"Breaking News" flashed on my MSNBC screen last week. Then a sober NBC senior-statesman Tom Brokaw appeared. Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," Brokaw announced, had just died of a heart attack at 58.
I checked the other cable news channels. All were carrying the same bulletin. There then ensued non-stop hours, then days, then a full week of tributes, panel discussions, retrospectives and other electronic and print media coverage devoted to Russert. Funeral and memorial services were held in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, June 18, with presidential candidates, capital political and media figures, and the usual see-and-be-seen attention seekers in attendance, hoping to be photographed or, with good luck, interviewed.
A non-political friend called me from Florida: "I did not realize," she said, "that Russert was a former president of the United States."
It is important to separate Russert, the person and professional, from the spectacle that has followed his death. What is going on?
During my last years of many in Washington, D.C. policy and politics, I became increasingly aware of Russert and his wife, magazine writer Maureen Orth, as part of a circle of on-the-move men and women of their age who meant to make their mark on the capital. I observed Russert's rise from an aide to New York Sen. Pat Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo to his host position at the influential "Meet the Press" Sunday interview show and, at the same, NBC News' capital bureau chief. Network news bureau chiefs traditionally had been inside players who seldom appeared on the air. Russert not only ran the bureau but became its most visible on-air talent.
I thought Russert did a tough, no-holds-barred professional job as "Meet the Press" host and a regular commentator on political issues on NBC and MSNBC. Moreover, although he himself came from classic blue-collar Democratic lineage (Roman Catholic boy from Buffalo), he let no bias slip through as he dealt tough hands to guests of all political outlooks. I saw him as a throwback to the pre-boomer era when that was pretty much the style of all political journalists. He stood in contrast, for example, to MSNBC's Chris Matthews and ABC's George Stephanopolous, who also had come up as Democratic political aides but whose own biases often became all too clear as they interviewed guests or expressed themselves on the air. (Matthews, in fact, appeared for a time during this year's Democratic presidential nominating season to have appointed himself a one-man wrecking gang of Sen. Hilllary Clinton's candidacy, often prefacing his commentary with such phrases as "In private, Hillary can be charming but ... etc."). Russert was a generation-younger version of CBS' Bob Schieffer, a thorough professional with the same ego as other performers but who knew that his guests and his subject matter were the stories and that he was not. He also, by all accounts, kept a sharp eye on his own interests, limiting his appearances on MSNBC so as not to devalue his association with main-tent NBC.
Thinking back, I can remember a wonderful Washington National Cathedral memorial service for Peter Lisagor, a universally respected Chicago Daily News correspondent also frequently on television. The closing tribute to Lisagor noted that "If Pete were here, he would be laughing at this whole spectacle." And he would have. New York Times columnist James Reston, perhaps the most influential journalistic voice in the country over a 20-year period, died at the end of 1995. His service was attended by Times executives and staff, family, and perhaps 100 others in the capital who had known or worked with him over the years. It was a modest occasion, as he would have wished it. Why would Russert draw stronger and longer public tributes than a Lisagor, a Reston, former NBC anchorman John Chancellor, CBS' Howard K. Smith, or even the legendary Edward R. Murrow? Or, for that matter, distinguished public servants, scientists, authors, and others who had died recently?
Russert came from a boomer generation accustomed to self celebration and from an industry — television — which often thinks the world begins and ends at its borders. He also got such outsized adulation, it seems to me, because television news has in recent years become so routinely debased by subjectivism and the ascendancy of show-business values. You need only witness the foolish, self-obsessed nightly commentary of such lightweights as CNN's Lou Dobbs, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, and/or MSNBC's Keith Olbermann to recognize how far the industry's standards have fallen. A professional such as Russert, compared to them, seemed outsized.
The orgiastic outpourings regarding Russert need not take away from the facts of his skills, of his reputation as a stalwart and loyal son, husband, father and friend, and of his loyalty as well to his upstate New York, working-class roots. Those qualities are not all that common in big-time broadcasting.