Williams: Russert 'took the call'

We are into the second wave of media coverage of the death of NBC's Tim Russert, featuring stories that are one step away from the actual memorial service and the mainstream press memorials. Some of these events are going to be linked to more complex, personal aspects of Russert's career -- such as his faith.

Before his death, I had already noted that Russert was scheduled to give a June 27 lecture for the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, to be held at the Catholic University of America. The announced topic sounded a bit on the lofty, perhaps even pretentious side of things: "Learnings from the Political Process for Common Ground in the Catholic Church." That certainly doesn't sound like the kind of blunt, direct language that Russert favored. I immediately made plans to go or to get a copy of the talk.

After Russert's death, NBC anchorman Brian Williams -- a Catholic who briefly attended CUA -- agreed to step in and speak in place of his colleague. The emphasis for the event changed, as you would expect.

I am not sure that this was a "news event," per se. But Williams certainly took on a question of interest to GetReligion readers, which is the degree to which Russert's faith had an impact on his work in politics and then journalism. Did it help shape some of those infamous questions that he aimed at politicians, questions that often touched on the intersection of religion and politics and the events and trends that result when they are mixed?

Since I was out of town when the event was held, I ended up writing a Scripps Howard News Service column off an audio recording (hat tip to my Washington Journalism Center co-worker Greg Perreault). Now, you can watch the Williams talk online, as well. Click here to go to the National Pastoral Life Center site to view that. I have not found an embed code for this yet, so if it hits YouTube let me know.

In the column, I opened with that infamous exchange between Russert and Vice President Al Gore about abortion and the question of when life begins. This leads into the big questions that lots of people -- usually those on the religious and political left -- used to ask about Russert from time. That's an interesting comment in and of itself, considering his years of work in the offices of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Anyway, here is the top half of the column. Click here for the version that is up at Scripps:

The politico facing Tim Russert was Vice Present Al Gore and their testy dialogue was one of the memorable moments during the 2000 White House race.

RUSSERT: When do you think life begins?

GORE: I favor the Roe vs. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did --

RUSSERT: Which is what? When does life begin?

GORE: Let me just say, I did change my position on the issue of federal funding and I changed it because I came to understand more from women -- women think about this differently than men.

RUSSERT: But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don't believe life begins at conception. I'm just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?

GORE: Well, look, the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question --

RUSSERT: Which is?

Liberal critics said this line of questioning veered out of journalism into hostile territory, especially when Russert probed Gore on laws banning the execution of any pregnant woman on death row, somewhere, someday. Gore defenders defended his stunned, befuddled silence -- what one called a "pregnant pause."

But the Gore showdown raised other questions. Was the host of NBC's "Meet the Press" asking this question because of his own Catholic beliefs? Or was Russert pressing hard because he knew that, as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, Gore had an 84 percent positive National Right to Life voting record and he wanted to hear the candidate describe his change of heart?

"Tim wore his Catholicism proudly. He talked about it all the time," noted NBC anchor Brian Williams, who stepped in, after Russert's death, as the featured speaker at a recent Catholic Common Ground Initiative forum in Washington, D.C.

In fact, Russert's faith was not "an elephant in the room. It was the room. It was the room he was raised in. It was one of his great charms, as was how he dealt with it in life and in our public discourse. ... Catholicism was his base. It was never his bias. I think that's absolutely crucial and I will debate anyone who contends to the contrary."

RussertWilliams said that the key question for the night could be stated this way: Was Russert's relentless search for the truth a result of his Catholic upbringing?

In a moment that could have produced an entire forum, event or book, Williams briefly discussed Russert's internal struggle during the waves of clergy sex-abuse scandals that rocked his church. Trying to handle that horrific reality -- as a Catholic parent and as a journalist -- was a test of Russert's faith. But, Williams said, he also knew that he needed to do the "job of a journalist."

The column ends with this quote from Williams:

Russert always "understood that the stakes were high. He knew that better than most of us," added Williams. "He knew that the civility of our dialogue was under attack. He knew that diversity in the public square takes work every day. And he knew that our standards of journalism were being attacked. …

"He understood what it meant to be 'called' to be Catholic, and I think that's very important. He took the call."

And some of the people said, "Amen." There are those who would disagree, which is totally understandable in light of the topics that Russert tried to cover as a Catholic and a journalist, Sunday after Sunday.

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