Joe Klein and Christopher Hitchens have, respectively, insightful and moving obituaries for their friend Tim Russert. Every conversation I have taken part in or overheard over the past couple of days consists of people in one of two categories: Those who had personal stories of Russert’s kindness or generosity, or those who found themselves to be much more upset by his death than they would have expected. I count myself in the latter category, likely because there are certain figures in popular culture—and even if he was first and foremost a journalist, Russert also transcended his job and our “bubble”—who are much more visible than one quite realizes. I remember being rather unaffected by Johnny Carson’s death, but I did register a certain amount of surprise that adults I knew who rarely if ever watched The Tonight Show were saddened by Carson’s passing. By osmosis if nothing else, Russert, like Carson, managed to tunnel his way deeper into our psyches than we perhaps recognized.
The television coverage that I saw on Friday, most notable for the sight of what appeared to be a genuinely saddened Keith Olbermann and the complete absence of Chris Matthews, went some way to crystallizing why Russert’s passing is resonating so deeply. The number of celebrity journalists and members of the Washington Establishment on MSNBC was pretty startling. First there was Tom Browkaw and Andrea Mitchell and Ben Bradlee, then Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham and Barbara Walters. You almost expected to see Katharine Graham mourning Russert’s death, even though that would of course have been impossible. Anyway, or belatedly, the point is that for most young, liberal journalists in Washington, this parade of Establishmentarians is seen as being either too cozy with power or too wedded to outmoded ways of covering politics. Russert, to be sure, was part of this group, and while I agree with some of the criticisms thrown his way (the gotcha questions, the coziness with the powerful, the obscuring of really important issues by focusing on the horserace), all the tributes made one remember why Russert seemed so much fresher and less etiolated than this crowd.
There were certainly problems with Russert’s habit of focusing obsessively on past statements, but the fact remains that someone needs to put the spotlight on flip-flopping (to use a loaded term) and hypocrisy (okay, maybe not hypocrisy). Still, I always felt that by the end of a long Russert segment, the viewer really did know where Candidate X stood on the issues. Moreover, where else on network television could you watch an uninterrupted 30 minute segment with a host who actually let his guests talk?
Switching from the political to the personal, Russert was an extremely entertaining performer. Like Matthews, his obvious love of politics was infectious and charming, and his plain-spoken persona was surprisingly engaging, if for no other reason than that it did not appear to be shtick. I was always pleasantly surprised, when talking to people in Washington, to hear them say that Russert was actually like that. Similarly, the gigantic amount of publicity generated by his book on “Big Russ” was slightly less annoying than it should have been because Russert had such genuine love and affection for his father. Clich