CBS News President Andrew Heyward doesn't buy the complaint that Bryant Gumbel is a liberal activist masquerading as a journalist. He calls him "fair, but tough."
Inside the liberal media, Gumbel defenders are constantly calling Gumbel "the best live interviewer on TV." But that's not how the TV critics saw Gumbel's interview with Bill Clinton on the splashy debut of his new job as host of "The Early Show" on CBS.
"Soft and unsurprising," declared the New York Times. USA Today wrote: "When Gumbel got around to the legacy question, he never mentioned the word 'impeachment.' He did, however, inform the president that he would be available to play golf at a country club near the Clintons' New York home." The St. Petersburg Times called his golfing buddy request "self-indulgent."
The New York Daily News suggested: "The President ducked questions about alleged drug use by Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush, and Gumbel did not ask him about former White House aide Monica Lewinsky or ongoing campaign finance probes." The Washington Post took exception: "Twice, incidentally, Gumbel referred to Gore and Hillary as 'the two people closest' to Bill Clinton. Hey, Bryant - ever hear of Chelsea? Or the fact that Clinton and Gore are not considered bosom buddies?"
I think those critics are being too nice. Their reviews aren't harsh enough in describing how utterly servile Gumbel actually was. Heyward thinks he's "tough?" The Gumbel interview occurred just days after John Huang testified that Indonesian businessman James Riady had told Clinton about raising money for him and that then-White House aide Harold Ickes had asked Huang to raise money for Jesse Jackson Jr.'s congressional campaign - both illegal activities. Did Gumbel raise it? Forget it.
What about the late September testimony from four FBI agents that their probe of 1996 Clinton and Democratic fundraising was thwarted? No other reported has asked Clinton about this - and neither did Gumbel when he had his chance.
In the first half-hour of the first "Early Show," Gumbel instead chose to deal more with Clinton's personal state of mind as lame-duck status sets in. "Let's talk politics. The two people who have been closest to you for seven years are about to get out there on the campaign trail while you stay at home and deal with the issues. Is that terribly frustrating?" And then, this hardball: "Are you going to miss being President?"
If you think that was "tough," wait until Gumbel asked about Clinton's legacy. When Clinton said he "turned the economy around and prepared America for a new century," Gumbel replied, "You'd be satisfied if your legacy was erasing the nation's red ink?" Clinton answered, "I think that's one of my legacies," but then went on and on about morning in America since he was elected. Any man on the street would have asked: "But what about that intern-perjury- impeachment thing?" But Gumbel's not any man, he's "fair, but tough." And he let Clinton just yammer on: "I have been fortunate enough to serve as president at a time of dramatic transformation, when we really have - in the metaphor I used in 1996 - built a bridge to the future."
When the Clinton interview resumed in the second half-hour, it was more of the same, asking about how Al Gore should do this or do that. In other words, this interview contained all the same lame-duck horse-race questions the White House press corps asks about instead of focusing on issues that mean something.
While no Clinton scandal emerged from this master of the "tough" interviewer, Gumbel did ask about unproven rumors of drug use - by George W. Bush: "What's your take on the demarcation line he's drawing on past drug use for his personal life?" When Clinton insisted that's "up to the public," Gumbel responded: "Let me rephrase. In your opinion, do you believe previous cocaine use should disqualify someone from sitting in this office?" Clinton then included the partisan dig that he wouldn't want to distract the campaign with "the kind of treatment I got from '91 forward from the Republicans and their allies."
Gumbel ended by sharing a laugh with Clinton about the closest golf course to the new Clinton manse in New York: "Whippoorwill Country Club in Armonk. Do you know who is a member there?" Clinton: "Are you?" Gumbel: "Yes, sir." Clinton: "I'd be happy to be your guest, any time, I'm easy about that."
So the Clintons buy a house in New York with a ethically challenged loan from a lobbyist, then refinance the loan to avoid a campaign issue, and Gumbel skips the entire controversy to ask for a golf date? It's time for another memo to the president of CBS News. Your "tough" claims about Gumbel were rubble within the first 60 minutes of your new show.