Friday, June 13, 2008

The right kind of gotcha: Tim Russert (1950-2008)

Sunday mornings will never be the same again.

Tim Russert, tireless fan of the Buffalo Bills, lawyer, journalist, author, moderator and prime mover of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and the longest-serving host of the longest-running program in television history, died today — Friday the 13th — of a heart attack in Washington. He was a heartbreakingly young 58 years old.


About an hour before he was stricken, he was conducting a question-&-answer session with editors at MSNBC.com. TMZ reports that paramedics were summoned to the NBC Washington Bureau offices at 1:41 p.m. EDT. Russert was taken to at Sibley Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead at 4:15 p.m.

Russert’s doctor, Michael Newman, told NBC News that cholesterol plaque ruptured in an artery, causing sudden coronary thrombosis.

Russert had been diagnosed with asymptomatic coronary artery disease, but it was being controlled with medication and exercise, and he had performed well on a stress test in late April, Newman told NBC. An autopsy showed that Russert also had an enlarged heart, Newman said.



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Without resorting to the bombastic insinuations of Bill O’Reilly or the prosecutorial pit-bull style of Chris Matthews, Timothy John Russert Jr. got closer to the heart of what makes American politics work, or fail to work, than any television political journalist of his generation, and quite possibly beyond his medium and his generation.

In December 1991 he took over “Meet the Press,” at that time a dry, vacuous, moribund Sunday-morning placeholder, and invested it with a drama and vigor that were a direct reflection of his passion for American politics and government.

His gift for political analysis was more than hobby or inclination; he learned his chops the hard way. Russert was special counsel to New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan for five years, and later an adviser to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo from 1983 to 1984. He later moved into the world of journalism, joining NBC in 1984.

“He was a real-life, old-school television journalist, but at the same time he was someone who really worked in the multichannel environment we have,” said Robert J. Thompson, Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

“He was America’s host for election night,” Thompson told Culchavox in an interview from Syracuse, N.Y. “He was a major force for the civic life of this country.”

The dry-erase board that Russert used repeatedly to explain the mathematical chaos after the 2000 presidential election was an icon of clarity — so much so that its first use by Russert on the air was named by TV Guide as one of the 100 most memorable moments in television history.



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In today’s snapshot valedictories were reactions from the people who were his journalistic adversaries — the people in power or those who wanted to be in power. The one throughline? He was tough and fair.

“He was the standard-bearer for serious journalism,” Sen. Barack Obama said. “There wasn’t a better interviewer in television, not a more thoughtful analyst of our politics, and he was also one of the finest men I knew.”

Sen. John McCain, Obama’s rival for the presidency, called Russert “a great journalist and a great American. Tim Russert was at the top of his profession. He was a man of honesty and integrity. He was hard but he was always fair.”



One aspect of Russert’s fairness doctrine was, for those on the receiving end, probably a little terrifying. In his sixteen years on “Meet the Press,” Russert evolved a deceptively effective interviewing style, a way of rebutting rebuttals that let a politician hoist himself or herself from the petard of their own words.

“The part that was really hard was that he would actually make you debate with yourself,” said Madeline Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. “He would find some quote that you said many, many years before … and you think, ‘I couldn’t possibly have said this’ … and he really made you walk through it and allow you the time to give an explanation … It was a rare privilege to be on the show.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The author and columnist Calvin Trillin once called the Sunday political programs collectively the “Sabbath gasbag” shows. But there was a difference. Under Russert, “Meet the Press” raised the bar on Sunday morning political talk, effectively acting as a model, in tone and style of inquiry, for other Sunday talk shows that followed on cable TV.

Russert and “Meet the Press” made Sundays special. The civilized tone and breadth of discussion were the perfect way to begin the day. Whether what followed were hours of working in the yard or watching the day’s customary sports programs, all too often “Meet the Press” was what got the heart started on Sundays.

GrouchoMarxist, in a comment at The Huffington Post:

Sunday morning:


1. Hangover


2. Coffee


3. Newspaper


4. Meet the Press


Won't be the same without you Tim.


◊ ◊ ◊

In an era embracing the rise of the “gotcha” aspect of journalism — those sudden and sometimes salacious disclosures that seem to be meant as much to embarrass as to enlighten — Russert tried to stand apart.

His was the right kind of gotcha: an attempt to show the ways politicians’ positions were not always consistent, and to show it not with mud-slinging or sly opinionating, but simply by contrasting what a politician said back in the day (whenever “the day” was) and what a politician is saying now. He gladly left ridicule to others who were less talented, and frankly less principled. Russert took the high road.

Marysandra, in The Huffington Post:

As an Irish Catholic daughter of Buffalo, I think I always sort of "got" Tim Russert, we were brought up in a time and place that valued hard work, the Church, family loyalty, and respect and civility. You were never supposed to get "too big for your britches." South Buffalo was a place of fierce Democratic politics, humor, and the ability to tell a good story. Humility and Charity were your duty, after that loyalty to the Buffalo Bills was almost as important as loyalty to family ... He never really changed much from those roots, to my eyes, despite his remarkable career …

◊ ◊ ◊

He was just hitting his stride. Russert was to be honored with a lifetime achievement award for service to journalism at the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University on June 23.

On election night, any election night, Russert’s eyes revealed a merry anticipation for what was to come. He displayed an animation, an intellect and a spirit that the indifferent lens of television couldn’t help but love.



“The really sad thing about his passing now is that he was gearing up for what might have been his magnum opus,” Thompson said in reference to what Russert undoubtedly planned for NBC’s coverage of the presidential election night to come this November.

For sure, we’re poorer already without Tim Russert’s ability to distill the minutiae of presidential politics into something that everyday people can get their minds around.

For sure, election night in November will have its usual hoopla and foolishness. But the election-night antics will ring hollow this year. As of today, there’s a hugely empty chair at 4001 Nebraska Avenue NW, the address of the Washington bureau of NBC News.

As of today, there's a vacancy in the lives of a father, a wife, three sisters and a son.

As of today, there’s a hole in the life of American journalism.

As of today, there’s a cavernous absence of civility in the public discourse of America.

And there’s no way to fill any of them.
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Image credits: Russert, top: hyku, Winter Haven. Fla., republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license. Russert with whiteboard: NBC News

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