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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Analysis of Third Presidential Debate

Aired October 19, 2008 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Facing the nation. After John McCain's strongest debate, why did the pundits complain that he was too hot while Barack Obama stayed cool?

Did news organizations get sucked in by the leaky story of Joe the plumber?

Did Bob Schieffer pin down the candidates?

And are the media prematurely proclaiming an Obama victory?

Family feud. Christopher Buckley on losing his column in "National Review," the magazine founded by his father, for daring to endorse Obama.

Plus, the forgotten war. Lara Logan on covering American troops during a firefight in Afghanistan while she's six months pregnant.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Colin Powell has always been a bit of a media darling. This was true when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was true when he was secretary of state. There are plenty of pundits, as well as ordinary Americans, who felt that he should have run for president some years ago. His image, however, was tarnished during the run-up to the Iraq War, when he made the case at the United Nations, as you all remember, about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

So there was a lot of journalistic anticipation about what he would do in this campaign. Would he endorse Barack Obama? And in the last hour, he did.

Colin Powell going on "Meet the Press," telling Tom Brokaw that he is disappointed with the campaign that John McCain has run, particularly the focus on the washed-up terrorist, as McCain calls him, William Ayers. He said that Sarah Palin is not qualified to be vice president of the United States. And he said he's disappointed in the way the Republican Party has moved to the right.

After he left the NBC studio, he was out on the street, held an impromptu press conference. Let's take a look at a little bit of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE: Senator Obama brings a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of ideas to the table. I think that Senator McCain, as gifted as he is, is essentially going to execute the Republican agenda, the orthodoxy of the Republican agenda, with a new face and with a maverick approach to it. And he'd be quite good at it. But I think we need more than that.

I think we need a generational change. And I think Senator Obama has captured the feelings of the young people of America, and is reaching out in a more diverse, inclusive way across our society.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about this latest development and some other twists and turns in this seemingly endless campaign, in New York, Mark Halperin, editor-at-large and senior political analyst for "TIME" magazine, and editor of the blog called "The Page." And here in Washington, Beth Fouhy; political reporter for The Associated Press. And Gloria Borger, CNN senior political analyst.

Mark Halperin, Colin Powell has a big following, he's a big name, but he's one former Bush administration official. Will the media make a huge deal out of his endorsement of Obama?

MARK HALPERIN, SR. POLITCAN ANALAYST, "TIME": Howie, you're the master of understatement when you said Powell's somewhat of a media darling. He's one of the most popular figures with the media.

I am one who really tries to downplay endorsements. I normally don't think they're a big deal. This one is a huge deal for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the press will spend at least a day and a half, probably more like two and a half or three days, talking bout it.

I'm no math wizard, but that's a fifth of the time John McCain has left to cut into what is still a significant lead for Barack Obama. His endorsement matters, and everything you just showed and everything he said so far today about this could have been written by David Axelrod, Obama's strategist. It's right on message for what Obama wanted.

Powell is a broadly popular figure. There's lots of symbolism here. It is, as we say in Arkansas, a big deal.

KURTZ: All right.

Beth Fouhy, I happen to think the media overplay all endorsements. This one is in a different category. It's interesting. I mean, there was so much interest in this, that when Powell came out for the stakeout after he made his appearance at NBC, CNN took it live.

BETH FOUHY, FMR. COLUMNIST, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Yes. Well, I mean, he is. He's a statesman, as Mark said. He sort of is in a different category. He's not... KURTZ: He's a statesman, but he's a statesman whose...

FOUHY: And not very political.

KURTZ: ... image was certainly muddied by his role in the run-up for the Iraq war. We seem to be forgetting that.

FOUHY: Yes. No, that's definitely true, and it's unfortunate that, you know, that's going to be a big part of his political obituary.

But at the same time, he is somebody who the American public feels very strongly about, the media probably more than anybody. They see him as above politics, a Republican, but not really a Republican, a black man who has been very, very historic in his own right. So the fact that he has made this decision, it was clearly very thought out, something he had to decide to do because he's a friend of John McCain's, and it's not something that was taken lightly by him.

KURTZ: Gloria Borger, Tom Brokaw asked Powell, why won't this be seen as one African-American endorsing another African-American? And he -- the former secretary of state said, well, he had become very impress with Obama. But is that a fair question to ask? Is that going to play into this coverage as well?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITCAL ANALYST: Sure. Yes, I think it's a fair question to ask, but I think the coverage will focus on the fact that this is a man who's got serious credentials, at least, in military and foreign policy. And it's not going to help him with liberals. Certainly it's not going to help Barack Obama.

But as journalists, we're going to say, OK, look at those Independent voters out there. Who is this endorsement going to help with? And it's going to help with those voters, and I think that's how it's going to be covered. And by the way, Colin Powell is really well known.

KURTZ: That is true.

BORGER: And a really well known Republican, and also somebody who is a friend of John McCain's.

KURTZ: As he talked about. And he talked about his disappointment with McCain. And I think his criticism of McCain and the Republican Party is what may resonate here.

Now, earlier this week there was, of course, the third and final presidential debate. McCain was much more aggressive than he had been in the two earlier encounters. But the reviews, what the pundits and the commentators and the analysts said afterwards, had to do in part with the facial expressions.

Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought he looked stern. He once raised his eyebrows and lowered them rapidly, which looked extremely odd.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: People don't like him gritting his teeth -- you know, grinding his teeth down to sawdust at this point.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: John McCain seemed to seethe at times, and certainly looked -- I mean, I think you can fairly say, with some contempt at times.

JOHN HEILEMANN, "NEW YORK MAGAZINE": Tonight the split screen just killed John McCain. You know, the smears and the blinks and the winks and the twitches.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Mark Halperin, why didn't the assorted commentators give Senator McCain more credit for hammering Obama and putting him on the defensive on several issues, as opposed to this, you know, was he sneering or sighing and all that?

HALPERIN: Howie, you're making me very an angry, very angry. Look, I rated him higher than most of our colleagues did. I thought he did, particularly for the first 40 minutes, have a strong performance. But the stuff that you just showed our colleagues talking about does matter.

It does matter to real voters. It does certainly matter in the coverage.

At a minimum, if you're going into one of these debates and you don't recognize that you need to in part think about how the press will cover it, you're making a mistake. That's a reality of the business. And McCain, after the first 40 minutes, too often went back to those verbal and physical ticks that have hurt him in the past and make him not seem like the happy warrior, but angry.

I don't think the clips you showed were inaccurate. They were, however, I thought too balanced, too weighted towards the end of the debate rather than the first 40 minutes, where I thought McCain's tone and substance was quite strong, as did many people who worked for Barack Obama who were holding their breath and hoping things would turn around as it did.

KURTZ: That's the way -- you've worked in cable news. You know that it is easier to fixate on the body language than it is to talk about the specifics of the attacks on the tax policy.

FOUHY: Right, but that's what voters saw. I mean, really, who cares what the pundits think?

What the voters saw was that split screen. They saw this man, Barack Obama, who is temperamentally extraordinarily calm. That is his hallmark at this point.

John McCain is very hot. He feels things very passionately, he shows it on his face. And, by the way, it's not like the campaign didn't know or that John McCain didn't know he was going to be seen in that split screen. It's just something that bubbles up in him, and it's part of his demeanor.

BORGER: Yes. I think that was John McCain. And he does get angry, and he was clearly trying to control himself.

KURTZ: You know, the pundits were saying nice -- I should say positive things about McCain seizing the control of that debate, but the polls show that Barack Obama won the debate by 30 points, if you believe those quickie polls.

BORGER: Yes. Well, and those quickie polls also showed that more Democrats were watching the debate than Republicans. But look, I think John McCain did take control of this debate. I think the media afterwards did note that. But in the end, sort of after 30, 40 minutes, he kind of fell off the cliff when he went negative and started making all those facial expressions.

KURTZ: Here's how another way McCain took control of the debate. He mentioned Joe Wurzelbacher 21 times. And this guy, Joe the plumber, became the new touchstone for the presidential campaign.

Take a look at the coverage of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Joe the plumber...

Joe the plumber...

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Joe the plumber...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe, you're the winner, Joe plumber.

COOPRE: Joe the plumber, who was talked about more than probably any other plumber in presidential debates.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Yes, Joe the plumber. The infamous Joe the plumber...

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: What' sit like for you and your son to hear your name being mentioned all those times in the debate?

JOE WURZELBACHER, "JOE THE PLUMBER": It floored me. I mean, it's not something I expected ever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Beth, did the media go a little too ga-ga for this guy before we learned of some of the problems with his scenario (ph)?

FOUHY: No, because John McCain put him right there in the middle of the debate. And he did so very intentionally.

He has been looking for his economic voice in this entire campaign. He found it with Joe the plumber, or he thought he did. The problem is he didn't vet him properly. But the point is Joe the plumber got Barack Obama to say he wants to spread the wealth around, and I guarantee you that is what John McCain is going to be talking about for the next two weeks.

KURTZ: Mark Halperin, you know, the McCain camp now saying that the Obama campaign is out to vilify Joe the plumber. Is there any evidence? I mean, you can criticize the media for looking into things like the guy has unpaid taxes and he doesn't have a plumber's license and his name really isn't really Joe. But is there any evidence that the Obama...

FOUHY: That's exactly what...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: ... campaign was behind these stories?

HALPERIN: Not to my knowledge. I'm of two minds about Joe the plumber. On the one hand...

KURTZ: Take a stand on Joe the plumber.

HALPERIN: I'm going to have to be two-faced on this one.

On the one hand, I think it's great that there's a human element to this, that people can look at how the various tax proposals would affect a real American. And I think he's a compelling and interesting figure. On the other hand, it does speak badly of our business and I think of politics and political media generally that it takes the injection of a flawed person and a person about whom the facts are sort of standing in the way of a good policy debate for us to actually talk about how real Americans would be impacted by the policies.

KURTZ: Let me just show you, Gloria, and then we'll come back to you, Joe the plumber on Mike Huckabee's show on FOX News talking about becoming the object of all this attention.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WURZELBACHER: The media is worried about whether I paid my taxes. They're worried about any number of silly things that have nothing to do with America. I mean, they really don't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: There he is. He's a pundit already, huh? I mean, it's...

FOUHY: He's very well spoken.

BORGER: Look, it just shows you the state of this campaign. The McCain campaign was looking for something, a symbol. They had a great line, "I'm not George W. Bush." They were looking for a symbol to tap into economic anxiety.

KURTZ: Well, they found it. BORGER: We like those kind of things. We can talk about Joe the plumber. That's something new. We don't have to talk about economic plans anymore.

KURTZ: Except that Joe the plumber doesn't make enough money yet to have his taxes raised by Barack Obama.

I've got to get a break here.

BORGER: Well, that's what Obama says.

KURTZ: And by the way, it was "The Toledo Blade" in Joe's home state of Ohio that first raised many of these questions that all of us in the media echoed.

When we come back, the third man on the stage. Did Bob Schieffer finally manage to pin the candidates down and get them off their talking points at that debate?

And later, Christopher Buckley on breaking with the right and losing his column in "National Review."

And CBS' Lara Logan on her harrowing trip to Afghanistan and juggling war reporting with her pregnancy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: At this week's final presidential debate at Hofstra University, Bob Schieffer of CBS was the moderator, and among other things, he asked the candidates whether they would say to each other's face what their attack ads and their surrogates had been saying on the campaign trail.

Here's some of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB SCHIEFFER, MODERATOR: Senator Obama, your campaign has used words like "erratic," "out of touch," "angry," "losing his bearings" to describe Senator McCain.

Senator McCain, your commercials have included words like "disrespectful," "dangerous," "dishonorable," "he lied." Your running mate said he palled around with terrorists.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Gloria Borger, was Bob Schieffer more successful than the other moderators in creating a real debate?

BORGER: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.

I mean, he's a great Sunday morning host, as you know. He asked terrific questions, simple, direct, to the point.

KURTZ: And follows up. BORGER: And followed up. And the format allowed him to do that a little bit, and we could have a discussion at some point about whether the candidates in the other debates just ran over the Presidential Debate Commission...

KURTZ: Right.

BORGER: ... and got the format so tight that the whole debates became uninformative.

KURTZ: Right.

Beth Fouhy, "The New York Times" yesterday had a long front page profile of Cindy McCain. Now, this was not a flattering piece, it didn't include a lot of new information, but it talked about her past drug addiction, how she and her husband mostly lived apart, and all of that.

The McCain campaign went ballistic over this, calling this "gutter journalism at its worst," "an unprecedented attack on a presidential candidate's spouse."

What did you think of it?

FOUHY: Well, it went over a lot of ground that had been plowed before. It was pretty much done in a fairly negative tone, I would agree with that.

KURTZ: And I haven't seen any piece, particularly two weeks before the election, that cast such a negative light on Michelle Obama.

FOUHY: Well, that's probably true. But at the same time, she has been profiled numerable times.

She's been a very public figure on the campaign. She's spoken out a lot.

Cindy is much more sort of more private. She appears at rallies, she doesn't say very much. She's a very opaque figure. And I think there was an interesting probe into sort of who and what she is. That piece was very informative, but it was -- it took a lot of the facts that many of us knew about Cindy McCain and it was kind of cast in a fairly negative light.

KURTZ: And we all know that "The New York Times" is not the McCain campaign's favorite newspaper, except when it's raising Bill Ayers. All right.

Mark Halperin, we learned this morning that Barack Obama in the month of September raised $150 million, the early estimates had been about $100 million. They always kind of leak a lower figure so they can exceed it.

If a Republican had not taken public financing and had raised all that money, and the Democrat was struggling financially, wouldn't we see a lot of stories about one candidate essentially trying to buy the election?

HALPERIN: We would. We'd also see a lot of stories about his going back on his word saying that he would accept the public money and would reach out to Senator McCain to try to work out a deal. So I think this is a case of a clear, unambiguous double standard, and any reporter who doesn't ask themselves, why is that, why would it be different if it's a Republican? I think is doing themselves and our profession and our democracy a disservice.

KURTZ: I think that's an excellent point, and that's the point we're going to end on.

Mark Halperin, Gloria Borger, Beth Fouhy, thanks very much for stopping by this morning.

Up next, we'll talk to Christopher Buckley, who has just given up his column at the conservative magazine founded by his father. His crime? Embracing Barack Obama.

And later, Sarah Palin does "SNL" while John McCain returns to David Letterman. But these pop culture encounters can be serious business.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Christopher Buckley is better known for his novels than his political opinions. But when he endorsed Barack Obama, he got plenty of attention, largely because his late father is, of course, William F. Buckley.

Many conservatives were up in arms. And the uproar prompted Chris Buckley to give up his back page column at "National Review," the magazine his father founded a half-century ago.

I spoke to him earlier here in the studio.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Chris Buckley, welcome.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY, POLITICAL SATIRIST: Good to be here.

KURTZ: You wrote your Obama endorsement for Tina Brown's new Web site "The Daily Beast." Wouldn't it have been gutsier to do it for "National Review?"

BUCKLEY: Well, first of all, how could you not write an endorsement in a publication called "The Daily Beast?" But the fact of the matter is I have a new column in "The Daily Beast."

I went to some pains in that endorsement to point out that I was not writing it for "National Review" so as to create -- well, to use a rather right-wing word, some lebensraum, a little breathing space, for "National Review." I wanted to dissociate my endorsement from "National Review," where I had also a column. KURTZ: You also wrote that you didn't have the "kidney," as you put it, to take the 12,000 hostile e-mails that, for example, columnist Kathleen Parker got when she criticized Sarah Palin.

BUCKLEY: Right. My colleague, the very lovely Kathleen Parker, had written a column in "National Review Online" suggesting that Sarah Palin ought really to withdraw from -- as the Republican nominee. And she got some, to put it mildly, strident e-mail, including one charming suggestion that her mother should have aborted her and thrown the fetus into a dumpster.

KURTZ: A lot of ugliness out there. Now after your piece blew up into a controversy, or mini controversy, you e-mailed the editor of "National Review," Rich Lowry, and you offered to resign as a "National Review" columnist. Why?

BUCKLEY: I did.

KURTZ: Why did you do that?

BUCKLEY: Well, again, I felt that I had put "National Review" in an awkward position. And I wanted to -- which was never my intention. I love "National Review." It's the magazine my father started. You know, I have nothing but warm feelings for "National Review."

But because of some of the mail I had gotten that day, including one from a very rich-sounding man saying, "I have been donating faithfully to the 'National Review' foundation all these years. Not one more red cent of my money will they get so long as you are in any way affiliated with 'National Review.'"

So I thought, well, god, if I'm getting one of those, there must be more of those. And the last thing I wanted to do was penalize "National Review" for my own independent political thoughts. So I sent an e-mail to Rich Lowry saying, "Look, if it would make any easier for you guys for me to resign the column..." The e-mail was slugged "A Sincere Offer."

KURTZ: And that sincere offer was sincerely accepted.

BUCKLEY: That's the -- be careful to whom you send your resignation offer. They may take you up on it.

KURTZ: And Rich Lowry, as a result of your offer, which he did accept -- "Chris says that his Obama endorsement has generated a tsunami. That e-mail at NRO" -- National Review Online" -- "has been running, oh, 700-1 against him, and there's a debate about whether to boil him in oil or shoot him. Chris is either misinformed or exercising poetic license. We've gotten about 100 e-mails, if that, a tiny amount compared to our usual volume, and threats of cancellations in the single digits."

So he's suggesting you're exaggerating the reading.

BUCKLEY: Well, if that's so, then why did he accept my letter of resignation? KURTZ: What do you think?

BUCKLEY: You'd have to ask Rich. But, I mean, look, I don't doubt what Rich is saying. Rich is an honest and good guy, and I like him a lot. But that's rather counterintuitive, what you just read.

KURTZ: Have we reached a point where a conservative speaking his mind, as you have done -- you've known John McCain for a long time, you're disenchanted with his campaign, you came out for Obama -- where by doing that people on your side of the aisle, so to speak, are so intolerant that they are beating you to a bloody pulp?

BUCKLEY: Well, it would seem -- it seems, A, to be a tempest in a teapot. My political views, Howie, ought really to be about this must interest to anyone, a point, by the way, I made clear.

KURTZ: You did.

BUCKLEY: Yes.

KURTZ: You said your last name is Buckley.

BUCKLEY: My last name is Buckley. It's a name I inherited. But I am -- I write political novels, so I suppose -- I have a column in "The Daily Beast." I suppose I'm entitled to say who I'm going to vote for, right? OK?

But yes, it seems the discourse -- if it's come to this, it seems to me the discourse has become a little calcified and sclerotic. I mean, for heaven's sakes...

KURTZ: Last question. Would your late father have been intolerant of dissenting views like this?

BUCKLEY: No. No. My father endorsed Al Lowenstein, a liberal Democrat for Congress. He endorsed Joe Lieberman for Senate in 1980. One of his closest friends on earth was John Kenneth Galbraith.

My dad was a tower of tolerance. What pop, as I used to call him, would have done in this situation was he would have devoted six pages in the next issue of "National Review" to denouncing me, and it would have made for some pretty lively discourse and good journalism.

KURTZ: And I would have enjoyed reading it.

BUCKLEY: And you might have even had me on to discuss the denunciations.

KURTZ: All right. Christopher Buckley, thanks very much for joining us.

BUCKLEY: Good to be here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: And coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, mission accomplished? With the clock ticking and Barack Obama leading in the battleground states, are the media writing off John McCain again?

Plus, Obama takes a swipe at FOX News, and one of the anchors bites back.

Plus, CBS' Lara Logan on what it was like to see her personal life splashed all over the tabloids.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARA LOGAN, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I think it is demeaning. I mean, it's sort of 17, 18 years that I've been doing this, and now people question whether or not you have the brains to do it? I mean, would they question that if I was a man?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: There are, according to the official RELIABLE SOURCES countdown clock, 16 days until the election, but if you watch some of the pundits or read some of the papers, you might get the impression the presidential campaign is pretty much a done deal and we can all start speculating about President Obama's cabinet. That's certainly what John McCain thinks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The national media has written us off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And little wonder, based on all the prognosticators and their color-coded maps.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS: Obama just needs one other state at this point.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If nothing else changed and these projections held up through the election, Barack Obama would have enough electoral votes to be the next president of the United States and to win this election.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Right now Barack Obama would win I think more than 300 electoral votes.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC: I think the country has decided we don't -- I mean, Obama seems acceptable and we have got to get rid of what we've got.

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO.COM: Barack Obama's going to...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

SIMON: Yes, all signs point to yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about whether journalists are rushing to judgment here and other aspects of the presidential campaign, Tara Wall, deputy editorial page editor of "The Washington Times" and a CNN political contributor. And in New York, Rachel Sklar, media editor for "The Huffington Post."

Rachel Sklar, the media message here clearly is Obama has got this thing wrapped up. Who exactly elected journalists to decide these things in advance?

RACHEL SKLAR, "EAT THE PRESS": Well, I don't think that they're deciding in advance. I think through this campaign they've been -- I mean, everybody has been obsessing over the polls, and they've been taking the available information and crunching those numbers and talking about probabilities.

I think it's fair to say that this race has not seemed close over the past few weeks. It's very close to Election Day and, you know, everybody's basically saying barring some big event, it doesn't seem like McCain can reverse this momentum. Now, New Hampshire showed that...

KURTZ: I was about to bring up New Hampshire.

SKLAR: Well, there you go. You're making -- you're taking big risk if you're making a set in stone prediction. But, you know, educated guesses are not out of line, and these are pretty educated.

KURTZ: OK. They're educated, but they're also guesses.

The cover of "Newsweek," Tara Wall, just out today. A picture of Barack Obama -- if we can put that up. "How President Obama Might Govern a Center-Right Nation."

So it seems to me that the journalists are looking forward to an Obama administration. And some might say there's a bit of cheerleading here.

TARA WALL, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And you know, I mean, we all do prognosticating. I guess that's what we get paid for. We wouldn't be in business if we didn't.

But, you know, at the end of the day, let's remember what happens when we start overshadowing and start predicting based on polling. I mean, we see election after election, the media goes hog wild over who's winning, who's ahead, who's going to win, and then what happens is the polls prove them completely opposite.

I'm not saying that's the case here. I think, you know, you need to have a pulse of what's happening. But we have known that this race was going to be tight from the beginning. We've known that' it's gone back and forth. We've known that it's opened up and it's closed up, and it will open up and close up again.

And so I also think it sends the very wrong signal to those undecideds and those Independents who are still out there. I mean, what does that mean for those who have not yet voted and haven't made up their mind? We're telling them the race is over? I don't think that that's the message we want to send.

KURTZ: And this is what I wonder about, Rachel Sklar. I mean, clearly, by any objective measure, Barack Obama is ahead, and he's ahead in a lot of states that he needs to win. But at the same time, I wonder if all of this talk and the "Newsweek" cover and all that has an effect on the race itself in a sense that it could depress McCain's turnout or it could even depress Obama's turnout if people think he's got this thing in the bag.

SKLAR: Well, sure. I mean, I think at this point it is to the McCain/Palin's ticket advantage to present, like, an underdog that has always been -- that's really always helpful to underdogs. And it's been helpful to McCain in the past. And, you know, he has shown before that he has come back from behind.

But I think it's important to note that these assessments of where the campaign is, it's not only based on random numbers, you know, printouts put in front of people sitting at their desks. I think it's based on the merits. You know, like, how did these two candidates measure up during a series of debates? What's been going on with Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy? Troopergate, the fact that she's had a number of high-profile interviews that...

KURTZ: Sure, there's a lot of things that have gone against...

(CROSSTALK)

SKLAR: And how McCain and Obama have handled the global financial crisis.

WALL: And this is exactly why polls are so unpredictable. People are interviewed, and they give answers and responses based upon how they feel at that moment. And that's why, up until this big economic mess, rightfully so, you know, McCain was leading. But when people feel like their pocketbooks are being hit...

KURTZ: Sure, these are snapshots.

WALL: ... I mean, their emotions determine the polls.

KURTZ: But let me jump in here because I want to ask you a question about a "New York Times" magazine article today in which Barack Obama says the following -- if we could pit that up on the screen. "I'm convinced that if there were no Fox News, I might be two or three points higher in those polls, because the way I'm portrayed 24/7 is as a freak! I am the latte-sipping, 'New York Times'-reading, Volvo-driving, no-gun-owning, effete, politically correct, arrogant liberal."

Does Barack Obama have good cause to be ticked off at Fox News? WALL: Well, I think he's feeling what a number of Republican candidates have felt for years about the liberal and mainstream press. I mean, when you have, for example, the mainstream press writing today about McCain being a -- you know, a geezer, a "come-back geezer" was the way he's termed, the way...

KURTZ: Who used the term "geezer"?

WALL: Well, I will not name the source, but I think -- I believe it was "The Washington Post," actually, that characterized him as, you know, a "come-back geezer". And the characterizations that have been made by the left and some mainstream media of even Sarah Palin as this kind of backwards, you know, uneducated woman who doesn't relate to anyone. So, I think, listen, at the end of the day, he doesn't want to undercut or discount the viewers, the actual viewers that Fox has.

KURTZ: Right.

WALL: There are those who are uncharacteristically what he might think are just conservatives. Actually, blacks and Democrats watch Fox News, as well. So he should be careful.

KURTZ: Let me jump in here, Rachel.

SKLAR: Can I jump in here?

KURTZ: Before you jump in, I want to play Neil Cavuto, Fox anchor, responding to the Obama blast in "The New York Times" magazine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS: You are very, very good. And the media is very, very impressed. But not all in the media who take nothing away from you and your remarkable story, but do insist on taking it to you on your policies. You clearly relish a media that fawns over you, but does that mean getting childishly pricklish when some refuse to?

Rachel, you've got half a minute.

SKLAR: Oh, great. I think -- I think, listen, Cavuto has a point.

The media has been very favorable to Obama on a number of levels. I do think that the terrorist fist jab comment from E.D. Hill was indicative of maybe her taking in a certain viewpoint at Fox. How's that for my half a minute? I will also point out that "Newsweek" featured a beer and arugula comparison on their cover as well with respect to Obama. It hasn't been universal.

KURTZ: All right. Well, you'll get another chance right after this break.

When we come back, David Letterman gives John McCain a second chance, but doesn't exactly let him off the hook.

Plus, doggone it, was America ready to laugh with Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live?"

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Well, John McCain returned to "The Late Show" this week after having famously blown off David Letterman. But while there was the usual joking around, Dave got in more than his share of serious questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": If you are unable to fulfill your office, we get a 9/11 attack, Sarah Palin is the president who leads us through that?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Sure. She has -- she's been the governor of a state with 24,000 employees.

LETTERMAN: If I were to run upstairs, wake you up in the middle of the night and say, John, is say Palin really the woman to lead us through the next four, eight years, through the next 9/11 attack...

MCCAIN: Absolutely. She has inspired Americans. That's the thing we need.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Rachel Sklar, Letterman was really grilling him. So it looks like these late-night shows are not always just about yucking it up.

SKLAR: They haven't been about only yucking it up for ages. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert -- and we've seen "SNL" -- and now the talk show hosts are getting into it on the issues. And they say that, you know, you need truth for comedy, and so that's where they're going. They're going to the actual news and they're spinning it in a comedic way. But it doesn't mean that it's not actually true.

We know how Letterman feels about Sarah Palin based on his interview with Brian Williams, where he sort of mocked her. So, you know, it would have been nice to see John McCain say that she's qualified based on her experience.

KURTZ: What's interesting, Tara, is that McCain also got grilled when he went on "The View" by some of the liberal ladies there. I don't see this happening to Barack Obama as much on these pop culture shows.

WALL: Well, no. I think that -- you know, and much has been written about how much you can actually make fun of him without being accused of being a racist or accused of certain things. So, I mean, I think that they have -- some have taken a hands-off approach to how they handle Barack Obama, but I think you're starting to see a little bit more of it. I mean, you're starting to see his character portrayed on "SNL" and some other places.

Look, I think at the end of the day, this is great for the candidates. They -- you know, listen, people ought to be able to know that the candidates can be lighthearted, open up, comedic.

KURTZ: That they have actual personalities.

WALL: That they have personalities. And that Sarah Palin can be mavericky and whatnot.

KURTZ: All right. Well, let's take a look at he mavericky Sarah Palin. The actual Sarah Palin making the much-anticipated debut last night on "Saturday Night Live," and kind of upstaging -- obviously this was all scripted, but kind of upstaging Tina Fey.

Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

TINA FEY, ACTRESS: You know, I don't worry about the polls. Polls are just a fancy way of systematically predicting what's going to happen.

The real one?

(LAUGHTER)

FEY: Bye.

(APPLAUSE)

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you. Thank you.

No, I'm not going to take any of your questions, but I do want to take this opportunity to say, live from New York, it's Saturday night!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, Rachel, did Governor Palin really have any choice to go on that show given how Tina Fey has kind of defined her persona?

SKLAR: Well, I don't know. Does she have a choice about whether or not to go on "Meet the Press?" Obviously, she made a conscious decision to do so. I think it was extremely beneficial to her.

It highlighted the aspect of Sarah Palin that she is so likable. That she is a very -- she comes across very, very well and she is a likeable personality.

The fact that within the portrayal, still all about her not talking to the media and that sort of thing, is still -- you know, it's still a legitimate thing to point out. I thought that it was exactly what she needed to do. She's really taken a beating. Troopergate came out, all of those bad interviews, and it behooved the campaign to refocus on the aspects of her that were positive.

KURTZ: We're looking at some very funny pictures form "SNL" while you're talking, but I'm concentrating on you, Rachel.

SKLAR: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Tara...

WALL: She's actually got some rhythm. Did you notice that?

KURTZ: No.

WALL: She's got rhythm.

KURTZ: We didn't know this was a requirement to be vice president.

But is this just late-night fun, or is it actually important for politicians, particularly those who have been subjected to the kind of mockery Sarah Palin has, to show they can laugh at themselves?

WALL: Yes. And I do think it is a correct assumption that she has taken a bit of a hit. I think that Tina Fey's caricature of her has probably done her more harm than good. And so she really did have to go on and show that she can laugh at herself, as well. And I think at the end of the day, that's what we need to do.

She's still very, very popular with the base, with the party. She's been much more of a benefit to John McCain and his campaign, regardless of what folks want to say and how they want to laugh at her. I think at the end of the day, I think that humanizing effect goes a long way in many voters' minds, and being able to laugh. You know, look, again, candidates being able to laugh at one another, I think especially in times like this, is essential.

KURTZ: What about this access question that you just alluded to, Rachel Sklar, and that is she has not -- Sarah Palin has not given an example, for example, to NBC's Brian Williams? This week she talked to Rush Limbaugh, she talked to Fred Barnes at "The Weekly Standard." She is not doing any more of these mainstream interviews, so the closest that NBC can get to her is to put her on "Saturday Night Live."

SKLAR: Well, actually, NBC announced that she will be doing -- she and John McCain will be doing a joint interview with Brian Williams for "NBC Nightly News" this coming week.

KURTZ: Ah, so she is finally.

SKLAR: So they finally relented on that point. But I think -- I mean, it's very unusual for a vice presidential candidate to not sit for an interview on "Meet the Press." So, I think it's great.

It's great that she went on "SNL." I think it's great for the campaign and for the fun of the campaign, the feel of the campaign, that she went on. I do want to just return to the...

KURTZ: Very briefly.

SKLAR: Very quickly, the reason that Tina Fey's portrayal of Sarah Palin has been so important is because it's taken elements of Palin and magnified them. "I can see Russia from my house" is now something that lives beyond "SNL."

WALL: And let me just say, Obama has also -- Senator Obama has notoriously been somewhat standoffish to media. He's not been as accessible as John McCain. So that goes both...

(CROSSTALK)

SKLAR: The two don't really compare.

WALL: That really goes...

KURTZ: But he's done Sunday talk shows, unlike Sarah Palin.

WALL: Absolutely. But he's also the top of the ticket. He's the presidential top of the ticket.

KURTZ: That's a fair point.

All right. We're going to have to leave it there.

Tara Wall, Rachel Sklar, thanks for joking around with us and also talking about this in a slightly more serious way this Sunday morning.

Still to come, the forgotten war. Lara Logan on going back to Afghanistan and why the American media pays so little attention to that increasingly dangerous country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It's been greatly overshadowed by the banking crisis, the presidential campaign, and Madonna's divorce. But America remains mired in two wars. And for most of the seven years since the U.S. helped topple the Taliban, Afghanistan has drawn little media coverage. In fact, there are reports this morning that Taliban fighters seized a bus in Kandahar and killed 30 people aboard.

Lara Logan, CBS' chief foreign affairs correspondent, recently spent time with American forces in that embattled country for a report airing tonight on "60 Minutes." In Logan's first television interview since returning to Washington, I spoke to her earlier here in the studio.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Lara Logan, welcome.

LARA LOGAN, CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, CBS: Thank you very much.

KURTZ: Afghanistan has largely been off the media radar screen this year, except for a couple of flare-ups during the presidential campaign.

Why did you decide to go there? LOGAN: Well, I've always believed Afghanistan was going to become more and more important again. Even in the four years I lived in Baghdad, I still went back to Afghanistan. In fact, the first year after the invasion, at "60 Minutes II," we did three Afghanistan stories.

And the main reason people aren't covering it is because it's financially crippling to cover two wars at the same time, not because it doesn't matter. And I thought it was critical to get Afghanistan back on TV screens.

KURTZ: On this trip you were out with 101st Airborne and found yourself in the middle of a firefight. Let's take a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOGAN (voice-over): Then as daybreak came, shots suddenly rang out. Bullets coming at the soldiers out of nowhere, whizzing over their heads and hitting the wall behind them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now we've got some enemy to the right side of the lot (ph) we're not exactly sure where.

LOGAN: U.S. attack helicopters fired rounds from the skies while machine gunners fired from the Humvees to clear the way forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Clearly, these are dangerous situations. What was it like for you personally to be out with these troops?

LOGAN: Well, you know, it wasn't easy. I mean, there are huge mountains that you climb every single day, up to 10,000 feet. Physically, it wears you down.

It's blistering hot. You inhale the dust. The dust lives in your lungs. And then obviously there is the risk. And this is a very dangerous area, but this is one of the reasons that we wanted to go there.

I mean, when we said to people we went to Forward Operating Base Wilderness, everybody was like, "Why would you go there?" Because it's known to be such a bad area. But, I mean, that was -- it was particularly important for us to show what the soldiers go through every day.

KURTZ: Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that the war has not been going well. The commander wants 15,000 more troops.

You were told that the Taliban strength was up 20 or 30 percent last year. And yet, as we just noted, few western journalists are there, the story is barely on television, and it's often on the inside pages of newspapers.

Is it just because of Iraq, or is it because somehow media types have lost interest in this grinding, seven-year-old war? LOGAN: I don't think anyone has lost interest in the war. I mean, especially now. But I think in a political year with the campaigns, it's hard to get air time. With an economic crisis it's hard to get air time. Then you have Iraq as well. which doesn't get much air time now anyway.

And so -- and the biggest problem is money, because it's so logistically difficult to get out there, it costs so much. And budgets cripple news coverage these days.

KURTZ: And yet, you know, journalism organizations have priorities. And they spend money on what they think is important. And I have to think they don't think there's any great ratings, to use a television term, in keeping correspondents stationed in Kabul.

LOGAN: Well, "60 Minutes" is leading with this story on Afghanistan. They had an Iraq story last week, they had an Iraq story on the opening show of the season.

I mean, clearly there are people like Jeff Fager, who do think -- the executive producer -- that it's critically important to keep it out there. And you know, he's not alone. But it would be -- it would be great if you could have a bureau in Kabul and cover this, more of this, and keep it in people's minds as much as it should be, because it is that important.

KURTZ: You're an experienced war correspondent. You've done this for years. You were running around with troops while you're six months pregnant.

What were you thinking?

LOGAN: Well, my doctor said, you're pregnant, you're not dying. So I took that as a good sign. And obviously I took whatever precautions I had to medically to make sure that not only was I safe, but that I wasn't going to be a burden on the military.

And I have to say, I mean, the soldiers were absolutely amazing. They didn't care that I was I pregnant. And as long as I was keeping up and holding my own, it was an absolute non-issue out there.

KURTZ: Treating you as one of the guys, so to speak?

LOGAN: Yes, with my own personal Port-a-Potty.

KURTZ: All right.

Now, you got pregnant while you were in Baghdad. Your divorce was not yet final. It is now. You found yourself on the front page of the "New York Post" and you were kind of tabloid fodder for a while.

Was that a difficult period for you?

LOGAN: Yes, I think it's very difficult, especially when your job is to be a journalist and not to be a celebrity. I mean, you don't make your living out of being a celebrity as a journalist. And especially the last seven years of my life has been mostly spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it's not just a question of being the only person willing to be out there, or one of the few, it's a question of, that's what you believe in, that's what's important.

And so to find -- I found the whole debate over whether or not -- you know, now suddenly it's a question of whether or not you have the ability to do your job or the brains to do your job. And I find it amazing. I don't think that...

KURTZ: Is it sexist? Is it demeaning?

LOGAN: It is demeaning. I think it is demeaning. I mean, it's sort of 17, 18 years that I've been doing this. And now people question whether or not you have the brains to do it?

I mean, would they question that if I was a man? I don't think so. Not to the same degree.

KURTZ: But even some of your friends didn't suggest that maybe you pass up this trip?

LOGAN: There were people that didn't think that it was a good idea. Absolutely. But you know, the most -- well, why would I listen to that?

KURTZ: All right.

Now, having spent a good chunk of your career in Iraq, where there are still 140,000 America troops, does it bother you that the media seem to have largely moved on, that the bureaus are being cut down in size, and that it's barely been an issue in the presidential campaign?

LOGAN: Yes, absolutely. Of course it bothers me.

I mean, I'm mindful of the realities, you know, that you have the political campaign, you have the economic crisis, you have -- which are huge, huge issues and obviously critically important. So you understand it to a degree. And when I was in Iraq during the invasion, it occupied most of the air time.

You know, every story has peaks and sort of lows and ebbs and flows. But what's happening in Iraq and what is happening in Afghanistan remains absolutely critical. And I mean, how can you have American troops on the ground in foreign countries and not pay attention to that?

KURTZ: I've got about half a minute. The troops that you spent time with -- you stayed there for about a month in Afghanistan -- were they happy to see a CBS crew? Do they feel neglected by the lack of media attention, or do they not worry about it?

LOGAN: No --absolutely. Well, one of the things that comes out in the piece is that the troops feel that the roles were reversed. It was all about Iraq before they got out there because that's what they heard about in the media.

They had -- they, even the soldiers themselves fighting the war in Afghanistan, had no idea when they were coming in that it was going to be as bad as it was. And what does that tell you? How can you be sending troops to a war when they don't even have a real sense of how intense the fight is that they're going to be fighting?

KURTZ: That's a question that's difficult to answer for those of us in the news business.

Lara Logan, we'll look for your "60 Minutes" report tonight. Thanks very much for joining us.

LOGAN: Thank you, Howie.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

We hope you'll join us again next Sunday at 10:00 a.m. Eastern. Another critical look at the media.

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