CNN's Jake Tapper kicked off his new hosting gig on the Sunday news show "State of the Union" featuring an interview with Bill Clinton, arranged through theClinton Global Initiative. It's a big name, but a tough start for a serious journalist. With the exception of his infamous snorting, knee-jabbing performance with Chris Wallace in 2006, the former president has negotiated a succession of journalistic foot-rubs surrounding his tightly scripted Global shindigs.
On that sycophantic curve, Tapper did well. He never prompted Clinton into a squinting, pointing rage, but make no mistake: He asked some tough questions.
Regarding the Clinton foundation, Tapper channeled "a lot of people," who suggest it's not realistic to say "these companies, these wealthy individuals, these governments, none of them sought anything? I mean, some of them did have business before the State Department."
Clinton tried to change the subject to Haiti, but Tapper stayed focused. His follow up — "you say you don't know if anybody sought any favor?" — prompted Clinton to answer, "No, and I don't think Hillary would know either ... she was pretty busy those years. ... I never saw her study a list of my contributors or — and I had no idea who was doing business before the State Department."
These smartest people in the world turn into incurious morons at the most convenient moments.
Then Tapper turned to the inner city. Weeks back, Tapper asked former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley why, if Democrats had all the answers for the poor, is Baltimore in such sad shape? He repeated the challenge to Clinton, noting the unemployment rate for young black men there is 37 percent.
Baltimore is the postcard for liberal incompetence, and Tapper could have — should have — aimed for the jugular. He did just the opposite, offering the former president every opportunity to spin his way out of it. "There have been a lot of Democrats and Democratic rules trying to improve the lot of people in Baltimore, where they spend a great deal per pupil.
You can't look at that city and say nobody's been trying. What are some of the things that can be done that haven't been tried?"
That, folks, qualifies as a "hardball" question with today's media. Still, you could tell Clinton wasn't ready. He paused, and then stammered, "Well, first, I believe we ought to try to accelerate development opportunities and jobs near where these young people live."
But Tapper wasn't done with the hardballs. He shifted to veterans, and implied in passing that the Democrats haven't been doing much for veterans lately. "Today, it's a different kind of tragedy. It's veterans committing suicide. It's veterans suffering in silence. It's the VA scandal. You're somebody who has actually sent men into battle, some of whom didn't make it back. What can be done to help these people who have given so much and have such a tough time and don't seem to know what to do after they leave the military?"
The former president wouldn't touch the VA scandal. He just changed the subject again, remarking on how veterans with traumatic brain injuries now survive when they used to die on the battlefield.
Tapper could have responded by pointing out that this man really shouldn't be commenting on the military at all. "Mr. President, do you regret shirking your responsibilities when you were drafted into the military?" That's the sort of question this former president will never need to field.
Oddly enough, even after Clinton's fumbles, the new CNN host still went to the ad break oozing, "Whatever you think of Bill Clinton, he is pretty universally regarded as one of the keenest political minds in the biz."
It didn't require smash-mouth, Mike Wallace-style hammering. Tapper had just demonstrated how this "keenest political mind" could sputter under some simple but surprisingly serious inquiries. Why can't the others put this "genius" through the paces?