My friend Judy Woodruff’s blog about the passing of Doug Bailey, a legend in political journalism, prompted me to flash back five years. On June 13, 2008, she was the one to call and tell me of the sudden passing of our mutual friend Tim Russert of NBC News and moderator of “Meet the Press.”
Somehow, it still shocks me to write those words. Tim was a mentor, an encourager, a political nerd with a passion for getting questions answered, and a fine man.
We could not have known when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 58 that his absence would leave such a big hole. Sunday mornings are not the same. Election nights are not the same. Somehow, he made regular folks understand Washington more, and hate politics less.
Here is something important you need to know about Tim Russert: On the night Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, even a casual viewer could tell Tim was beside himself with the joy of watching history unfold before his eyes. In that slightly over the top, nearly hokey way that characterized his love of election nights, he simply could not get enough.
I mention Tim often when I speak before college audiences and community groups now. His name still resonates, five years later. They remember that he favored low-tech white boards over high-tech touch screens. They recall that, although he got his start in politics working for Democrats, he was respected by partisans of all stripes. People like me better because I knew him.
In an age of Twitter and talk show attacks and counterattacks, humanity tends to get lost.
I remember that at his funeral mass at Washington’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church, which occurred in the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain arrived and sat side by side.
I miss Tim personally, but I also miss the qualities he came to represent. He might have barked a question at a guest, but it was always in the service of pressing for the answer. He may have been slightly wacky about his beloved Buffalo Bills, but he was also bonkers about his son, Luke.
In an age of Twitter and talk show attacks and counterattacks, humanity tends to get lost. We forget that most of the lawmakers we elect have more in common than not, or else they would not have sought these jobs. We lose sight of the fact that most journalists are honest and hard-working, not just mining the Internet for click bait.
A personal story: I came to know Tim when, as a reporter for the New York Times, he would invite me to join the “Meet the Press” roundtable to discuss the week’s news. After a time, he lured me to NBC News full time, promising to give me all I needed to succeed in the scary world of broadcast television. He had concluded by that time in his executive career that it was easier to teach someone television than to teach them how to be a good reporter. He was right about that.
A few years later, when PBS came knocking, he urged me to do something scary once again — to seize the opportunity to host “Washington Week” and report for the NewsHour. He was right about that too.
Judy writes that Doug Bailey was not only smart, he was wise. I can say the same about Tim. We could all use a much heftier serving of that in those who lead us, and those who chronicle them.
Read more about Tim, and see a great snapshot of him with his oil painting doppelganger, in this remembrance posted by his longtime producer Betsy Fischer Martin.
Above photo: Gwen Ifill with Tim Russert in 1999.