Tim Russert, moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, died yesterday at the age of 58. The news shook the media establishment. Sunday morning's Meet the Press is basically required viewing in Washington. Russert always had Washington's most powerful guests and they routinely subjected themselves to his probing. I particularly liked that he would remind guests of past statements that contradicted their current positions. He helpfully displayed those statements on screen to force the guest to respond. Media figures are rarely loved by so many across the political establishment. Russert was generally regarded as fair and decent, two traits that are not typically the first to come to mind when describing the average newsman. It is also true that Russert was an active Catholic. I read that he promised to never miss a Sunday Mass if his dear son Luke was born healthy and he kept that promise. Catholic media covered his death with a focus on his love for Catholic education, his close relationship to family members and his devotion to the church. Anyone who knew Russert knew that Catholicism was an important part of his life and work. So it was surprising that some media outlets, including his own, didn't mention it or just barely mentioned it.
Probably the best inside baseball article about Russert's death was filed, fittingly, by the Washington Post's media reporter Howard Kurtz:
The news swept the capital like a shock wave, with colleagues, rivals, President Bush and those vying to succeed him remembering Russert as a superb practitioner of political analysis and an irrepressible son of blue-collar Buffalo who, quite simply, loved the game. His influence was such that an appearance on the top-rated "Meet the Press" could boost or sink a candidate, and when he declared after midnight on May 6 that Barack Obama had wrapped up the Democratic nomination, that was treated as a news event in itself.
Russert wore many hats -- onetime Democratic operative, Washington insider, NBC bureau chief, MSNBC commentator, sports fanatic, committed Roman Catholic, biographer of his father, dubbed "Big Russ" -- but his greatest legacy was his sustained style of interrogation. Grounded in prodigious research, Russert would press his guests on past statements and contradictions, often for a full hour, spawning legions of imitators.
But for people outside of Washington, Los Angeles Times writer Matea Gold did a fantastic job of packing her story with key information, quotes and anecdotes about the legend. Newsrooms frequently have obituaries ready for various prominent officials. But Russert's sudden and unexpected death at such a young age had to have hit newsrooms off guard. Here she informs readers of his notable "everyman" approach:
Those who knew him said Russert's upbringing in heavily Irish, blue-collar South Buffalo left the newsman with a common touch that he never lost.
"Tim always would tell everybody that when he asked a question of a guest on 'Meet the Press,' he liked to think he asked a question that the guys at the American Legion would ask or understand," said Washington-based comedian Mark Russell, a fellow Buffalonian who graduated from the same Jesuit high school as Russert.
Matea also had a great anecdote for capturing Russert's Catholicism. Here's how she ended the piece:
An observant Catholic, Russert was thrilled earlier this year when he was invited with a select group of journalists to meet Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Washington.
Blitzer, also from Buffalo, recalls standing next to him in a small room at Catholic University, waiting for the pope to arrive. Russert was excitedly clutching his rosary and beaming.
"This wasn't Tim Russert, the powerful anchor and moderator of 'Meet the Press,' " Blitzer said. "It was just little Timmy from Buffalo. . . . He looked at me before the pope came in and said, 'Can you believe it, two kids from Buffalo are about to meet the pope?' "
Like many mainstream media operatives, Russert had a background in politics. And like most of that group, he worked for Democrats. He was a high-ranking staffer to senior Democratic politicians Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Mario Cuomo. Compared to the New York Times remembrance, which just glosses over his Catholicism, Time's personal remembrance, written by Joe Klein, begins and ends with his Catholicism:
Back when he was just starting in television -- and ever since but particularly back then -- Tim Russert was astounded by the joys of the job. Early on, he helped arrange an interview with the Pope for the Today Show -- and Tim did it up right: He brought along red NBC News baseball caps for the Cardinals and a white one for the Holy Father. "He put it on!" Tim told me when he came home. "We have pictures!" Then he said, more quietly, "But, you know, it was really something being in his presence. You felt something holy. It was almost as if the air was different." And that was Tim -- exuberant, irreverent, brilliant and devout, a thrilling jolt of humanity. We were friends for 30 years. We closed a few bars together in the early years, before Maureen shaped him up; we talked politics incessantly; we shared summer rentals; we watched our kids, especially Luke and Sophie who were born a few months apart, grow up, go to Jesuit colleges (Tim got a kick out of the fact that Sophie, a Jewsuit, aced New Testament at Fordham) and, a final happiness for Tim, we saw them graduate. . . .
It was appropriate that Russert found his way to Moynihan who, in his classic work with Nathan Glazer, Beyond the Melting Pot, offered the theory that ethnicity, more than class, had been the key social organizing principle in American cities. Tim was proudly, indelibly Irish -- not only in his early beer-drinking years, but also in his more Jesuitical incarnation as the host of Meet the Press, when he refused to socialize on Saturday nights. "He's become a monk," Maureen would say. And yet, even at the top of his profession, he never lost track of his roots -- in part, because he never lost track of his dad, Big Russ, a Buffalo sanitation worker who survives him. . . .
Tim was boggled by Clinton, impressed and appalled by him. The only real differences we had in 30 years of friendship were over his treatment of both Clintons, which I thought was occasionally too sharp -- and had its roots, I believed, in the strict lessons about sex and probity he'd learned from the nuns (which he often joked about). Our last conversation, sadly, was an argument over that.
Klein's relationship with Russert was deeply personal. It's beautiful that he didn't just say that the man was Catholic but showed how, in his view, that Catholicism influenced him. The New Yorker's David Remnick showed a bit of that in a poignant description of his impressive professional work as the longest-tenured host on the longest-running show on television. Beginning with a remembrance from a New Yorker colleague that the televised weekend bloviators from Washington should be referred to as the "Sabbath Gasbags," Remnick says the description doesn't fit for Russert:
With the help of his staff, Russert was especially good at arming himself for an interview by compiling a politician's previous statements in all their contradictions. Google was his tool and Gotcha his game. But it was Gotcha at its highest form. Russert's gift was to employ his bluff, nice-guy, good-son Irish Catholic upstate persona ("Go Bills!") to offset the avidity with which he would trip up his interlocutors. Arianna Huffington, who once called Russert a "conventional wisdom zombie," was among the many critics who pressed him to go much further, but Russert, more than anyone with a remotely equivalent job, did not back off easily, whether it was with Dick Cheney, in 2002, peddling nonsense about Iraq or with Al Gore, in 2000, trying to ease his way out of a line of questioning on abortion:
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?
For a topic such as abortion, such an exchange is exceedingly rare on television. Russert will be very difficult to replace. It is nice to see that many in the media are painting detailed portraits of the man who was such an influence on Washington.