Interviewing Howard Dean this morning, you could almost hear Katie Couric thinking: "sure, he's a fellow member of our great Democratic family. But darn it, this guy is killing us!" And thus it was that Couric gave Dean the crazy uncle treatment, hitting him with tough questions almost as if to speak over him to the rest of us out here, apologizing for the untoward antics of this unwelcome but unavoidable visitor.
Suggested Katie regarding the NSA surveillance: "If this potentially stops another terrorist attack like 9/11, why not give the White House some latitude?" Dean riffed in reply about a president who "has a habit of putting himself above the law." But Katie was dubious when Dean complained that the program "poking around into people's private lives."
Couric broke in: "Have you seen any evidence, Governor Dean, have you seen any evidence that this is happening, that the administration is somehow poking into the private lives of Americans."
Dean: "Of course they are." Dean then added his most serious charge:
"We don't believe you ought to spy on American citizens without some third party looking at this. That's what makes the difference between America and other countries like Iran."
Comparing George Bush's America to the Islamo-fascist dictatorship of Iran? And people wonder why some question the patriotism of Dean and his fellow-travellers?
Dean returned to his characterization of the president as a lawbreaker, adding a rib-tickling twist: "The president is breaking the law. It is a bad example for our kids." Why didn't you tell us before, Howard? The Dems are doing it . . . for the children!
Katie then revealed the core of her concern: that the Dem carping will hurt them at the polls. "At the same time, obviously perception is everything and some of your opponents believe this is yet another example showing the Democrats are soft on defense and are not as vigilant as they should be in the war against terrorism."
Taking Dean to the woodshed, she continued: "Why has this become such a poisonous partisan issue? No one wants to see another terrorist attack. Why can't both sides come together and figure this out rather than throwing mud at each other on a daily basis? Don't you think the American people are tired of that?"
Dean would have none of Katie's call to kumbayah. To the contrary, perhaps piqued, he raised his level of vitriol: "The president isn't interested in hearing from his own military. He's made gross misjudgments in Iraq because he would listen to the military. He wouldn't even listen to Secretary of State Powell. This is a headstrong president who thinks he's above the law."
Boasted Dean: "I'll tell you one thing, if we get back in power we're going to make a real effort to get OBL. We're not going to let him lolly-day [sic] around for four years."
Katie was not appeased: "You know a lot of people say the Democratic party at this point in time criticizes all and literally stands for nothing. Even James Carville and Paul Begala - you can't find two more hard-core Democrats than that, Governor Dean - in their book wrote that the Democratic party needs a backbone and a spinal transplant. So what do you think the Democratic party stands for at this point in time?"
Dean had his laundry list ready, ticking off a spiel on jobs, national defense, restoring honesty and integrity in government, health care 'that works for everyone' and a strong public education system.
Couric then hit Dean with Hillary's grim poll numbers: "A new CNN/USAToday/Gallup poll shows 51% of registered voters say they would definitely not vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton for president if she runs in 2008. She's the front-runner among Democrats. Is that bad news in your view?"
Dean mouthed the words but couldn't keep a straight face when in response he actually claimed: "I'm sure she's not thinking of the presidency right now." Right.
Katie surprisingly persisted, asking Dean what he thought of Hillary's Plantation Declaration. He went off on a riff about how unfairly Congress was being run. Hillary's MLK remark is over a week old. For Couric to have revived it in the context of Clinton's weak poll numbers suggests that Katie has her own concerns at the prospect of a Hillary candidacy.
Things heated up at the end of the interview. When Dean alleged that "all" of the people getting money from Abramoff were Republicans, Katie cut him off: "Hey, wait a second. Democrats took money from Jack Abramoff too, Mr. Dean."
Dean: "That's absolutely false, that did not happen. Not one dime of money from Jack Abramoff went to any Democrat at any time."
Katie had some figures handy to rebut Dean: "Let me just tell you. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Abramoff and his associates gave $3 million to Republicans and $1.5 million to Democrats."
Dean: "Katie, not one dime of Jack Abramoff money ever went to any Democrat. There's a lot of stuff in the press that the Republican National Committee has been spinning that this is a bi-partisan scandal. It is a Republican scandal. Not one dime of money from Jack Abramoff ever went to any Democrat."
Katie wasn't convinced: "We'll have to look into that and clarify that for our viewers." A shame that Couric was unaware that while Abramoff didn't contribute his own money to Dems, he directed his clients, notably Indian casinos, to do so. A classic distinction without a difference.