America lost a great Patriot on Friday, June 13th, when Tim Russert died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. When the ‘Breaking News’ alert interrupted MSNBC’s usual coverage that afternoon, I thought it was about the attack on the Kandahar prison that had freed 1,500 inmates, 350 whom were considered Taliban militants. That story had just broken over the various news-wires. But when I saw that it was Tom Brokaw there to deliver the news, it became evident that something more personally profound was about to be reported on. My initial thought went to the safety and condition of the current anchor of NBC’s ‘Nightly News,’ Brian Williams, who has been reporting from Afghanistan this past week, covering the fight against a resurgent Taliban force. While I was relieved that Williams had not come to any harm, I was terribly saddened to learn from Brokaw that his esteemed colleague and friend Tim Russert had passed away at NBC’s Washington bureau, where he was Chief, and where he so tirelessly and passionately worked to inform the American public. Tim Russert was 58; far too young, even in spite of the fact that in his tragically shortened time he accomplished enough to fill three long life spans.
Over the past two days, the common theme found throughout the many eulogies of Tim Russert was the genuine love and care he felt towards his fellow man. Of course this was manifested first and foremost in the devotion to his family, wife Maureen and son Luke. For one so noted for his incredible work ethic and attention to detail – he made a point of doing his own research in preparation for his interviews on ‘Meet the Press – what friends and colleagues found most remarkable about the man was how he was able to put his family first. Often the first question asked by one of the most famous of all “questioners” was not about your career or your thoughts on the latest political news making headlines: he would ask you about your family, whom he would know by name. He also made it a point to pass on this preeminent value to those who would come to call him mentor. Even in the heat of late night election coverage, Russert was known to send Mothers and Fathers home so that they could put their kids to bed.
This extraordinary connection to the average American family, cultivated from his Buffalo working class roots, was always apparent in the way he did his job as a journalist. Tim Russert, as moderator of ‘Meet the Press,’ has always been lauded for his objectivity and fair treatment of all his guests from across the political spectrum. If someone left the studio on Sunday morning battered and bruised, it was because of the inconsistency of their own words and actions. Tim may have been the Hangman, but the noose was the intellectual dishonesty that passes for political discourse nowadays. And time and time again, political spin masters fell crashing through the trap door.
The greatest lesson that can be learned from the life and work of Tim Russert is that as a journalist he never made it about him. It was always about the Truth. Each Sunday, Tim labored to clear away all the obfuscation that stood between the American people and what the real story was. In this era of round-the-clock news coverage, and partisan anchors like Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, the type of journalism that Tim Russert practiced is needed now more than ever. Regardless of how he may feel towards and issue or a guest, Russert checked his political baggage at the door to the studio, and did his best to present the information as equitable as possible. For someone so famous for asking questions, his best attribute was the way he listened to the answers. If his life and untimely death can inspire a better Free Press, than it may be the best of all his great accomplishments.
I had the privilege to hear Tim Russert speak at my commencement from Lehigh University a few years back. It was a great speech that inspired as it entertained the thousands assembled on that hot day. But what was most noteworthy about the address was how little of it was spent on politics or journalism. He spoke more about the lessons learned from the Zen-like wisdom of Yogi Berra. The point of his speech – made quite eloquently and successfully – was that for the young graduates in attendance, who were blessed with the opportunity to receive a college education, they now have both the means and the obligation to take care of one another and those less fortunate. (I could only find a transcript of a commencement speech he gave last year at Washington University in St. Louis; but it is very close to what I heard, and is worth reading, here: http://news-info.wustl.edu/news/page/normal/9548.html )
In the speech he quotes his favorite commencement address in its entirety: “No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person.” The tragic irony of that statement is that ultimately it was his heart that failed him physically. Doctors said that they found he had an enlarged heart; and after a life devoted to the lifting up of others, his friends and family could have made that diagnosis themselves.
As I type these words, it is exactly 10:30 am on the East coast; and that means its time to ‘Meet the Press.’ The Good Lord had better brush up on the Good Book, because Tim is coming, and I’m sure he has some questions.