Years of war, thousands killed — both soldiers and Iraqis — and it took a lawyer getting wounded by the vice president of the United States to finally inspire a cracklingly divisive scene of Sunday-morning theater on Meet the Press. Usually the guests on NBC’s venerable politics show bat away Tim Russert’s more pointed questions with smiles and rhetoric and non-answers that are the equivalent of sticking fingers in one’s ears and yelling “LA LA LA LA LA.” And when Dems sit side by side with GOP folk, there’s always that dull air of respectful disagreement before moving on to talking points, while Russert avoids the follow-up questions any basic journalist would ask.

But when Republican flack Mary Matalin, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Paul Gigot flanked Russert on Sunday, they actually sniped at each other in meaningful ways, and called each other on bullshit, even if it wasn’t about nuclear Iran or health care or terrorism. Matalin, incensed, wanted to know what Dowd meant when she said Cheney blows off democratic institutions, and — oops, bad move, Mary — Dowd elaborated. Gregory snapped at Matalin for her poor choice of the word jihad to describe the press corps’ complaint about Cheney’s lax method of disclosing information to journalists, but Matalin — in defending the use of only a local Texas paper to first get word out about the shooting — witheringly noted to Gregory that if he had been given the exclusive, she doubts he would have shared it with the White House press pool.

At the end, Dowd backhandedly complimented Matalin by saying she had a difficult job in “humanizing Dick Cheney,” and we got to see Matalin glowering from across the table, shaking her head, looking flat-out pissed. Real emotion! Russert was almost a non-presence, and the guests actually engaged each other. If Meet the Press is seeming less and less like an interview show, on this past Sunday it at least started to feel like something close to debate.

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