THE POPCORN REEL: IN
MEMORIAM, TIM RUSSERT, 1950-2008
Good Night, Mr. Russert, And Good
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)
Omar P.L. Moore/The
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 that we're in the throes of the greatest political
campaign in any of our lives. We need to take care of ourselves in our
Good night, Mr. Russert, and good luck.
Copyright The Popcorn Reel. PopcornReel.com. 2008. All Rights