Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, R.I.P.

Sad news today. Condolences to his family, both personal and professional.

Admittedly, lately, I've come to disdain Russert - not because of his bemoaned "gotcha" questions, which bothered me not at all. (Though I must say I did agree with this opinion piece, Tim Russert: Stop the Inanity, from The American Prospect). But because I often found myself screaming at the TV a follow up question when Russert was off to his next question. I've heard it said that his staff had low turn over. That speaks well of him as a boss, but it may be why freshness was often missing in the questions.

I was also troubled my his insufficient response to Bill Moyers in Moyers' important program about the role of the press in the run up to the war. People like Russert have a lot of power and he could have done more. His answer to Moyers' appropriate challenge just struck me as sad and an indicium of what's broken in our public discourse.

BILL MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence in your mind that Cheney came on your show and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?

TIM RUSSERT: I don't know. The NEW YORK TIMES is a better judge of that than I am.

BILL MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean-

BILL MOYERS: The Cheney office didn't leak to you that there's gonna be a big story?

TIM RUSSERT: No. No. I mean, I don't have the-- This is, you know-- on MEET THE PRESS, people come on and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum tubes story until I read it in the NEW YORK TIMES.

BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September eight, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the Administration plants a dramatic story in the NEW YORK TIMES And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the NEW YORK TIMES. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.

TIM RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.

My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.


But though I recently began to add again This Week (I stopped after Brinkley died), I still recorded Meet the Press and watched it every week, even if I was screaming at the television with frustration. I always watched.

I enjoyed, much more, and recorded every weekend his cable show, The Tim Russert Show. His engagement was much more freewheeling and more real. In other words, I felt like he was listening to the answers. Most recently I enjoyed the program he did with Doris Kearns Goodwin on the 7 qualities a president needs (withstanding adversity; diverse perspectives, loyalty, admitting mistakes, managing emotions, defining goals, knowing how to relax) and the fascinating discussion with Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens - two great, fascinating minds really butting up.

I also remember being surprised, being reminded, that he was Chris Matthews' boss in the recent profile of Matthews that was in the New York Times Magazine. Russert as NBC News Washington Bureau chief was the boss of all the NBC political reporters. I think of Matthews as some one who was more politically astute than Russert, so that was a bit disorienting to read that Matthews looked to Russert for approval.

Finally, on a personal note, I used to see him in a favorite restaurant all the time, Cafe Deluxe, back when I was working and well and able to go out. He was always friendly and expansive.

It is a sad day and a big loss for those who love politics, and for his family. His wife Maureen Orth, a reporter for Vanity Fair, is a DC figure in her own right. I'm sure Sunday will be hard for them all. Prays for all.

Tim Russert, a week ago, on Obama's historic win against the Clinton machine:

A month ago, declaring in early May the Democrat primary campaign over (finally declaring what had been obvious since March 4th to anyone familiar with Slate's delegate counter:

From his weekend cable show a great discussion 2 months ago with Hitchens and Sullivan (Again during his weekend show, I often felt Russert listened more and therefore asked better questions):

In one of the most awkward recent moments (from this past Mother's Day), Terry McAuliffe mentioned in passing Russert's "dead" father. Only Russert's dad is very much alive, bless him, as Russert riposted:
In perhaps one of the more uncomfortable moments in recent Meet the Press history, Clinton campaign co-chair Terry McAuliffe insinuated on Sunday that host Tim Russert's father was dead. He isn't.

Expounding -- for the tenth time during the interview -- the virtues of Hillary Clinton's political tenacity, McAuliffe suggested that both his and Russert's dad would be watching her admirably from heaven... perhaps drunk.

"But it's not impossible for Hillary Clinton to win," said McAuliffe. "A lot of people have said that. Big Russ, if he were sitting here today -- nothing's impossible. Jack McAuliffe, if they were with us today, they're probably both in heaven right now Tim, probably having a scotch, looking down saying, you know what: this fight goes on. It's good for the Democratic Party. Millions of people coming out to vote, it's exciting."

Not missing a beat, Russert quickly corrected his always genial guest.

"Big Russ is in the Barcalounger still watching this," he said. "God bless him."

But Russert had come under such criticism in this campaign that recently even the Columbia Journalism Review started a Russert Watch a few months ago, to monitor tone and errors. Here's the most recent, remarking on last weekend's weekend's show.

A week ago, on the last night, Russert commented on the effect of Obama on the campaign, specifically on how the campaign is covered. And he suggested that Obama's campaign and its ideals may even alter how he and his news colleagues do their job. That was shocking to me, because to my mind, he was one of the ones who perpetuating the sound bite politics. I can't find the exact quote; but I'll continue to work to do so. Here a blog, live blogging that night, that is close to what I recall he said:
Russert thinks if Obama can convince people that he can “exercise good judgment, he’ll win the White House.” Russert also thinks it’s important for Clinton not to validate people who might want to vote against Obama. If she does, “she’ll risk her own future in the party.”
And though Obama did well on his show (I watched every one of Obama's appearances, including the one when Obama opened the door to his candidacy in the fall of 2006), I do think Russert dropped the ball, and doing Obama a disservice by not asking Obama on his last appearance these two questions:
  1. why did you join Trinity Church in the first place?
  2. why did you stay at Trinity Church for 20 years?
This week, I just remarked to a delivery guy (during a 45 minute conversation on my front stoop, this kind of thing can happen in DC) that those questions still needed to be asked most likely and that I was hopeful that Russert would do so in a future debate.

I just hope David Gregory doesn't replace him. I find him unreflective and smug. I didn't like his response to Scott McClellan's book. And I often didn't like Gregory's responses to criticism when he has been a guest on The Diane Rehm Show's Friday round up. He is dismissive and arrogant in the worst way. And I don't like his new MSNBC show, preferring the more thoughtful canceled Tucker show. But I'm afraid Gregory is the likely, most obvious replacement.

Chuck Todd - the political director of NBC, the geeky guy who has to be convinced to loosen his tie during the After Hours show hosted by Dan Abrams late, late night on the nights of the primaries, a guy who KNOWS facts - would be a decent replacement.

Lord, just the thought of who might and could replace him makes me realize he is irreplaceable.

The NBC family and fans have lost an authoritative, informed figure and a political guru.

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