Saturday, June 14, 2008

I will miss Tim Russert a great deal (updated)

[With Updates]

I am utterly shocked and deeply saddened by the death of NBC News's Washington Bureau Chief, Tim Russert. Only 58, Russert was more a fixture in this town than the Washington Monument. In a campaign season - a campaign season he loved and reveled in - of twists, turns, and surprises, this is the biggest surprise of all. No headline could have shocked me more.

I admired Russert as a journalist - here was a man who cared not just about politics, but also the values behind it: democracy, trust, and the common good. The most well-known, well-respected, and revered journalist in Washington, he asked tough questions - and followed them up - but largely stuck to the truth, or at worst, the conventional wisdom. He was not one to be aggressive with his guests just for the sake of being aggressive - he was only aggressive when there was something there, but otherwise allowed public servants to be public servants. Perhaps he didn't always ask the hardest hitting questions, but through his genial approach and follow-ups, he was able to put figures like Dick Cheney on the historical record when no one else could. And of course, if you didn't like the questions he asked, there was still room to admire him - as head of the bureau, he was behind all of NBC and MSNBC's political coverage, choosing who to hire and how to cover major stories.

His analysis on MSNBC on election nights has become a staple for me. It was obvious that no one knew more about politics, or took more joy from it. His appearances on cable news were as if he was parachuting in from a higher discussion to visit for a few minutes, and share his wealth with the lesser analysts. I can't envision a Sunday morning or a Tuesday night without him. I would often replay the first few minutes of an MTP podcast just to enjoy that pounding John Williams theme, which you knew even if you'd never heard it before meant serious business was to come. In high school, I wanted to host Meet the Press and set the week's political agenda; I wanted to be Tim Russert. In fact, even until recently, host of Meet the Press was something I listed in the "dream jobs" section of my Facebook extended profile. When the strains of Bruce Springsteen came on Morning Joe as I prepared for work, I would take my clothes or razor or whatever I was using at the time into the living room and get ready there, in order not to miss a word of the congenial and solid analysis you knew was to come. For a time, my Facebook profile was "married" to a Meet the Press profile I had set up. Though I never met him, it's fair to say that over the last year and a half, Tim Russert had become a part of my life.

His colleagues at NBC, to a person, have discussed his love of family in their on-air eulogies of him, saying he forced them to go home to take time off with their families, was always the first to call and express concern when a relative was sick, and loved his father more than any other son could. (I don't quite know about that last one, but it does say something about the man's ethic and values.) He was apparently a devout Catholic, and so many folks talk not just about his love of his father and his son but also the glee he took in hometown Buffalo, sports, and Bruce Springsteen. Here was a hometown boy done good, a boy who never grew up, a bigshot who never forgot his values, a bluecollar man who wore a whitecollar shirt but never changed his collar bone.

I am spending this weekend at a Sojourners Magazine conference on faith, poverty, and politics. This is fitting because the first time I became aware of Sojourners was in high school when its founder, author Jim Wallis, appeared on Russert's program, Meet the Press. At last night's worship service, Wallis spoke fondly of Russert. He said Russert was friendly to our cause, and had Wallis on the program several times. After each broadcast, food was brought out and Russert would break bread with his guests, sharing political gossip and insights. It was a respect, Wallis said, that very few journalists show anymore.

I never did meet Russert, but I sure wanted to. When NBC News hosted a primary debate at Dartmouth, I spent the day looking for him with my eyes peeled. The political discourse in this country is at a near-all-time low right now, but if there's one man who kept it from hitting absolute rock bottom, it was Tim Russert.

ADDED 06-17-08:
The Meet the Press special that aired a day after I first published this post was very moving. Tom Brokaw led a discussion with several of Russert's close friends and MTP regulars (embedded below), but Brokaw did not sit in the moderator chair. It remained empty, as shown at the top of this post. After a jovial celebration of Russert's journalistic legacy and a number of clips of famous MTP moments, Brokaw choked up towards the end, and as he wrapped up the show, you could hear the other panelists breaking down off-camera. Here is a picture of son Luke Russert on the set of MTP, and a picture of James Carville and Mary Matalin after the broadcast. I have also added a touching rememberance from Chuck Todd at the end, and a passage from Luke Russert that captures his dad's everyman essence.

From Chuck Todd and NBC's First Read:
"***Remembering Tim: The three of us here -- like so many other folks at NBC and across Washington -- idolized Tim Russert. We have a recent memory of him that for us means the world: Tim had Wizards-Cavs playoff tickets, and he invited us to come to the game with him. We leapt at the opportunity. The three of us are avid sports fans, but it was also a chance to hang out with our friend, our leader, and our mentor. Watching a game with him was exciting -- everyone was shouting out at him, thanking him for his work with Meet the Press, asking him who was going to win the Clinton-Obama contest, you name it. Watching him watch the game was a blast, too. He was just so excited to see the Wizards but also to see LeBron. He was one of those good sports fans who appreciated great play. But the highlight of the night was heading to the bar with him. We got to do what everyone this weekend said made Tim seem so real to folks that didn't know him: We got to have a beer with him -- actually two. And we just BS’ed with the guy (mostly about hoops, not politics) as if we were buddies for a long time. It's what makes us feel so lucky that we had even a few private moments. The thing with Tim is that everyone in this bureau has similar memories of him.

*** WWRD: It doesn't feel right that we have to work today because, frankly, we worked for Tim. We wanted to impress him -- give him that nugget that would make say, "wow," and then immediately trigger an idea in his head for examining something in a way we hadn't thought of yet. So forgive us this week if we don't seem to have a lot to say. It's never going to be the same. One thing we do know is that What Would Russert Do will be guiding us, and many others as well.

*** The long pause: It’s not surprising that everything here paused after Tim Russert’s sudden death. But it says something about the man that everything seemed to have paused even on the campaign trail. Sure, there was an occasional email here or there that hit McCain or Obama, but one could sense that there was passion lacking in those email blasts. And that's not such a bad thing."

From Luke Russert:
LAUER: You mentioned Springsteen a second ago, Luke. You remember you were here back in September...
Mr. RUSSERT: Oh, yeah.
LAUER: ...and we had the Boss out on the plaza doing a concert. Remember, we were standing around during rehearsals, it was dark out still and you and your dad I were standing out there and the Boss, in the middle of a song, said something. Do you remember?
Mr. RUSSERT: I remember. He said, `There's things that are as American as how the ladies swoon for Matt Lauer and Tim Russert's haircut.'
LAUER: Yeah. And your dad, do you remember his face when the Boss stopped in the middle of a song and said that? You dad just exploded.
Mr. RUSSERT: Oh, absolutely. I think that was one of his happiest memories. He absolutely loved Bruce Springsteen. Not just the music, but the man and the musician and what he stood for and how he talked about small-town America and working-class roots. And I've never seen my father more happy than that day that he got a Springsteen mention. I think that kind of made his life.
LAUER: Well, he got more than that over the weekend. Springsteen was giving a concert in Europe, Luke. I don't know if you know this now. But he went on before 'Thunder Road' and he talked about your dad and his--and his professional credentials. And then he went on to say, 'But beyond that he was a lovely presence. A good father, husband and a good guy. He was a regular at many E Street Band shows, and I'm going to miss looking down at and seeing that big smiling face in the crowd. So we send this out all the way back to the United States tonight for his son, Luke, his wife, Maureen, and his dad, Big Russ, and all the Russert family. Tim, God bless you. We will miss you.'

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