Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thank you, Tim Russert (1950-2008)

I make a point not to get particularly emotional about celebrity deaths. It seems kind of mawkish when there are so many ordinary people in the world suffering, dying, or struggling to get by.

But I can't think of any time in my life when I've felt so awful about the death of a single individual I've never met.

Does anyone else even come close? There was Kurt Cobain, of course. That was more objectively shocking — but I was so young when he died that I couldn't fully absorb it, and I only really got into his music in the aftermath of the suicide. There was George Harrison — the Beatles are my favorite band, and I especially look up to him as a guitarist — but he was well past his prime, and we had had plenty of time to resign ourselves to the fact that he was going to die soon.

No, the death of Tim Russert is different from all the others I've lived through. At 58, he was so clearly in the middle of his prime, with no good reason why he shouldn't have gone on for at least another decade as the skeptical voice of a nation.

Seeing the news was so shocking I didn't know how to take it in. Since I got the news from my mom, who I've often watched Meet the Press with, I emailed her. I can't think of anything to say except:

I can't believe Tim Russert is dead!!!
She responds:
I know! I'm so shocked, and I feel a great sense of personal loss. It really mattered to hear Russert present the news.
I post a status message on Facebook (the little messages about your friends that say, "John is doing such-and-such"):
John can't remember ever feeling more shocked at the news of a famous person's death than now.
I check Facebook's feed of status messages from my friends, and the next 4 in a row are all about Russert. Samples:
_____ is so saddened by the death of Tim Russert. [43m ago]

_____ says rest in peace Tim. You were a hell of a journalist. [12m ago]
And so on. [Added later: This was back when you had to start each Facebook post with your name.]

I still can't believe it. But yes, it's true . . .

I had the show's opening faux-Beethoven theme music stuck in my head for the rest of the day. Bum bum bum BAHHH da-da DUM dum . . .

I keep telling myself I'm never going to start my Sunday hearing that music with his voice intoning: "Our issues this Sunday..." He died while recording one of those opening sequences.

The show's intro was a little manufactured and overblown, as the show itself could be at times when it would focus more on horse-race politics than on policy issues.

But I still had to watch. Every Sunday. He made the news seem so much more serious, even momentous, than anyone else did.

Above all, he forced our leaders to explain themselves — to answer the tough questions that everyone was raising about them.

And he did this with everyone, never seeming to discriminate based on party or ideology. I remember when John Edwards had a disastrous performance on Meet the Press in the 2004 race — many commentators saw it as a major obstacle to him in trying to win the Democratic nomination. And I remember seeing him interview John McCain back in 2006, when he was just a "probable presidential candidate" (transcript). Without being unfair, and even though he gave McCain ample time to defend himself, Russert left no doubt that McCain had shifted far to the right of his maverick/centrist past in preparation for the Republican primaries. At the end of the interview, McCain acknowledged his discomfort: "I haven’t had so much fun since my last interrogation."

Russert has been criticized for valuing "gotcha" journalism over serious discussion of the issues, but that's confusing his trademark with his overall method. Yes, his trademark move was to put two quotes up on the screen, both from the guest, and then ask the guest to explain the discrepancy. Well, this alone was a valuable service, and actually went beyond what the New York Times does in a typical news story.

But that was just one of the tools in his tool chest — it wasn't the only one. He also regularly confronted guests with opinions from other people — politicians, pundits, experts — that seemed to debunk the guest's position. That may sound basic, but it's surprisingly rare. It certainly takes more initiative than almost any American TV journalist has. Well, we expect TV news to be shallower than the text version ... but even the newspapers often couldn't match Russert.

Even when the newspaper reporter makes sure to include quotes representing both sides of an issue, there's no substitute for what Russert mastered: sitting down with the people from the highest echelons of power and holding them accountable in real time, for all to see. I'm sorry, maybe I'm naive, but I think that's really important.

I remember having drinks with B____, who's a big follower of politics but, surprisingly, had never seen the show. I told him about how great it is and that he had to watch it. So the next day, we watched the current episode — the guest was John Kerry, who was the Democratic presidential nominee at that point. I realize that most people's idea of a good time isn't hanging out with your friends watching an interview with John Kerry. But B____ instantly got it: "Wow." It wasn't a particularly dramatic or newsworthy interview. But to watch just the first few minutes of it was to suddenly see Kerry's thinking on foreign policy laid bare in a way you hadn't seen in months and months of campaign coverage.

Last week's episode — the last of Russert's life — featured a group of pundits analyzing the end of the Democratic primaries and the beginning of the general election. That seems so small and arbitrary for the swan song of a great man. Anyway, he told this anecdote:
I remember reading those polls . . . in South Carolina where Senator Clinton was ahead amongst African-American voters. Then came some of the comments that Bill Clinton made. I went to Cleveland, Ohio, to do the debate with Clinton and Obama, and a big, black security guard came up to me and said, "You see Bill Clinton, you tell him thanks for making us 90-10 for Obama," and I just, "Whoa, I don't—not in the business of transmitting messages, sir, but I appreciate your comment."
(During that last line, he tilted up his palms in a "taken aback" gesture.) I think this trivial little moment says something about him — not just that he had a knack for a vivid anecdote, but also that he talked to us the way people talk to each other in real life. "So this big black guy comes up to me and . . ." — that's not the way people are supposed to talk on television. He knew he didn't make the warmest impression on TV — he was just trying to be accurate and real.

Not many journalists in the United States are willing to look a presidential candidate in the eyes and tell them they've made "a direct contradiction." Russert was.

He didn't follow other people's standards — he set the standard. And it's hard for me to imagine anyone taking his place. I'm sure the show will keep going, and I'm sure they'll have very competent guest hosts (as they sometimes have in the past) such as Andrea Mitchell or David Gregory until they figure out a permanent replacement. But it won't be the same.

Russert's single moment that may be remembered above all the rest involves a bizarre fluke at the end of an interview with Colin Powell. It was back when Powell was still Secretary of State but after our intelligence leading up to the Iraq war had been discredited.

Just as Russert is prefacing his question with a description of Powell's crucial pre-war presentation 0f WMD evidence — around when he starts talking about how "you placed your enormous personal credibility before the United Nations . . ." — the camera jerks away so that it's showing a palm tree instead of Powell. You can hear muttering in the background between Powell and an unseen woman.

At this point, most interviewers would try to smooth over the awkwardness as calmly as possible. But Russert doesn't smooth anything over — he heightens the tension by letting an awkward silence go by.

Then he sternly tells Powell:

"I think that was one of your staff, Mr. Secretary. I don't think that's appropriate."

Russert continues with his line of questioning and seems all the more insistent for being a little flustered. After the interview, Russert forcefully tells us:
And that was an unedited interview with the secretary of state taped earlier this morning from Jordan. We appreciate Secretary Powell's willingness to overrule his press aide's attempt to abruptly cut off our discussion as I began to ask my final question.
Evidently, the staffer thought that NBC would go along with their wishes and edit out the awkward stuff so that it appeared to be a nice, normal interview. Indeed, though you can't make out a complete sentence, you can faintly hear the staffer say something about "editing." Well, anyone who thought they could get away with an airbrushed interview with Russert didn't understand what he was all about.

Thank you, Tim Russert, for informing us and standing up to the powerful. We need people like you to have a functioning democracy.

A commenter on The New Republic's website offered a nice vignette:
I have a recent and extremely pleasant memory of Mr. Russert. I was watching the election returns after, I think Super Tuesday, and he was on with a couple other guys. The close nature of the Democratic race had become stunningly apparent. Mr. Russert was beside himself with glee. He was obviously, genuinely excited about being a witness at Democracy. He was no longer an anchor or pundit; he was instead savoring the fruits of our Constitution -- our elections -- and thus his face, with its stupid grin and wild, child's eyes, was the face of a patriot. I hope Tim Russert is now on a bar stool in Heaven, next to guys with their sleeves rolled up and their shirt collars unbuttoned, running an infinite tab and laying odds with new friends and old on who wins Virginia -- Obama or McCain.
Crying over the loss of a television personality seems ridiculous. But I can't help but feel sad about something that had become so ordinary to me, that had such a settled place in my life.

You were my Sunday mornings. They're not going to be the same without you.


Jeff Vaca said...

Great post, John.

jerry yeti said...

Thanks for the post and comments.

-yeti (mefite)