6/13/2008

Footprints of a Giant: A Tribute to Tim Russert

This is a post I never expected to write--at least not for another 20 years or so.

NBC Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press Tim Russert died today as a result of an apparent heart attack. He was 58.

I found out about this terrible news when I got home from work this afternoon and turned on the TV so I could watch Hardball with Chris Matthews. My eyes became misty as I tried to take in the magnitude of this loss. This was a double blow for me personally because not only did he set the gold standard for political analysis, but he was also a damn good journalist.

Political junkies everywhere knew Mr. Russert. (I can't bring myself to call him "Tim." As an amateur analyst, I consider it disrespectful.) Mr. Russert's political acumen was matched by no one, and I mean no one. Even people who didn't follow politics closely knew who this man was. They respected him and enthusiastically let him into their dining rooms every Sunday morning over breakfast for Meet the Press. And they did this for 17 years.

There was nothing glitzy or bombastic about him. While others had their digital maps and electronic panels, Mr. Russert had his portable whiteboard and dry erase markers. He was pure class. His questions were tough, but never unfair. His political analyses were sharp, but never wonky. He clearly knew what he was talking about and could express himself in such a way that even regular people could make sense of what he was saying and come out of watching his interviews feeling that they had learned something.

Mr. Russert was the one political analyst that would make me stop what I was doing just so I could hear what he had to say. Mr. Russert was the one political analyst that made me actually scour a news website just so I could download podcasts of his interviews. Mr. Russert was the one political analyst I could listen to for a whole hour without wanting to change the channel or throw something at the screen.

Mr. Russert was a tough journalist who always played it straight. He didn't have any axes to grind. He didn't try to play gotcha with his guests. He didn't shout or talk over anyone. He didn't waste anyone's time by throwing softballs. He didn't enter an interview without having done his homework first. He didn't blow smoke like so many other pundits and pass it off as "analysis." His opinions were actually worth listening to.

Chris Matthews is good. Judy Woodruff is good. Ronald Brownstein is good. Howard Fineman is good. Stuart Rothenberg is good. Charlie Cook is good. And Bill Schneider is good.

But they aren't Tim Russert.

Those are going to be some very, very large shoes to fill. David Gregory and Chuck Todd were clearly being groomed to succeed Mr. Russert someday, but I don't think anyone anticipated having to fill this giant's shoes so soon.

For me personally, watching Mr. Russert inspired me to improve the quality of my own political analysis. I didn't want to be the kind of analyst who called people stupid or losers or America haters or Bible thumpers. I wanted to be the kind of analyst people respected. I wanted to be the kind of analyst who commanded the open ears of people who were genuinely interested in what I wanted to say. I only regret that I didn't have more opportunities to study Mr. Russert's work; he was taken away far too soon.

What a terrible loss for the world of politics and for the institution of journalism. And for Mr. Russert, I hope you enjoy watching the rest of this campaign play out from above.

Thank you, Mr. Russert, for being the consummate professional.

9 comment(s):

Women said...

Pay tribute to the great Tim Russert at our non-profit, www.tributefund.org. We remember the inspiring men and women in our lives.

Brett said...

Russert was quite a journalist, and I'm sorry for his family (who had to get this news while they were still on vacation), and his colleagues and company (since they will have to fill his job).

I don't quite agree on the "gotcha"; I thought that was his style, although he was very competent about it. He would bring up the words of those he had on interview and hold them to them. I still remember when he managed to nail Hillary Clinton for waffling on the "illegal immigrant drivers' license" issue; whether or not you think it was a moot issue, Russert followed up on the questioning, and managed to get her beyond mere talking point.

The_Bad said...

David Gregory is a partisan hack. We all knew well that Russert was a liberal, but he didn’t pull punches on democrats. Everyone knew that coming on to Meet The Press meant that you better be ready for it. There’s no way I can see David Gregory in that role.

Speaking of partisan hacks – since you mention him – Chris Mathews is one of the worst. As noted at Hot Air, Mathews started making partisan attacks while eulogizing Russert – even going so far as to suggest that he is smarter since Russert was duped by the President on the war while he was not.

Had to bring it up since you mentioned them. I don’t think NBC has any talent left and Meet The Press might suffer the same fate as Mr. Russert: an untimely and heartbreaking demise.

Anthony Palmer said...

The Bad,

What do you think about Chuck Todd?
As for Chris Matthews, I included him in the list because I think he has a pretty good feel for what average people think. I don't much care for his moderator abilities, but I do think his opinions are worth listening to. Feel free to disagree.

I like David Gregory because I think he's tenacious. Brit Hume is probably equally tenacious, but I don't watch FNC, so I can't judge correctly.

Who are your favorite political analysts, by the way?

The_Bad said...

I had to stop watching television news because it drove me crazy. I work from home, so I used to watch it all day. If you recall, there were a couple events that were over-covered: pope dying, pope dies, then the “Runaway Bride”. I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I basically read my news instead of watch it (with the usual event-oriented exceptions).

The one television news program that I would watch was, of course, Meet The Press on Sunday mornings. As far as I’m concerned, there was Russert and then there was everyone else.

Brett said...

I hope they don't fill in with Chris Matthews for the time being. It's not that I don't like him, but he doesn't quite have the . . . composure that Russert had, where he could efficiently press hard questions when necessary, then follow up (mostly). Matthews seems to be more "chatty", more free-wheeling, which would be terrible on "Meet The Press", at least in the interviews.

That's not to say that he doesn't have his moments, but overall he's an inferior questioner.

Chuck Todd would be pretty solid. He's seems pretty reasonable, and not particularly hack-ish.

Mark in Austin said...

What do you think of Gwen Ifill as Russert's successor on MTP?

She was a protege of his for a few years at NBC and she has that cheerful but commanding presence with a penchant for research and fair questioning [IMHO].

Anthony Palmer said...

MIA,

Gwen Ifill would be both a safe and bold pick at the same time. She's obviously a tested journalist and she does not have any obvious biases. She can be tough and fair just like Russert, but is she compelling? She doesn't strike me as someone who has that sense of authority when she speaks.

In terms of demographics, she'd be a great choice, obviously. But after what happened with Katie Couric, maybe network television is a bit gun shy...

Thomas said...

I just saw that Tom Brokaw will be doing MTP at least until the November election.

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