Tim Russert’s Obsession with Consistency

Matthew Yglesias has a good article in the Washington Monthly about the follies of Tim Russert’s approach to interviews on his very influential TV show "Meet the Press". It captures something I’ve blogged about which is the obsession people seem to have about whether you’re changing your mind, as if it’s the ultimate sin. We prize consistency to a fault. James Fallows summarizes:

The default assumption of many Meet the Press sessions — which has spilled over to the be default assumption in this election-cycle’s unfortunate debates — is that if you say something (about taxes, Iraq, global warming, what have you) in 2008 that represents any shift from what you said in 1996 or 2001, you’re presumptively a liar or fraud. Thus the dramatic on-screen graphics comparing your words from then with your words from now, and thus the closeups to see whether the politician is stammering or losing his cool under this scrutiny. The problem is (as Yglesias devastatingly lays out): sometimes a changing position means you’re craven. And sometimes it does not. The world changes. New information emerges. Life goes on. Whether — and why — a politician has ever changed position is part of what we need to know. But it’s not the only thing that matters — or in most cases, the main thing. To quote one of the Atlantic’s founders,

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."


In an old post of mine titled Changing Your Mind in the Executive Suite, Dave Jilk left a smart comment:

As with most things, there is a balance, and one builds a record over time of foolish consistency, changing with the wind, or general steadfastness with an open mind. It’s the record over time and over many instances that matters.

4 comments on “Tim Russert’s Obsession with Consistency
  • Politicians pander. It is what they do. A good journalist, like Russert, will explore inconsistent rhetoric. It may be that the politician had a true change of heart or that their pandering has been exposed. What really matters is not what politicians say in response to these inconsistencies, but how they say it. It is in the tone of voice, the eye contact, the body language, and all the subtleties in between. Authenticity is what counts. Can you remember the last time a politician had an authentic change of heart?

  • I’m watching John Lennon and Yoko Ono on Dick Cavett. John said that it was crazy for someone to pull up something you said years before and ask you about it, but it happened to him all the time. Not that that has anything to do with Russert’s interviewing style (I watch the other two Sunday morning shows–for some reason I can’t stand to watch Russert–maybe something about his smugness and seeming superiority–so I’ve never given him a fair trial).

  • The perception depends on the constituency. If the constituency cannot comprehend complex issues, things get simplified and can easily be framed too simplistically.

    My favourite quote besides the one you cite is John Maynard Keynes’s:

    “When The facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

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