Good Night, Mr. Russert, And Good Luck

Tim Russert after finishing a taping on the set of "Meet The Press".  He died on Friday, June 13, 2008 while working on the set.  He was just 58.  (Photo: Alex Wong/Meet The Press via Reuters)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

June 14, 2008


This was my loud, initial reaction in public to hearing from my dad the unbelievable: the passing of Timothy John Russert Jr., the journalist, newsman, NBC News Washington Bureau Chief and host of the Sunday morning political interview TV news show "Meet The Press".  On Friday, June 13 of all days, for the superstitious, Tim Russert died of asymptomatic coronary artery disease, which triggered the massive heart attack which ended his life while he recorded a voice over for the introduction of Meet The Press, which would have aired tomorrow on Father's Day Sunday morning across the U.S. 

For almost 20 years Mr. Russert was a staple of American mainstream TV news media and regularly could be seen digging in his heels and asking the questions of politicians that needed to be asked.  To some, he was a relentless bulldog: insistent, incisive and even devastating in his more vigorous inquisitions.  To others, including myself, he didn't push nearly hard enough when he had the opportunity, particularly when the Iraq question arose.  Still, many of his colleagues stated that Mr. Russert didn't have to push too much when it was clear that he had unmasked some political figures as sheer fakes.  Such was true when he unveiled David Duke in 1991, unmasking him as a naked racist when he failed to rise to Mr. Russert's challenge to name the top three employers in Louisiana.  Mr. Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was running for governor in Louisiana at the time and had said that he was running on the economy not on race hatred.

I respected and admired Tim Russert.  He taught people who had more experience in the news business than he, and in the sadness of his passing a lot of his surviving colleagues would do well to learn how to earnestly raise critical questions and begin to help restore the kind of credibility to mainstream American journalist news that it has lacked ever since the mid-1980's.  Mr. Russert seemed genuine enough as a television news personality and he cut through a lot of b.s., and where other American cable and broadcast newscasters and anchors would become pompous and condescending, Mr. Russert in his avuncular manner would meet every big occasion and crystallize a moment so well.  He said what he meant and meant what he said.  He was the most likable and welcomed presence in American television network news.

Even as I personally howled at the TV screen on those occasions when Tim Russert didn't go the extra mile in my eyes, I always looked forward to turning on the television early each Sunday morning to see him at work and to see which politicians he'd be talking to.  Sunday mornings in this respect -- much more so than attendance at any church -- were an event: "If it's Sunday, it's Meet The Press", Mr. Russert said -- and that was my way of thinking.  "Meet The Press" was as much an event for me as "American Idol" is an event for many Americans.  "Meet The Press" was as much an event for me as "Star Wars" was more than 30 years before.  On the point of not going the extra mile with some questions, Mr. Russert once said words to the effect of, "I didn't have to do anything more" -- meaning that he always trusted the intelligence of the television audience that was watching.  This notion is consistent with his pronouncement in mid-May of this year when he said that Senator Hillary Clinton's realistic chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination no longer existed: "They know it, Obama knows it, and the voters who have been covering this race very intensely, following it very, very closely, now know it as well."

For hours yesterday and today, both Mr. Russert's broadcast and cable television news colleagues and friendly adversaries lauded and honored him, as did some of those he grilled under the heat of the lights on "Meet The Press".  The tributes were extraordinarily moving.  From all accounts he was a family man, a generous man, a passionate man, a hardworking man.  As a journalist and interviewer I will take stock in Mr. Russert's selflessness and sincerity, especially when he caught his interviewee in a big lie, playing their words and turning them against the very politicians he queried.  He had less a joy in achieving this in a self-serving way than in diplomatically wielding a hammer and nailing down someone through their own verbal contradictions. 

Tim Russert had a signature moment I will always remember: his white eraser board with his handwritten "Florida Florida Florida" pronouncement in capital letters in the wee small early morning hours of November 8, 2000, when it became clear that the outcome of the prior evening's U.S. presidential election depended on the Sunshine State and that it would be more than a month before we knew whether Al Gore or George W. Bush would be the victor.  Simple, short and to the point -- no electronic graphics or computer generated models needed.  I was up watching live at that early morning hour almost eight years ago, and I knew then that his eraser board pronouncement would go down in American political news memory as a seminal moment of sorts.

And many interviews featured some of the most notorious names, some of which can be seen in so many feature film documentaries.  Mr. Russert featured in some of the most recent televised U.S. presidential primary debates of both political parties.  He was well-prepared when he questioned his guests.  He was meticulous and exacting.  Even as Mr. Russert may not have pushed far enough at times, he always did so better than everyone else on American mainstream television news.

Tim Russert was a throwback to the great mainstream television news broadcasters in America -- Walter Cronkite (once dubbed "the most trusted man in America") and David Brinkley are the two that come to mind.  Tim Russert had the earnestness and probity of Ed Bradley and the professorial manner of Phil Donahue.  Mr. Russert was only 58 when he collapsed and died yesterday, younger than any of the names mentioned in this brief paragraph. 

Of course Edward R. Murrow was the singular gold standard and he defined American broadcast news and commentary, but Mr. Russert certainly has his own place on the mantle.

Tim Russert once gave his son Luke -- whose recent college graduation he'd just celebrated earlier this week in Italy -- just one piece of advice: "work hard, laugh often and keep your honor."  How many of us can say that follow each of those things in our everyday personal and public lives?

Of the countless tributes yesterday, one of the most sobering and cautionary notes came from two of his close confidantes.  One was his physician Michael Newman, who yesterday remarked when speaking to news anchor Andrea Mitchell of Mr. Russert's autopsy: "Sudden cardiac arrest occurs without warning . . . there is no way to anticipate or detect them."  Mr. Russert who worked extremely hard, had left us too soon.  He had diligently exercised just yesterday morning.  Dr. Newman added, "I'm sure for all of us we appreciate the uncertainty of our lives."  The other confidante was Ms. Mitchell, Mr. Russert's NBC News colleague, who said: "This is a real lesson to a lot of people here t
hat we're in the throes of the greatest political campaign in any of our lives.  We need to take care of ourselves in our lives."

Good night, Mr. Russert, and good luck.
Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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