Clinton's surprising appearance on "Countdown"

A week after a ridiculous debate, MSNBC's Olbermann shows the media how it's done.

Published April 22, 2008 1:03PM (EDT)

It's hardly unusual to think Hillary Clinton would appear on a popular, national cable talk show the night before a major primary, but her appearance on MSNBC's "Countdown" was at least somewhat unexpected. For one thing, the Clinton campaign has done little to hide its disgust with the network's coverage of the Democratic race, most notably at the hands of Chris Matthews. For another, "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann has been openly critical of the Clinton strategy for months.

But after some finagling, Clinton did agree to chat with Olbermann Monday night, and it was actually pretty interesting. And given the context, there were probably more viewers than usual, many wondering whether Olbermann would be openly critical of the senator.

That didn't happen. The very first question Olbermann asked was whether a president really has the ability to "do anything about the price of a gallon of gas."

"Well, I think it's going to be very much influenced by the economy. I don't know what else might happen between now and then. But it appears to me that the economy is not going to recover, and, in fact, the price of gas is going to be a big issue ...

"I do think there are things that we can do. In the short run, I would, if I were president, launch an investigation to make sure that there's not market manipulation going on ... I would also release some of the oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve ... And I would do what I could to try to alleviate the cost right now. If we could come up with a way to make up the lost revenue with a gas tax holiday, like, for example, a windfall-profits tax on the oil companies, on a basis to try to fill the Highway Trust Fund, while we left people off from paying the gas taxes, I would consider that.

"But you're right. Ultimately, we're going to have to have an energy policy that actually moves us from our dependence on foreign oil and being literally over the oil barrel with the oil-producing countries and companies."

Hey, everybody! Look, it was a substantive question! And a substantive answer! Hell, it was even newsworthy -- Clinton seems to agree with John McCain about the merit of a "gas tax holiday."

It's almost as if we were watching a broadcast journalist who understands how to conduct an interview with a presidential candidate. Be still my heart.

And it got better. Olbermann's second question pressed Clinton to "clarify [whether] ... hypothetical Middle East conflicts would incur massive retaliation by [the U.S.], and what constitutes massive retaliation." Clinton warned Iran of a nuclear response.

It wasn't all substance. Olbermann asked whether Clinton's new ad, which features footage of the Pearl Harbor attacks and Osama bin Laden, constitutes "scare tactics." She insisted the ad "is about leadership." Olbermann asked why she criticized Barack Obama when he said McCain would be preferable to President Bush, given her own praise for McCain. She responded by comparing McCain to someone with a law license, "but that doesn't necessarily mean that somebody should hire you to perform certain services and take on certain cases." Olbermann pressed Clinton on her newfound comfort with Richard Mellon Scaife, and after she stopped laughing, she cited the recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review endorsement as evidence of her ability to win over conservatives in the fall.

It was, dare I say it, a good interview. And Clinton gave substantive responses.

As Jonathan Cohn put it, "Perhaps Olbermann, reacting to last week's debate debacle, was trying to make a point about how journalists should interview candidates. If so, I think he succeeded."

By Steve Benen

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