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In memoriam: Tim Russert, 1950–2008: A Father’s Day Tribute

06/13/08

Photo: Alex Wong/Meet the Press, via Reuters

Photo: Alex Wong/Meet the Press, via Reuters

We were dumbfounded and profoundly saddened to learn yesterday of the sudden and untimely death of Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and moderator of “Meet the Press.” The high professional esteem in which he was held by colleagues and public officials was inseparable from their personal affection for this dedicated and friendly journalist. He is praised for his command of the issues and keen analysis, and his nonpartisan, “equal opportunity” thoroughness in questioning guests of all political stripes. While he made his subjects sweat, he also exuded a genuine enthusiasm for politics. But he didn’t just relish the sport: As a child of a working class family (his father used to drive a garbage truck) he had a keen sense of what is at stake in elections, and why it matters whether campaign promises are fulfilled or broken. Among the many regrettable aspects of his too-early death is that he did not live to witness the outcome of the historic 2008 election, but he relished the primaries’ twists and turns and as a debate moderator he helped guide the process and explain it to the viewing public.

Everyone who appeared on his show, from presidents and cabinet officials to candidates and other newsmakers, has attested to his thorough preparation (“he did his homework”), his authoritative knowledge of politics and government, and his personal warmth on and off the camera. We recall a press report from the early ’90s of Russert giving a candidate a “vigorous workout”—a grueling exercise attested to by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, among others.

We long admired Tim Russert for his thorough questioning of his guests, his painstaking study of his guests’ careers and statements. His hard-work ethic was informed by his education by Jesuits in Catholic schools and his legal education, as well as by his early work on the staffs of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo. There were times when we were annoyed by his comparatively soft questioning of Bush and Cheney, who have so much to answer for—but it’s a testament to his importance that they accepted his invitations. He hosted John McCain so often we suspected the Arizona senator had a “studio apartment” at NBC’s Washington offices. We also recall another regrettable instance that struck closer to home: Two Sundays after Hurricane Katrina, one week after the tearful, distraught appearance by an exhausted Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard, Russert brought Broussard back on the air and attempted to catch him in an apparent contradiction about precisely where his mother had been (in a retirement facility, or already safely removed from it) as the floodwaters were rising. Broussard was caught off guard and retorted with disgust and indignation at the callous, “black-hearted” questioning. We suspect the less sympathetic second act was prompted not so much by Russert himself as by NBC’s producers, bowing to complaints the network had received from hard-right conservatives, from Karl Rove on down, to shift the blame from the White House. But this is not the time to dwell on these complaints. To be sure, NBC, especially in the reporting of anchor Brian Williams, has been the most consistently attentive network in covering the Katrina catastrophe, not only in the midst of the disaster but in the still-painful aftermath. And, for good measure, here is a clip of Russert grilling Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff (who, sadly, still has his job).

“Honor Thy Father”

We liked Russert’s oft-expressed pride in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, an affection that rings true for those of us who grew up “outside the Beltway” in less cosmopolitan backgrounds than Washington or New York. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and though he did not put his faith on display, as many do, neither did he hide it. But even more admirable was Russert’s love for his father and his son. He wrote a best-selling book about his father, Big Russ & Me, followed by a popular sequel, Wisdom of Our Fathers. He was known to slip away from the office in time to be home when his son Luke came home from school. That Tim Russert should die just days before Father’s Day is poignant, but the timing calls all the more attention to the essential nourishment of the father-son bond. It’s well known that most sons receive too little of their father’s attention, and, in turn, too often fathers don’t receive enough of their grown sons’ love and affection. In Tim Russert’s case, as with the gold standard he set for thorough preparation and nonpartisan fairness, he showed the way for sons and fathers set the right example. Just as we pray that his soul may rest in peace, so we pray that his example will be closely emulated by his fellow journalists and by children and parents everywhere. Remember where you came from—both the family and the town—keep the love alive, and always do your homework.

Official “Meet the Press” biography of Tim Russert.

MSNBC’s report and tribute to Russert (with slide show).

New York Times slide show of Tim Russert.

The Politico’s video tribute to Russert (with Jim VandeHei).

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