Read Stephen's bio and previous columns


June 16, 2008

Remembering Tim Russert


We’re used to bad news coming on a Friday afternoon. But not like this.


The word came down Friday that Tim Russert, the longtime host of Meet the Press and Washington managing editor for NBC News, had died suddenly, probably of a heart attack, in NBC’s offices. He was only 58 years old.


Russert’s death silenced the voice of one of America’s most respected and influential journalists. Especially sad was that Russert, whose book about his beloved father, Big Russ and Me, had been a major bestseller largely on the strength of Father’s Day sales, was outlived by his father, and passed away two days before Father’s Day.


At least since the death of David Brinkley, Russert’s Meet the Press was the only Sunday public-affairs talk show that mattered. Always a tough questioner, yet always fair – I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice at a guest, Bill O’Reilly-style – Russert was respected almost universally on both sides of the political aisle. His only major detractors were the sorts of hyper-partisans who see political bias in the other direction everywhere they look.


True, Russert also gets included in the usual critiques of media members who “didn’t do enough” to stop the Iraq war, challenge the Bush Administration, etc., as if the media’s job were to stake out a political position and repel their opponents, as well as stop wars and defeat politicians.


Those taking that position forget about his remarkable February 2004 Oval Office interview with President Bush, in which the president bumbled numerous questions and generally came across as woefully unprepared – probably the toughest interview with Bush by any major journalist in his presidency. Then there was his 2002 interview with Dick Cheney, in which Russert thoroughly challenged the vice president on the Iraq war.


And yes, his interview style often relied overly on “gotcha” journalism, and the pointing out of inconsistencies between quotes from 10 years ago and quotes now. As blogger Ezra Klein joked Friday, “Presumably, he's up somewhere beyond the cloud line, hectoring God about His inconsistencies. ‘But Lord, in Exodus 6:12, you clearly said . . .’” But Russert was equally tough – and equally fair – to everyone he interviewed, regardless of party.


I have many fond memories of watching Russert on Meet the Press, his eponymous cable interview show, and especially, on election nights over the years. Russert’s “magic slate,” the dry erase board he used to tally up the electoral votes on election night in 2000, instantly became legendary for its brilliant simplicity. It is especially appreciated in this high-tech age where John King of CNN uses that contraption resembling a giant iPhone to highlight the electoral map.


Indeed, the day of Russert’s passing a floral arrangement in front of NBC’s Washington bureau included a dry-erase board with “We’ll Miss you, Tim” written on it. MSNBC, meanwhile, has kept an essentially weekend-long on-air vigil for their fallen colleague.


More recently, Russert was a valuable participant in the network’s coverage of the 2008 campaign, both moderating debates and contributing to each of those many, many Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama primary nights. And when Barack Obama won North Carolina and narrowly lost Indiana in early May, it was Russert who was the first major journalist to declare Obama the nominee.


In early May, in a particularly funny moment that’s now considerably less so, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe had sanctimoniously stated on Meet the Press that both his father and Russert’s father are “both in heaven right now, Tim, probably having a scotch, looking down and saying, you know what, this fight goes on.” Russert reported that “Big Russ,” who is still very much alive, is “in the Barcalounger, still watching this."


Russert even once guest-starred, as the “cousin” of a detective character known as Megan Russert, on the great 1990s cop show “Homicide: Life on the Street,” showing that he was able to laugh at himself.


So the campaign, and the network, and Washington, will somehow go on without Tim Russert, as will, with much more difficulty, his wife, son and Big Russ. It’s going to be very strange, on Sundays, hearing the opening sounds of the Meet the Press theme song without Russert’s voice accompanying it.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


Click here to talk to our writers and editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.


To e-mail feedback about this column, click here. If you enjoy this writer's work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry it.

This is Column # SS104. Request permission to publish here.

Op-Ed Writers
Eric Baerren
Lucia de Vernai
Herman Cain
Dan Calabrese
Alan Hurwitz
Paul Ibrahim
David Karki
Llewellyn King
Gregory D. Lee
David B. Livingstone
Nathaniel Shockey
Stephen Silver
Candace Talmadge
Jamie Weinstein
Feature Writers
Mike Ball
Bob Batz
The Laughing Chef
David J. Pollay
Business Writers
Cindy Droog
D.F. Krause