When Tim Russert died, four years ago today, political talk television suffered a great loss. Judy Bachrach remembers how the "Meet the Press" anchor got to the heart of any matter he covered. Originally published June 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
You could ask: What, aside from politics do Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean and especially Hillary Clinton have in common? And the answer would always be, they didn’t survive Tim Russert. Russert was the guy who could effortlessly marshal facts, figures, block quotes from a devastating New York Times profile – whatever was necessary – and gently weave them into a guest’s shroud. It was Russert, the ever polite and even genial host, who planted the bomb under sleepy Sunday morning interview shows and vainglorious politicians alike, thereby turning television into something it had never before been at 10:30 am.: riveting.
Tim Russert (Wikimedia Commons/hyku)
In some ways the NBC host of Meet the Press was the world’s least likely celebrity ever to earn $5 million a year. He wasn’t handsome, he wasn’t debonair, he wasn’t cool -- and he wasn’t really as outgoing and brash as he seemed on air. In person he was actually pretty bashful and withdrawn, a man who preferred work to almost everything except fatherhood, which was his first passion. Around Washington, D.C., which is where he lived with his wife, the Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, and their son, Luke, he was famous for consistently rejecting social invitations from the high-profile hosts who craved his presence.
What Russert had – and it was this quality that for almost two decades completely transformed both American politics and Meet the Press – was the ability to project on the screen an easygoing Irish bonhomie, while deftly summoning up the very interview or video clip that made mincemeat out of posturing guests. This exercise would often be followed by the tossing of the usual Russet gauntlet: “I want to give you a chance to respond.”
In April, for example, when James Carville, the Clinton family’s most ardent ally, popped up on Meet the Press to defend Hillary, then under siege for insisting that years earlier she had proved her mettle by defying death in Bosnia, Russert was more than up to the task of questioning the presidential candidate’s veracity. First the NBC host played a video of Bill Clinton, purple with outrage, staunchly defending his wife, by insisting her recollections were casual and understandably hazy because she had uttered them “late at night,” when, he emphasized, she was too exhausted to remember anything clearly.
Next Russert casually mentioned that actually Hillary hadn’t been speaking at night. And finally he trotted out six video clips. All of them, captured during broad daylight, were of Hillary, speaking time and again of her harrowing ordeal in Bosnia “under sniper fire.”
And throughout it all, Russert kept his trademark grin on his face.
In some ways Russert was made for the job. Nothing in his previous life had allowed him to coast. His roots were in Buffalo, N.Y., where he was born in 1950. His father, Tim (whom Russert wrote about in his 2004 best-seller Big Russ and Me), drove a garbage truck. His college and law school were not Ivy League; in fact, he was the first in his family to pursue higher learning. He went to the Woodstock Festival, yes, the newsman once conceded on Meet the Press, but “in a Buffalo Bills jersey with a case of beer.”
All his subsequent choices were more carefully strategized. After earning a law degree, he became a top aide to New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and then to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. In 1984, he joined NBC. Within five years he became the network’s Washington bureau chief.
When Garrick Utley left the helm of Meet the Press 17 years ago, Russert was chosen to replace him. Within one year NBC studied the ratings -- and the remarkable man who seemed to know the politicians’ issues a lot better than they did -- and extended the morning show from 30 minutes to an hour.
From the first, it was observed, Russert was a fanatic researcher, always famished for statistics, background data, and especially any idiotic quotes that a political guest might have long forgotten having uttered – until they were passed, quite literally, before the guest’s eyes some Sunday morning.
The television host also clearly listened to gossip (and took copious notes). It was Russert back in 1992 who happened to ask the presidential aspirant Bill Clinton if -- just possibly – there might be some mortifying conduct from his earlier years that could imperil his campaign. (“If you’ve slept with a pony,” the incisive Slate media writer Jack Shafer warned other ambitious pols with dreams of appearing on TV opposite Russert, “be prepared to either defend the ride, or lie.”)
Russert was far more solicitous of his audience. The statistics and facts he regularly devoured were never dryly presented: They were crystallized into clean and simple on-air narratives. Eight years ago he told his viewers that the election would come down to “Florida, Florida, Florida.” Four years later, those who tuned in were advised to keep their eyes on “Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.” Russert understood and like those to whom he was speaking. “I look back to see the house I was born in and my dad quit school in the tenth grade,” he told the writer Beverly Keel. “The fact that the son of a truck driver and a garbage man is now the moderator of Meet the Press, that’s everything you want to know about who we are as a people, society and a country.”
Although he worked seven days a week (attending church on Saturdays, because Sunday mornings found him occupied), Russert always found time for life’s most important events. Some years ago, when his son was still attending St. Albans, a Washington high school, Russert could often be found at the games, cheering on the teams. And the interesting thing about Russert, other parents found, was that he didn’t show up simply for the sports his own teenager played. He showed up at virtually all the games --- for everyone’s kid. And he remembered their names.
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