By Albert Oetgen, Managing Editor NBC News Washington
MOSCOW -- President Obama squeezed in sit-down interviews with network White House correspondents here today, an opportunity that comes up periodically and one the correspondents cherish because it tends to generate news and, even when it doesn't, almost always yields them a prime place in their morning and evening news broadcasts.
Almost always. Today, we weren't so sure.
The ritual begins with a drawing to see which order NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and CNN sit down for the exchanges that last, generally about 10 minutes. Today, NBC won, so Chuck Todd went first.
The president arrived energized after a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Less than 24 hours earlier, Mr. Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev had announced a broad agreement to reduce nuclear arms. He appeared ready, eager even, to talk.
Chuck Todd is a master schmoozer, capable of warming up the most reluctant of interview subjects in a few short moments. As Jim Long and Rodney Batten made last-minute adjustments to their cameras, Chuck launched his customary patter.
"It's quite the news day. These interviews are up against ..."
The president, picking up on Chuck's theme instantly, interrupted, displaying that now-familiar wry Obama wit: "I know," he said. "I got briefed that if you want to get on the air, don't talk about nuclear weapons. Talk about Michael and Sarah."
But it was not Mr. Obama's wit that was memorable, it was what he said next, in a tone that clearly conveyed frustration that bordered on chagrin.
"We cut nuclear weapons by a third, man," the Leader of the Free World intoned.
Really, how many people have ever been able to say that?
Irina Tkachenko has been NBC's secret weapon in Moscow this week. She grew up here, but lives in New York now. Irina visits her mother regularly, and happened to schedule her trip this summer to coincide with the presidential summit.
Irina speaks the language, gets the customs, and has a way of bringing what happens here into sharp focus. She explains Russia to Americans, and America to Russians with elegant grace and good humor.
She brought us the local papers this morning and wrote a useful memo translating the headlines, describing what they were reporting, and explaining how the individual style and personal politics of each paper informs its coverage.
Here's a sample:
MOSKOVSKY KOMSOMOLETS - A very popular and fairly irreverent paper places a headline on its front page "LEST WE GET TAKEN IN" and says the US President's visit to Russia should not turn into a tourist's trip. The paper calls Obama the "most popular politician in the world" and says should the visit fail to make substantial progress, the two Presidents will be "losers of the decade."
So which Moscow newspaper is the most fun? Take a look at what Irina wrote about this one and draw your own conclusion:
TVOI DEN - A yellow tabloid sheet highlights Obama's trip to Russia under the title "Barack Obama's first visit to Moscow," printing a cartoon of Obama in a cowboy hat and flies telling each other "Get away!!! This is the famous fly-swatter!" Page 2 article ("Obama in Medvedev's paws" -- a play on Medvedev's last name. "medved" means "bear" in Russian) said foul weather in Moscow spoiled the mood on arrival. Pages 4 and 5 (titled "The Famous Fly-swatter"), proclaimed the day a success, and noted that some obscure Russian company making fly swatters is considering placing Obama's name on the tools as a way to prop up business in times of crisis.
picture caption: NBC's Savannah Guthrie with Irina Tkachenko (left)
Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and I took a long walk along the banks of the Moscow River today (on Irina's advice, by the way; she had told us on Sunday that the river walk is an impressive and beautiful experience. Indeed it is).
About 15 minutes from the hotel, we stumbled on a huge pile of metal, a riverside monument to a mariner, said to be the seventh tallest statue in the world and was once voted the tenth ugliest structure on Earth. Chuck had heard about it and told us the story.
It was originally cast to be Christopher Columbus. One look at it, and that makes plenty of sense. The pedestal incorporates an odd stacking of 16th Century sailing ships -- three of them -- just like the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.
But why honor Columbus in Moscow?
It seems that somewhere between the idea and its execution, the colossal statue became an orphan. Nobody wanted it. Finally, the Russians bought it. But not before the sculptor agreed to change the face to that of Peter the Great. It commemorates the establishment of the Russian navy. It is, without a doubt, one of the weirdest things you'll ever see.