We learned when we turned on the TV for Countdown with Keith Olbermann today of the passing of Tim Russert, the man introduced on the air so often these last many years as "NBC's Washington Bureau Chief and moderator of Meet the Press".
Tim Russert died at work, which is probably what he would have wanted, but two days before Father's Day, which he certainly would not have. He was best known as a journalist, but to a vast swath of the public, he is notable primarily as America's most famous son, and his paean to his father, "Big Russ and Me," was a huge bestselling father's day card from him to his father. On this weekend when we think about our own fathers, whether present or not, it's hard not to remember Tim's devotion to his dad, and to his son Luke, both of whom he frequently referenced on the air.
I watch Meet the Press nearly every Sunday morning. I'm not always a fan of his style of "gotcha" journalism, which sometimes seems more concerned with pointing out every inconsistency in someone's past statements than with revealing the truth about the issues. But I respect much of what he does on that show--he listens to his guests, he allows them to complete their answers without interruption, he knows what they're talking about, and he knows how to frame his questions so that they're understandable to the viewers. Sometimes he seems a little too chummy with the people he covers, but when they're across the table he doesn't let that interfere.
I'm going to have to start thinking of those qualities in the past tense, but not yet.
As a political junkie and a storyteller, this election season has been utterly fascinating, start to finish. Talking to my friend Steve Mertz a couple of weeks ago, we discussed its novelistic aspects, the larger-than-life characters, the sweep of history present in its every iteration. This truly is the election of our lifetimes, and the country has been changed by it even as it unfolds, whatever the end result is. There is not a better political team on television than he NBC/MSNBC team to watch it with, from Olbermann to Brokaw to Chuck Todd and all the rest, who explain it so well and cover it with such enthusiasm.
But always, backing that team, was Tim Russert. His love of politics was boundless, his knowledge of political and historical minutiae unmatched, his grasp of the meaning of events unparalleled. When he said "We now know who the Democratic nominee is, and no one's going to argue with it," the night of the North Carolina primary, he was right--we knew, some people argued for a while, but even then they knew they were no longer fighting to win the spot, but to win some sort of after-election concessions. Russert was the one who called the race first, because he understood what had happened, and in political journalism, everyone knew he had made the accurate call once again.
I don't know how it will feel to watch the rest of the race without Tim Russert on the screen. Strange, maybe subdued, quiet. He leaves a hole in NBC's political coverage that will be hard to fill. His enthusiasm for politics will be missed, and I can't help hoping that, wherever he is now, he will still get to watch the rest of this incredible contest.
I'll close with my favorite Tim Russert story...the one where Tim attended the Woodstock festival, but instead of hippie garb, he wore a Buffalo Bills jersey and instead of taking pot or acid with him, he took a case of beer. That's the Russert I'll remember--the all-American working class kid who was able to turn his raw enthusiasm into a meaningful career that had an impact on journalism and on his nation. We should all be so blessed.