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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Bush Makes Surprise Visit to Baghdad; Interview With Darrell Hammond
Aired November 30, 2003 - 11:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Holiday deception. President Bush makes a surprise visit to the troops in Baghdad, after the White House puts out a bogus story that he would be spending Thanksgiving at the Crawford ranch.
Was the administration justified in misleading reporters? Were the White House correspondents who made the trip used for a presidential photo-op? And will ordinary Americans care?
And, playing the presidents. "Saturday Night Live" funnyman Darrell Hammond on how he captures George Bush, Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews and Arnold.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the secret mission to Baghdad that left the press in the dust. I'm Howard Kurtz.
A whole lot of journalists felt like turkeys when their holiday was interrupted by those feel-good pictures of President Bush serving dinner to American troops in Iraq. Some White House correspondents were stranded in Crawford and were left to report what White House officials were telling them, that the president will be having a traditional Thanksgiving feast with his extended family.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Bush is taking his Thanksgiving break in Crawford, Texas. He's having turkey dinner at his ranch, along with his wife, their daughters and his parents.
DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Of course, he's going to be having turkey and chipotle (ph) sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, some Texas grapefruit, and for desert we are told that the president will be having some prairie chapel pecan pie.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But even while those mouth-watering reports were airing, a handful of others, sworn to secrecy, were already aboard Air Force One for what turned out to be a triumphant day for Bush, at least judging by the glowing coverage on the cable networks. Well, joining me now in Crawford, Texas, Mike Allen, "Washington Post" White House correspondent and the only newspaper reporter to accompany the president to Baghdad. And here with me in Washington, "Newsweek" Washington bureau chief Daniel Klaidman. Welcome.
Mike Allen, how did you first find out about this super secret mission?
MIKE ALLEN, WASHINGTON POST: Howie, I was one wake-up call away from heading to North Carolina for Thanksgiving with my nephews. I was on my cell phone out on the front lawn of the middle school here where the press works, and I was making calls to make sure that nothing was going on, and I was being assured that nothing was going on.
And a young advance man beckoned to me, told me to get into his pickup truck, and said that someone wanted to see me. And I figured I was in trouble, it was sort of a flashback to elementary school. And we went to a parking lot behind a church, and he said to step out, and there was Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, with a big smile. I thought he was in Washington. And he said, I have news for you. I'm like, I don't want news, I'm about to get on a plane to Raleigh. And he said, well, the president is going to Baghdad.
KURTZ: Now, did you feel uncomfortable at all, uncomfortable at all having to keep that White House secret? You didn't even tell your editors who sounded a little miffed.
ALLEN: Yeah, fortunately this was for a short time that we knew -- they told us about an hour and a half I guess before I needed to show up for the plane. He said only a few staff members knew about this. They had talked about it only on secure phones, and they told me that I couldn't tell my editors or my family. And I said to Dan, I have to tell them something, and we were trying to work out what exactly we could tell my editors.
When time sort of ran out, one thing I proposed to them, and I think there needs to be a minimal standard in the future is, just tell them the pool is moving. If the pool is moving, we want to be with them, and that prevents families or editors from calling up the Highway Patrol or filing missing persons reports on their reporters.
KURTZ: That would have set off some alarm bells. Dan Klaidman, should the White House be in the position of misleading the press about this sort of thing? I mean, it was great for the president to go over there and rally the morale of the troops, but they put out a false story.
DANIEL KLAIDMAN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, NEWSWEEK: Look, generally the White House should not be in the position of misleading the press at all. But in this case, this was a short-term deception, not particularly significant, and I think it falls within the bounds of acceptable behavior.
KURTZ: Why was there no "Newsweek" correspondent on the trip? KLAIDMAN: Well, interestingly, our reporter, White House correspondent Tamara Lipper (ph) was on her way back home to New York for Thanksgiving dinner with her family. She got an unusual call from Dan Bartlett. He was very cryptic. He was asking her how she was spending her Thanksgiving holiday. I think he concluded that since she was already en route and since he says he could not talk to her on an insecure line, he was unable to say the president is going to Baghdad and we want you to be with us. So she missed it because of that reason.
KURTZ: I hope she enjoyed her turkey.
Mike Allen, in retrospect, was the press used here for an elaborate two-hour turkey filled presidential photo-op?
ALLEN: Well, you can look at it a couple of ways. Democrats, interestingly, have avoided criticizing it. I talked to a lot of strategists for presidential campaigns who think that this -- the event for what it was, was very effective and they want to just sort of move on. They have no interest in casting it as a sort of aircraft carrier two incident. They think that the president zeroed in on the most sympathetic part of the Iraq mission, which was the -- which is the troops. The White House feels that this showed the president in charge. They feel that this showed something very genuine about the president, and so the Democrats are even giving the White House credit for pulling this off.
KURTZ: But it has something in common with the president's landing on the USS Lincoln, which is it was all about the pictures. All we had was the video. You couldn't even file yet while you were on your way back from Baghdad, and so those pictures were rerun again and again on television.
ALLEN: You know, I sort of had that flashback when I was watching the Friday morning shows, and the commentators were talking about how this was a 10, or whatever. I was thinking, this is what people said about the carrier landing. You don't know how these things are going to turn -- come out.
We did not file until after the president was above 10,000 feet, headed out of Baghdad. They told us on the way over, this is going to be a secret -- when we land, and they said they're going to try to keep it a secret throughout the two and a half hours that the president is on the ground in Baghdad. Local reporters who were there, this was an event with Ambassador Bremer, the coalition administrator. They had their cell phones confiscated. And we were assured that no news would get out.
When we got back on the plane, the White House was amazed that the secret had kept, and then they let us file after we were out of the airspace.
KLAIDMAN: You know, on the point about whether the press was used, I think sometimes doing the right thing also happens to be the right thing politically. I think this is one of those cases. And, you know, look, the press is used -- the press is used one way or the other, and they're a part of the story one way or the other. If we had not gone along and kept this secret, and somehow it had gotten out and it jeopardized the mission, we would have been part of the story, as well. And I think most reporters really don't want to be -- you know, whatever their political stripe, they don't want to be in a position in any way of harming the security of the president of the United States.
KURTZ: Well, I should point out, though, that watching all the cable networks on Thursday, the coverage ranged from upbeat to gushing. I mean, a Fox anchor said "this shows the power of the presidency," and a retired colonel said on MSNBC, "you underestimate George Bush at your peril." I mean, it sounded like he landed on the moon instead of in Baghdad.
KLAIDMAN: Well, that's why I work for a weekly magazine. It's good to stand back, get some perspective. We think that what happened was appropriate, but then you go ahead and you report it skeptically and toughly.
KURTZ: Mike Allen, you know, journalists routinely keep secrets in wartime. We saw that during the Iraq war, military troop movements. They are pretty good at that. Could more reporters have been told about this in advance than the tiny little pool you were a part of without having this leak out, or is news business just too gossipy for that to be realistic?
ALLEN: Well, the normal pool on Air Force One is 14 people, and this was 13 people. So it's a relatively standard pool. They brought five photographers. One person was telling me that all of the photographers hanged so tightly together that they knew if one or two were missing that someone would notice, so that was part of the reason.
People knew I was getting a 5:45 flight to Raleigh, so that gave me a little cover. I've talked to my editors for the last time that day. They were not expecting to hear from me until after Thanksgiving. So all that timing helped a little bit in, A, having it to be a secret, and, B, not having to tell anybody anything that was incomplete or inaccurate.
KURTZ: Dan Klaidman, there's been a lot of grumbling among reporters. For example, CNN was relieved of the pool duty on Wednesday, was told -- that was their day, told nothing else was going to happen. Fox got the pool duty on Thursday, which meant that Fox went on the trip. Does all this sound like sour grapes to most people out there? Do any Americans care whether they put out a phony Thanksgiving story or not, as long as the president gets to show up in Baghdad?
KLAIDMAN: I don't think people care out there very much, and I think a few years from now people won't be talking about this.
You know, it reminds me of a story about Franklin Roosevelt. My managing editor has got a book out about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Back in August of 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt wanted to meet secretly. Franklin Roosevelt went out on his boat out near Newfoundland, and he told reporters he was going for a few days of fishing, he didn't bring any reporters with him. No one looks back to that moment to say, what a scandal, he misled the press.
KURTZ: Well, that was before cable, the Internet, and people like Mike Allen having to cover, you know, tracks, but obviously the White House pulled this off.
Dan Klaidman, Mike Allen in Crawford. Thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, the man of a thousand voices. Darrell Hammond shares some of his "Saturday Night Live" secrets.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. If you've ever wondered how a comedian can capture the essence of a president or a big-shot journalist and make us laugh in the process, the man to ask would obviously be master impersonator Darrell Hammond. I sat down with the "Saturday Night Live" comic in New York to find out just how does he do it.
KURTZ: Darrell Hammond, welcome.
DARRELL HAMMOND, COMEDIAN: Thank you. Thanks for being here -- I mean, let me having here.
KURTZ: What kinds of careful, intensive, scientific research do you do when you're studying somebody and you want to impersonate them?
HAMMOND: Well, it's important for me to remember that, I mean, everyone I've ever learned was, you know, it's just a couple of days' notice, you know. So you have to break it down real quickly into dialect, tonal quality. Do they have speech irregularities?
KURTZ: I thought you spend months with tapes, I thought you'd stand in front of a mirror and practice?
HAMMOND: With Gore, I did.
HAMMOND: And you know, with Clinton I did. But remember, those were guys that I got to play over a long period of time. Most of the people that, you know, I do, it's like play it once and then you move on to something else. It's like 90 percent of what I've ever done on "SNL" have never made it on the air.
KURTZ: Maybe there's good reason for that.
HAMMOND: I think -- oftentimes, there was a really good reason.
KURTZ: But are you trying to get into the person's head, or is it more a question of just capturing their mannerisms and the way they talk and that sort of thing?
HAMMOND: That's the beginning. If you can last for a while and work on a guy for a while, you can get inside their heads and get a sense of, you know, Cheney with the steely perspective.
Rumsfeld, a guy who's trying to perform open heart surgery and a guy comes in and says, "Who ordered the turkey with mayo?" You know, and that look. And you can sort of get a sense of them.
And Clinton, just the largest cat in the jungle and very well aware of it, that ability to say things like, you know, "You put the pause button on the VCR," you know, and sort of get away with it and just make it sound really good.
So yes, after a while you can get inside them a little bit.
KURTZ: Well, let's play a little hardball. What is it that makes Chris Matthews an interesting target for you?
HAMMOND: It's the coiled spring effect. I mean, he starts out and he does the -- he makes traditional remarks, and then he's saying something like, "You know, you look like a defective Pez dispenser." Now, that's an exaggeration of what actually comes out of his mouth.
HAMMOND: Well, maybe. Yes.
KURTZ: You always have him cutting people off. He gets bored when somebody else tries to answer.
HAMMOND: I love that. I mean, if you were asking me -- If I was asking you a question, you'd be talking and...
KURTZ: I'm trying to talk, and you're...
HAMMOND: OK. Yes. Yes. Yes. OK, you're done.
KURTZ: Now, you've done a lot of media people. You've done Geraldo. You've done Rush. You've done Koppel. Is it something about news commentators and news anchors that is great for you, because they're kind of pompous and full of themselves, and they don't talk like other people?
HAMMOND: Yes. I mean, that's the whole theme of what I do. But I mean, nobody talks like Ted Koppel. They don't talk like that in Grand Rapids. They don't talk like that in Tampa.
Like, "I don't understand Saddam Hussein. I don't understand Iraq. Everything in the country is named after Saddam. The streets. The boulevards. The taxicabs. It's like the Iraqi version of the Smurfs."
You know what I mean? Who talks like that?
Whoever talked like Cronkite? Nobody talked like Walter Cronkite. He was the greatest communicator of our time or any time, and you know, he walked into an oral interpretation class, you know, "A nation and a world. Burdened by inflation and facing the thought of depression." You're going to get an F. And yet, he's the greatest ever.
KURTZ: Is there's such a thing as -- do you worry about being too mean when you do somebody? Cutting a little too close?
HAMMOND: Always. You know, you don't want to just appeal to the Democrats or Republicans. You want to get both sides of the aisle and say you have -- be as careful as you can with the satire of politics.
KURTZ: You got a gift from heaven recently in the person of the new governor of California.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HAMMOND: Let me tell you something. Gray Davis is scared. We notice, because he's starting with a negative campaign, saying I'm not ready for this job and all of these things, that I have no specific proposals to get California out of the mess we are in. This is not so.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Everybody does Arnold.
HAMMOND: Right. That's the truth. That's the truth. Every -- I think out of five billion people on Earth, we've all done Arnold at one time or another. My dog does Arnold, you know?
But you know, what we tried to do in the couple of times that we did him was put in something that we discovered that he does, which is so clever. And I'm not saying he does this on purpose. But when you can string chunks of information together, by saying "and all of these things, and this and that, you know, and stuff like this," you can put together huge chunks of power, you know.
"Now there's the Supreme Court, stopping this with the Clinton judges. Remember the Lewinsky affair and all of that. The cigar, all of these things, you know." What? I mean, those kinds of chunks.
And it goes back to...
KURTZ: So if you read the speech, it might not make any sense.
KURTZ: But makes sense when he says it.
HAMMOND: When he says it, absolutely.
KURTZ: You can follow along.
HAMMOND: And that's another example. I mean, here's a guy who's like, "I like my dialect and I like the way I talk." And he goes out there and he says what he believes, and it's powerful.
KURTZ: As a comedian, you must miss Bill Clinton being center stage.
HAMMOND: Well, as a comic, the more your audience knows about your subject, the broader you can go. The easier it is to tell...
KURTZ: You can't do some obscure senator. You're going to do the president of the United States.
HAMMOND: Right. Because you have to go through an elaborate setup of who he is, where he's from, what he thinks. But Clinton, boom, you just plug that chip in and, like, floods of data come into people's minds.
KURTZ: Plug it in for a second.
KURTZ: With Clinton talking about President Bush, what kind of job he's doing.
HAMMOND: Let me say this. There is nothing wrong with George Bush that cannot be fixed by what is right with George Bush.
You know, Clinton was just a genius. Just a genius. I mean, I see politicians and they do this incredible thing sometimes. They do this. This fist. It's kind of like this, this, this. It's not a punch. It's this, this, which means...
KURTZ: They have rhythm.
HAMMOND: Yes, it's like "bam bam bam bam." But the thing is, it's not a real fist. It's kind of a half fist. Well, Clinton advanced that whole thing, with the muted fist.
"I am so against all of this." No one did the muted fist. It's like saying, "I am angry, but I'm not angry over here where people will get mad at me. And I'm not angry over here, where they could get mad at me. I'm angry in the middle."
KURTZ: And just a few weeks ago, you were asked by "Saturday Night Live" to do President Bush, with almost no preparation?
HAMMOND: Yes. I mean...
KURTZ: Is he harder to do?
HAMMOND: Well, he -- you know, I had done him a couple of times, just with a few words in my standup act, just doing some sort of broad dialect. But he's an incredibly complicated guy. And doing it in front of eight million people, talk about high drama, you know. It went OK the first time. This last time we did it, it went better. But...
KURTZ: You weren't initially satisfied with your George W. Bush? HAMMOND: Oh, no. No. No. He has too much going on for him in terms of his personality.
He not only wants to say what he wants to say. He wants to say it how he wants to say it. And in the time that he wants to say it. He doesn't want to spend 20 minutes on a two-minute message. You know, that great thing he does in a sentence, where he just decides this sentence is worthless to me. It's like, "We're working tirelessly to -- look, we're tireless."
KURTZ: Just moves on to the next sentence.
HAMMOND: Look, I'm tired of this sentence. I have a lot of things I have to cover here. And this is just a bunch of bull.
KURTZ: Now, when you did Al Gore during the 2000 election, not only, you know, made people laugh but you were so condescending that the Gore people had played tapes of you for the then vice president as an instruction of what not to do.
KURTZ: So you had a real impact on that campaign. That must have been a lesson in responsibility.
HAMMOND: It doesn't seem like that should be so, you know? I mean, with Gore that -- my impression of him was that he tried too hard with every single thing he did.
And suddenly have him, you know, "Let me tell you about a friend of mine, Etta Munson. She's 180 years old. She suffers from lung, heart, pancreatic, liver cancer, spinal meningitis."
KURTZ: Well, when you're able to do all nine of the Democratic presidential candidates, we'll invite you back.
HAMMOND: We'll line them right up here and get going.
KURTZ: Darrell Hammond, thanks very much for joining us.
HAMMOND: Really a pleasure.
KURTZ: When we come back, the secret Michael Jackson tape that was dangled before the networks.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The Michael Jackson media frenzy, not surprisingly, is still going strong, and there have been some unexpected twists in the saga. Several TV networks talked to a company called XtraJet about a videotape that was secretly recorded of Michael Jackson and attorney Mark Geragos while the king of pop was flying to Santa Barbara to be booked on child molestation charges. "The Los Angeles Times" quoted an XtraJet official as saying the company explored the opportunity as any business person would. Fox News reported the tape's existence, but like other networks did not offer to buy it. A judge has now barred any release of the videotape.
Meanwhile, in case you were wondering why the cable networks went wacko for Jacko, the ratings are in. During the four-day peak of the Michael Jackson frenzy, Fox News numbers jumped 25 percent. CNN up 44 percent. MSNBC up 51 percent, which is why you can expect a return to Neverland early and often.
Last week, we asked why are the media so obsessed with Michael Jackson? Here's what you had to say. John in Tuckahoe, New York, writes -- "Because all the elements, the charge, his past, his fame and fortune, even his looks add up to a gigantic, multi-car freeway pileup causing media rubbernecking. An action the media can't help but cover, and can't afford not to."
But Harold from Richmond, Virginia laments -- "On the day of the bombings in Turkey and the day of a large protest of President Bush in London, it is shameful that the networks focused on the ridiculous, overdone coverage of Michael Jackson's arrest. No wonder Americans aren't better educated about meaningful world and political events."
RELIABLE SOURCES will be right back.
KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Be sure to join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.
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