Remembering Tim Russert

 My friend and former intern Roland Nobile, when writing a story for me about a congressional primary in New Hampshire, followed in my footsteps by identifying himself as the interviewer of the candidate.

“Brady spoke to Nobile,” he wrote, “whose manner of questioning could only be called ‘Russert-esque’. . . .”

It goes without saying I penciled that one out before it got to the managing editor.  And Roland, a bright young man who developed into an outstanding writer, was joshing—sort of.  Although he never expected the comparison of his interviewing with that of Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, I got the message:  in striving to be the best in everything he did, Roland the young achiever set the goal of being the best as “Russet-esque.”  

After six years, that came back to me upon getting the stunning news that Tim Russert had died June 13th of a heart attack at age 58.  Like Bing Crosby having his last moment in 1977 on the golf course he loved doing what he most enjoyed, early reports stated the NBC interviewer (who had diabetes) died on the job–recording a production track at the NBC News Bureau in Washington.  

And that said it all about Tim Russert:  he loved his job and did it well.  A lot of us who consider ourselves “newsmen” and bristle when people without a background in batting out stories under pressure are thrust in our midst laughed upon learning in 1991 that the new host of the long-running NBC’s four-decades-plus-old Sunday news show would be Tim Russert. Tim Russert?!  Why, he had only worked at NBC for seven years, joining their Washington bureau in 1984 and was, the refrain went, a pol, not a newsman.  

John Carroll University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law graduate Russert had been chief of staff to New York’s Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan from 1977-82 and then counselor to New York’s Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo from 1982-84; I thought of him as I have a lot of Hill staffers—as someone who would make a move for office himself when the right opportunity arose.  Sure enough, when Rep. Jack Kemp decided to leave his Buffalo-area House district to seek the Republican nomination for President in 1988, I recall discussing a possible candidacy with then-state legislator and later GOP Congressman Bill Paxon, the talk of prospective Democratic hopefuls turned to—you guessed it!—Russert of Buffalo.

Russert never made the race and by 1988 had become Washington Bureau Chief for NBC.  The thought of him sitting in the chair held for so long by the legendary Lawrence Spivak and later by the no-nonsense newsman Bill Munroe was far-fetched.

But Russet won over skeptics, including me.  Meet the Press expanded to one hour and now included more than one guest.  Senators and representatives with differing viewpoints squared off, and later candidates in major Senate races from around the country would have brief debates, with Russert serving as moderator.  Gracious to a fault, he would introduce clips from the news and move the program on to another segment and then to the closing with the historic look-back, courtesy of MTP’s extensive archives.  And then he would close on a friendly note, invoking his beloved Buffalo Bills during the football season.

As Tony Snow, Russert’s competitior for Sunday morning audiences on Fox News, and later White House press secretary, recalled: “Tim transformed the political interview from a staid and dull affair into an event. He combined the passion of a sports fan with the rigor of a trial attorney.”

Most significantly, Tim Russert was prepared—as guests found out and were often rendered speechless by his research.  “He took Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on when Farrakhan dismissed charges he had engaged in virulent anti-semetic rhetoric.  Russert gently referred him to quotes that showed the charges were true, shown in enlarged lettering for viewer and guest in studio to see.  

Republican Rick Santorum and Democrat Bob Casey both got the “Russert treatment,” when they debated on MTP during their race for the Senate from Pennsylvania in 2006, and both were politely reminded by the moderator that, sure enough,  they did say what he was saying they said.  Earlier this year, GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee learned that his tough illegal immigration manifesto that included deportation could deport some of the children of illegal aliens eligible for a scholarship under a measure he championed while governor of Arkansas.  Again, rather than shouting “gotcha!” or interrupting Huckabee as other NBC hosts have done with guests, Russert pointed this out to the candidate gently and respectfully.

“Nothing more horrified a politician (or an aide) so much as the sight of Russert hauling out old quotes,” recalled Tony Snow, “and film clips, pieces of news and then closing the noose with a question: "Do you still believe that?" And yet, he was no inquisitor. Tim was kind to friends and loyal to causes.  It was impossible not to like him.”  

One could say that about all of this televised sessions, from presidential debates to election night coverage.  Tim Russert was first and foremost a gentleman.  He started out a “pol” and “staffer” and became a newsman.  And we in the profession—and I include myself—began to work a little harder and be more “Russert-esque.”  And,to a newsman, we will  mourn and miss him.