Has Katie Couric's departure had a salubrious effect on Matt Lauer? Freed his inner moderate? The jury's still out. And to be sure, in his interview of Bill O'Reilly this morning Lauer managed to take shots at Ann Coulter and the Iraq security situation. Still, when an MSM host suggests that releasing prisoners from Guantanamo could result, of all things, in an 'international Willie Horton,' it does make you sit up and take notice.
Meanwhile, BOR himself, fresh from his visit to Guantanamo, energetically made the case for the current system of detaining enemy combatants.
Lauer did start things out with a quick jab at the state of security, or lack thereof, in Iraq:
"Every time I see one of these surprise visits to Baghdad, Rumsfeld going there, Bush going there Thanksgiving in 2003, it does make me ask the question: at what point are we going to be able to call ahead and say that a dignitary is coming there without the risk of violence?"
But Lauer then acknowledged President Bush's recent successes, and depicted them as pushing Democrats into a cynical strategy:
"The president's had a good couple of weeks. Parliament's up and running in Iraq, we've got some key [Iraqi] cabinet positions filled, the death of Al-Zarqawi. . . Does the progress, do these good events over the last couple of weeks put the Democrats in a position, Bill, of playing the troop withdrawal game? In other words, is there only course of action to go back in front of the cameras and say 'when are we bringing the troops home?' - and isn't that a dangerous game for them to play?" [!]
Lauer then turned talk to Guantanamo, and his opening thrust was to quote the UK's Attorney General to the effect that "the historic tradition of the U.S.A. as a beacon of freedom, liberty and justice deserves the removal of this symbol." Added Lauer: "This isn't some guy, some radical Muslim cleric. This is the Attorney General of Great Britain."
O'Reilly went off:
"So where are we going to put them? Where do they go? There are 460 of these guys, 300 are deemed to be enemies of Britain. Where are they going? Leicester Square? Are we putting them over in the Mayfair Hotel over there? Come on."
Lauer: "What about putting them on trial?"
BOR: "On trial? Where? Here? In New York? For Moussaoui it took four years."
Lauer: "Are we sure all the people are huge threats to the United States?"
In response, BOR got off perhaps his best line of the day: "Are we sure? Did they take a wrong turn in Kandahar and wind up at Tora Bora?"
That's when Lauer came out with his surprising statement, evoking the worst of Democratic weakness, the nadir of the Dukakis campaign:
"You're saying that if we release these guys and even one of them goes out and commits an act of terror against the United States we have an international Willie Horton on our hands."
BOR: "It's already happened. They released a guy from Guantanamo, repatriated him back to Pakistan. He blew up the Islamabad Marriott. This is ridiculous. They have to go through three vettings to get to Guantanamo. What do you think - it's a frequent flier program?"
Lauer: "In other words, We're getting enough information from these people and keeping enough bad people off the street to risk the reputation damage?"
BOR: "I don't know. That's what the military tells me. I have been down there. They say we are running a tight ship. There's no torture. We're getting information. That's what they say. I don't know. But I do know this: Where do you keep them? Where do you put them? Do you give them civilian trials? That's chaos. This is a war! Did we put the German saboteurs on trial?"
Lauer: "This is one of the tough choices that the administration has to make?"
Another light-but-telling moment ensued.
BOR: "Of course. These people -- close Guantanamo. no rendition, no surveillance. How do you fight the war? The ACLU opposes every single anti-terror measure, every single one, the Bush administration has implemented. Do you want the ACLU protecting your family and your kids, Lauer?"
Lauer: "I'm not going to take on that fight."
BOR, jabbing his finger for emphasis: "You don't! He doesn't! He doesn't."
Finkelstein lives in the liberal haven of Ithaca, NY, where he hosts the award-winning public-access TV show 'Right Angle.' Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org