Compliant Lauer Feeds Hillary Softballs on Katrina: Was Witt Right in Bashing W's FEMA?

When Matt Lauer eventually leaves the Today show, he can look forward to a career in slow-pitch softball. His talents were on full display this morning in his interview of Hillary Clinton.

The conventions of good journalism dictate that when guests, particularly intrinisically political ones, are interviewed, they are challenged on their assumptions.

But when Today's Matt Lauer interviewed Hillary Clinton this morning, what seemed at first to be a lead-up to such a challenge turned out in fact to be just the opposite, as Lauer handed Hillary yet another club with which to bash the Bush administration.

Lauer began by reading from Hillary's letter criticizing the federal response in general and FEMA in particular.

You might have thought that Lauer would have raised the issue of incompetence at the state and local [read Democratic] levels. But no, Lauer entirely bought into Hillary's logic, lamely inquiring whether Her Hilllaryness felt "this was a problem with an entire [federal] system, or did some key individuals make poor decisions?"

The notion that the federal response has actually been fairly decent under the unprecedented circumstances was never even contemplated.

Nor did Lauer challenge Hillary when she claimed that by declaring a state of emergency prior to the storm hitting, the Bush administration assumed the lead responsibility for dealing with the storm, thus ignoring Gov. Blanco's delay of a crucial 24 hours in responding to Pres. Bush's offer of aid.

Then came the crucial moment. As Hillary pontificated on regarding her proposal for a Katrina Commission, Lauer interrupted, saying he wanted to ask her to comment on something former Clinton administration FEMA Director James Lee Witt had written.

My reporter's antennae went up, thinking this would be where Lauer would challenge Hillary with a contradictory statement, and one having that much more credibility coming from one of Hillary's own.

Au contraire! Lauer served up this steaming softball of an excerpt from a Witt letter written before Katrina: "I'm extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded . . . and that the FEMA [local officials] knew and worked well with has disappeared."

And rather than questioning the veracity of Witt's allegation, Lauer again entirely bought into them, asking Hillary why "the capabilities of FEMA had been diminished."

Of course Hillary was only too happy to oblige with a paean to the wonderful way FEMA was administered when she and Bill were in charge and lamenting how things have fallen apart under W.

Lauer did ultimately get around to quoting to Hillary from RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman thusly: "you tell me who's taking what should be a moment of national unity and trying to score politically."

A woe-is-me Hillary complained that "that's what they always do. I've been living with that for the last four-and-a-half years."

Don't worry, Hillary. Matt and friends will be there for you when those mean Republicans attack.

Finkelstein has degrees from Cornell University and Harvard Law
School.He lives in Ithaca, NY where he hosts "Right Angle," a local
political talk show. Finkelstein specializes in exposing liberal bias
at NBC's Today

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