In this presidential year, intemperate voices of broadcast journalists recall the moderate tone of Tim Russert who died suddenly four years ago on June 13th, the feast of St. Anthony of Padua. His death stunned the world of journalism, politics, and beyond; his life was celebrated by those who knew him well and by those who admired him from afar.
President Bush described Tim Russert as “an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades.” Al Hunt, a close friend and colleague, noted that “he absolutely set the standard for moving from politics to journalism. He proved it could be done ... with extraordinary skill and integrity.”
The Washington Post reported: “Seldom has there been a more public demonstration of the oneness of those reported on with those doing the reporting. Government, money, status, power, and media appeared indissolubly united on the nation’s TV screens.” He is the gold standard of contemporary journalism.
At the Mass of the Resurrection, Cardinal McCarrick called him “one of the great communicators in American society.” The liturgy resembled a state funeral.
The Russert Work Ethic
Between the years 1991-2008, Tim Russert rose to prominence as television’s pre-eminent journalist. He had already sharpened his political skills working for Senator Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo but had no experience whatsoever in television. Nevertheless, with the full confidence of NBC officials, he stepped into the limelight hosting the Sunday morning program Meet the Press, later known as Meet the Press with Tim Russert and a Saturday evening program of conversations with notables of various professions. What was the secret of his success? Why was he admired by so many public officials? There are a few reasons:
1.The Russert Preparation. As moderator of Meet the Press, Mr. Russert prepared so well that he could argue a complex political issue from all sides. He read as much as possible about the positions of his guests and then argued the opposite side. The ease with which he spoke on camera belied his dogged preparation.
2.Meet the Press’s Mission. Mr. Russert’s goal was to elicit information. If a guest dodged a question, he returned to it later in the interview and posed it in a different way. Prior to facing him on Sunday mornings, his guests needed to hone their own positions. Failure to do so resulted in embarrassment on national television. He applied tough questions to all political figures regardless of party affiliation. Republicans and Democrats greatly respected him, but both feared his probing questions.
3.The Russert Style. It is said that he had better political insight than many others more experienced in the business because he made the most complex political issues understandable and compelling. He delivered the information in simple, clear sentences, simple enough for his aging father to understand. The New York Times’ obituary observed that Mr. Russert “leavened his prosecutorial style with exuberance for politics–and politicians, on both sides of the aisle.” He so loved what he did that during the 2008 presidential year, he quipped to Al Hunt and Tom Brokaw, “Can you image that they pay us for doing this!” Mr. Russert’s joviality permeated his interviews but never became part of the interview, claiming that his views did not matter. His guests took center stage. He posed the questions and allowed each guest a full and uninterrupted answer. Listening intently, he responded until the topic was treated as fully as possible within time constraints. He had no control over the answers given, and they were often discussed in the media the following day.
4.Respect for His Guests. Though he was a tough inquisitor, Mr. Russert treated each guest with respect. If they erred, he responded: “Let’s look at what you said.” But he already knew their positions, and they knew that he knew. There was no skewering of guests with mean-spirited ‘gotcha’ questions, no questions that could be considered sarcastic, accusatory or insulting.
Mr. Russert’s Catholic Faith
By nature, Mr. Russert was a gregarious person. In South Buffalo, NY, his values were born from his Irish Catholic parents, extended family, and further developed by the Sisters of Mercy and the Society of Jesus. The verse, ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’ became an integral part of his work ethic.
In his early years at NBC, Mr. Russert was instrumental in arranging an appearance by Pope John Paul II on the “Today” program as he broadcast it from Rome. So seriously did he take his faith that he publicly decried the scandal brought about by clergy.
His colleagues too were affected by him. During the week following his death when NBC and its affiliates were paying tribute to his life, Howard Fineman, a close colleague mused that if he were ever to think of converting to the Catholic faith, he would want to be like Tim Russert, whose favorite prayer was St. Francis of Assisi’s, “Lord, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”
I wrote to Mr. Russert a few times a year, and his handwritten responses came with jovial quips. I sent him a miniature classic, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, written by the seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit Balthasar Gracián. A book for laymen, it contains three hundred maxims replete with words of wisdom. In his thank-you note, Mr. Russert said he read a maxim a day for inspiration.
Summing Up His Life
If St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of journalists and writers, then Mr. Russert stands beside the Bishop of Annecy as a model of broadcast journalists. Spending his life in the service of others, building a better world, this was his vocation. He lived his faith in front of public scrutiny. How would he respond or react to today’s broadcast journalism? In the four years since his death, it has become more sharply divided by ideology.
Among Balthasar Gracián’s maxims, three in particular seem appropriate on this fourth anniversary of his death:
1.“Even knowledge has to be in the fashion, and where it is not, it is wise to affect ignorance.”
2.“A bad manner spoils everything, even reason and justice; a good one supplies everything, gilds a No, sweetens a truth, and adds a touch of beauty to old age itself.”
3.“Fortunate people often have very favorable beginnings and very tragic endings. What matters isn’t being applauded when you arrive–for that is common–but being missed when you leave.”