TIMOTHY JOHN RUSSERT JR.
May 7, 1950 to June 13, 2008
by Katharine Blossom Lowrie
Meet the Best
My sister called from Arizona that fatal Friday afternoon. “Tim Russert died,” she exclaimed, the shock in her voice reverberating through the phone. “I’m in my car and just heard it on NPR. You were the only one I could think of to call.” (Photo: Reuters)
My sister is an educator, and I am a journalist, professions that have something in common, mainly the ability to communicate. Other than that, our lives couldn’t have taken more divergent paths – except for one overwhelming passion: politics. Fortunately, we are on the identical side of the political fence. But even if we were not paired up in terms of party affiliation, watching Meet The Press would have been de-rigueur on Sunday mornings for both of us. That was one of the splendors of Russert’s talent: to serve as an impartial witness to the facts and let us judge for ourselves. Whether Democrat or Republican, you got an unbiased view of the day’s hottest issues – from the host, at any rate. (Oh, maybe a hint of a lean toward the Dems at times.)
Never mean, petty or disparaging
Russert’s habit of posting excerpts from speeches, books and video clips to trap politicians with their own words was a favorite ploy. Whether cross-examining Vice President Dick Cheney on the run-up to the Iraq war, or grilling presidential hopeful Barack Obama in his primary battles with Hillary Clinton, the Managing Editor and Moderator of MTP could frame an argument without ever coming across as mean, petty or disparaging. Hard-nosed? You betcha.
Despite his blue-collar upbringing in Buffalo; the Jesuit teachers; the lessons learned from his working-class dad (a garbage collector); his early work in the campaigns of legendary Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and Governor Mario Cuomo (D-NY), one could not decipher Russert’s attitude toward his MTP guests, much less what side he favored – even if it was pretty much of a given. The only thing that really ruffled him – and severely so, many say – was a guest’s lack of preparation. Ignorance on vital issues sank many a candidate, including the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, who ran for Governor of Louisiana in 1999 on the basis of improving the economy. Only one problem. Duke could not name a single one of the three leading industries in his state. He later blamed Russert for his loss.
It’s time for church!
As for me, I think I’m like a lot of the faithful. Certainly my daughter grew accustomed to my saying at 8 a.m. on Sundays, “It’s time for church!” Meaning Meet The Press. And there I sat, like a parishioner in a pew, bedazzled by the towering newsman with the doughy face and quizzically arched brows, as he challenged his guests with his on-the-mark questions and rebuttals. Perhaps due to the purity of Russert’s values, his deeply held Catholic faith, his devotion to his wife Maureen Orth, a Vanity Fair correspondent (shown above right), and son Luke, I can be pardoned for equating the Washington bureau chief of NBC News with a minister or priest.
Admired by politicians, world leaders, business tycoons and celebrities – not to mention millions of Meet The Press devotees – (and, hey, let’s not forget Bruce Springsteen), Russert had his detractors, usually those who had suffered adversely under his tough grilling. (Some say Bill and Hillary Clinton fell into that category.) But Russert was considered the gold standard among broadcast journalists, especially at NBC, where he mentored legions. The instant news of his fatal heart attack hit the news on unlucky Friday the 13th, the accolades began flooding the airwaves. Perhaps because I was once rescued from the abyss of writer’s block by a compassionate, exuberant editor, I was particularly struck by the comments of reporters who benefited from Russert’s wisdom, humor and encouragement.
He was a cheerleader, a consoler
Chuck Todd-the NBC/MSNBC numbers man, who deftly explained the baffling ballot breakdowns during this year’s primaries, became NBC News’ political director in March 2007 – all because Tim Russert brought him on board. Todd, his voice choked with emotion, labored to explain Russert’s impact on him and other reporters in the NBC Washington bureau. “He was a cheerleader, a consoler,” Todd said during MSNBC’s weekend-long tribute. “He was sort of everybody’s father figure here at the bureau.” Journalists remarked to Todd all the time, he said, “I want to be Tim Russert some day.” As for Todd, what he loved best was briefing Russert on a story and hearing a euphoric, “Go get ’em, Todd!”
Almost without exception, everyone commented on Russert’s most treasured roles: husband, father and son. He was devoted to his family and kept track of everyone else’s children, always asking after them by name. Many of his closest friends, including Tom Brokaw, former anchor of “NBC Nightly News” (who broke the news of Russert’s death Friday afternoon); Mike Barnacle of the Boston Herald, and Al Hunt of the Bloomberg News, spoke of Russert’s colossal love for his son, Luke (shown above with his dad on the occasion of Luke’s 1st birthday). Russert was known to steal away from NBC during the day to greet his son upon his return from school, or to surprise him while he was caddying at a golf course in Nantucket, Mass., where the family owned a home.
Legendary for his pre-show homework
Russert (shown at right with his son at a ball game) had only just returned from a trip to Italy where he and Maureen and Luke were celebrating Luke’s graduation from Boston University. Russert – legendary for his pre-show preparation (he rarely accepted a social engagement on Saturday night) – was recording voice-overs for Sunday’s Meet The Press when he suffered a sudden heart attack. According to his internist, Dr. Michael A. Newman, an autopsy found that Russert had an enlarged heart and significant coronary artery disease. He was 58.
Father of the Year
That the moderator of the longest running show in TV history (60 years) died just short of Father’s Day was particularly heartbreaking. Russert’s bestsellers, Big Russ and Me (2004) and Wisdom of Our Fathers (2006), profiled his relationship with his father and told stories of fathers everywhere. Both books came to represent what Father’s Day is all about.
Florida, Florida, Florida!
As far as my personal memories, they remain steadfastly on the political side of the aisle. Who can forget the white chalkboard in the 2000 Presidential deadlock between Al Gore and George W. Bush and the words, “Florida, Florida, Florida!”
As Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, told NBC on Friday: “He had done his homework, so we didn’t have to do ours. We longed to hear what his take on world events was.”
Russert is survived by his father, Tim, Sr.; his wife Maureen and his son Luke.
[Photos: MSNBC, AP]