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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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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