John Podesta, who got the Tim Russert treatment several times as President Clinton’s chief of staff, likened it to preparing for a Supreme Court argument.
“I would get to the office probably 10 o’clock on Saturday morning and spend probably four or five hours with my communications team and the substantive people going over virtually everything,” recalled Podesta, now president of the Center for American Progress. “You couldn’t get away with spin on his show. You had to know the facts.”
“Everybody always went in there thinking that they were going to control the story and invariably he controlled it,” Podesta added. “I don’t think I ever walked out of there with my shirt not drenched.”
The paradox of “Russert,” as many Washington insiders called the show, was that the prosecutorial experience was both feared and coveted, intimidating and alluring.
It was a chance to extinguish or fuel scandals, and burnish or tarnish careers.
“If you were not prepared, Tim would show you no quarter, no matter how much he liked you,” said Rick Tyler, an adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Russert brought an aerobic rigor to what had once been a much more leisurely, clubby ritual. But because of that approach, an official or politician who did well in his studio came out with new currency and confidence – Beltway absolution.
The alternative was disaster, like the poor May 2007 performance by Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson that resulted in the lethal Slate headline, “New Mexico Governor Self-Destructs on Meet the Press.”
Richardson botched an exchange that began with a classic Russertism, “In your book on page 18 it says …,” and ended with the governor claiming to be both a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan.
Russert’s devastating riposte: “If you go to Yankee Stadium or Fenway, you cannot be both.”
So how to avoid winding up like Richardson?
By thoroughly preparing for the show and leaving nothing to chance. The prep work was a ritual of its own, with newer aides phoning around to try to find out the secrets of getting their bosses ready.
Several veterans of the process said that after getting a date with Russert, they embarked on a kind of reverse opposition research, trying to game out possible landmines and dead ends.
Leon Panetta, another former Clinton chief of staff, recalled that some of the toughest questions in his moot “Meets" came from George Stephanopoulos, now host of ABC’s competing show“This Week” but then a White House senior adviser.
But Panetta said no one ever completely cracked the code.
“He always had an angle you hadn’t quite considered,” Panetta said. “You never quite knew what clips he was going to use. … You normally did not want to get him angry, because you knew he would come back at you.”
Kirsten Fedewa, who helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s prepare to announce his 2008 presidential campaign on “Meet,” called the process “daunting” and added ruefully: “Russert's pre-show charm can be disarming.”
“We compiled a long list of any possible topic that could come up, and offered possible responses,” Fedewa said. “Then we discussed it either on the phone, or in person, or both.”
The key in prepping for a Russert grilling was a frank assessment of inconsistencies, said Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ 2008 campaign.
Kornblau called it “a research exercise to find out what in the record he was going to find,” then finding an upfront way to deal with it.
&ldqo;The test for politicians was not to prove that you’re 100 percent consistent all the time, or that there’s nothing conflicting in your record,” Kornblau said. “The test is to prove that you’re of sufficient character that you’ll either own up to it or explain why your thinking has changed. Don’t come on and try to be a politician.”
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who appeared on “Meet the Press” numerous times during his leadership tenure, said Russert often knew “history on a subject better than you did.”
“We just accepted the proposition that he was going to pin down some statement that I made two or three years ago that I didn’t even remember," Armey said.
Sunny Mindel, a top adviser to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, called it “an opportunity to be in the Super Bowl,” where “the entire record was up for grabs.”
At the end of a very intense hour last December with the mayor, Russert finally said the words that were such a relief to his guests and their aides: “Mayor Rudy Giuliani, we’re out of time.”
Politico's David Mark contributed to this report.