June 13, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Tim Russert passes away

There are relatively few giants in the world of politics and the news media who hold everything together -- men and women you can't imagine how the world would get by without them. Tim Russert was just that sort of person. Political junkies across the country are in a state of utter shock and dismay this evening upon learning that Russert died of a heart attack today while preparing for his Meet the Press show. A teary-eyed Tom Brokaw made the official announcement on NBC this afternoon. As Keith Olbermann noted on MS-NBC this evening, NBC waited until all family members were notified before making it public -- even though other media outlets had already made it headline news. Such is the cutthroat nature of television news these days: anything to get the "scoop" on the competition.

Trying to assess Russert's greatness is very hard, because he has so few real peers. Among television anchors and reporters, he clearly ranks at or above the level of Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, or Tom Brokaw, and perhaps even that of Edward R. Murrow. One could easily compare him to the great 20th Century newspaper journalists such as Walter Lippmann, James "Scotty" Reston, or William Safire. His strength was not so much in intellectual originality or high-brow wordsmithing as it was in being able to probe his guests in a fair and respectful but extremely effective way. If you were at fault for something, television viewers would quickly know it because of the incisive and honest way he phrased his questions. Few people who were guests on Meet the Press got off the hook.

Tim Russert deserves special recognition as a real national treasure who more than did his part to make sure that the United States remained a great nation, faithful to its ideals of truth and justice. Some day, there will be statues, buildings, endowed professorships, charity events, scholarship funds, and probably a commemorative postage stamp honoring him. Without him, the American public will not be as well informed about the candidates and the issues as they need to be as they make their voting decisions this fall. It will be hard to watch the 2008 national party conventions and the fall presidential campaign without Russert adding his commentary and insight. Who, indeed, can possibly fill his shoes?

Russert became the moderator of Meet the Press in 1991, and he soon transformed it from a solid but unremarkable weekly routine to a dramatic centerpiece of the national political discourse. He persuaded the penny-wise NBC executives to extend the time to a full hour, and he made every minute of that hour count. (If you ask me, NBC should consider cutting Meet the Press back to 30 minutes, now that he's gone.) Russert clearly loved his work, and he was truly blessed to have found his professional niche while in the prime of his career. It is interesting that his rise to superstardom in the Mainstream Media during the 1990s paralleled the rise of Rush Limbaugh in the upstart alternative genre of talk show radio. Russert was smart enough not to look down on Limbaugh, as most others in his profession did, however, but instead welcomed him on his show. Later, he paved the way for Limbaugh to participate as an analyst for NBC in the 2000 election campaign.

Growing up in a working class family from the Rust Belt, Russert's political sympathies naturally lay with Democrats, but it hardly ever showed in his work as a television journalist. His work for Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (an intellectual giant who died in March 2003) no doubt accentuated Russert's innate qualities as a journalist. He was born in 1950, and makes those of us "Baby Boomers" (not exactly the "greatest generation") proud.

A big part of Russert's character came from his father, the subject of Russert's book Big Russ and Me. For a true family man such as Tim Russert, the timing of his death is especially sad -- just before Father's Day. In a somewhat morbid footnote to this terrible tragedy, we should note that Russert's father is still very much alive, notwithstanding what Clinton campaign co-chair Terry McAuliffe suggested last month on Meet the Press, to the painful embarrassment of Russert.

For more on his life, see MS-NBC.

Finally, Russert was a big-hearted sports enthusiast who attended baseball games of the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, and other teams. That was another sign of his genuine, fun-loving personality. But his real passion was for football. I remember every January in the early 1990s as Russert cheered the pro football team from his home town of Buffalo as they got ready to play in the Super Bowl:

Go Bills!

The Buffalo Bills lost four years in a row, as we all know, but Russert never gave up hope, cheering them on in the years that followed. Let's hope that his happy, zestful, fighting spirit, combined with his supreme standard of excellence in broadcast journalism, serve as an inspiration for others to follow in his footsteps. Our country is in dire people of people like him to shine the light of truth on the confusing, shadowy world of politics.