible that Bill Gertz of the Washington Times has been a conveyor belt from those folks in the Pentagon who spend their days and nights thinking of ways to make life miserable for Iraq? Perhaps they are the same folks who alerted the Clinton administration on the possibility that an aspirin factory outside Khartoum was developing weapons of mass destruction to sell to Baghdad!

Where is all this leading? Of course, Tim, now that Butler and Lott have confirmed that Saddam is practically in possession of Scud missiles that can actually travel close to 150 kilometers, we can assume he will fire them any day now. We do know, of course, that Iraq does not have a nuclear weapon, so he can't put a nuke inside the Scud nose. But he can put deadly biological weapons of mass destruction in the Scud and fire it 150 kilometers in any direction.

Whoops. Doesn't that mean if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, all 20 million Iraqis will go up in smoke, or down the drain? No matter, he is a madman. We might as well let President Clinton go out with a blaze of glory. Bombs away, with troops to follow. Right after the political conventions. Take it from me, Tim. I heard a rumor.