Like millions of other people, part of my Sunday morning rituals included brewing coffee and sharing an hour with Tim Russert and Meet The Press, the nation’s longest-running television show. Sundays didn’t seem complete without Tim grilling his guests.
Over the years, he’d built up such a rapport with his audience that the news of his sudden death on Friday seemed like a bolt from out of the blue. Those of us who’d spent so much time with him took the news as a personal loss.
The weekend seemed like one extended obituary for Russert on cable television. Russert’s face was everywhere on the network, from old episodes of his series to endless clips of interviews he’d done. It was as if he’d never left.
There he was, his big grin and boyish enthusiasm intact, talking about football, his family and his love of the United States. There was so much coverage, in fact, that one had to turn away. It was too much to take. It was too soon.
But, television being what it is, we were subjected to hour after hour of memorials. His funeral services this week will no doubt bring even more saturation coverage.
Normally, I’m against this kind of round-the-clock obituary television, because it quickly goes over the top. In previous cases of media hysteria, most notably the death of Princess Diana, legitimate mourning turned into maudlin profiteering by the TV networks.
But in this case, at least for me, it is understandable that we grieve for Russert, because he was more than just another talking head on TV. He was a voice of unity, of moderation and of common sense, qualities that are sorely lacking today, especially on television.
The loss of Tim Russert at this critical moment in American political history is one that is incalculable. The perspective he would have given us over the next five months would have been a national treasure and an act of deep patriotic service.
We are about to embark upon the most bitterly contested presidential campaign in American history. The forces that control American political life at the moment, those who have become even richer under our policy of perpetual war, will not give up power without a fight.
There will be visceral opposition to those who, like Barack Obama, want to bring about peaceful political change, end the wars, restore our national honor and begin rebuilding our shattered economy. It could even turn violent.
Russert was a salve, a buffer between opposing forces. His thoughtful analysis and love of country could have eased this transition. Without such an enthusiastic peacemaker, one whose patriotism is unquestioned, I fear for the worst.
Of his many interviews over the years, one sticks out in my mind the most. It was conducted on Sept. 16, 2001, five days after the horrors of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
His guest that day was Vice President Dick Cheney who, for perhaps the first and last time, acted as a unifying, sober and optimistic voice. Prodded along by Russert’s questioning, Cheney reassured millions of people, including me, that America was still strong and that we would overcome the tragedies of a few days earlier. We had faced difficulty in the past and had always emerged strong. We would do so again.
It represented the best that American journalism and American politics had to offer. There was no sense of partisanship, no political posturing, just a strong leader and a tough journalist collaborating to reassure a frightened nation.
It was perhaps Cheney’s finest moment and Russert made it happen. Both are to be congratulated for their service that day.
Moreover, Russert was one of the last few giants of American broadcasting still on the air. The web site archive.org features dozens of hours of TV coverage from 9/11 for download. Apart from the sense of shock and horror, the other noticeable thing about the TV coverage that day is that few of those voices are still around.
All three of the primary news anchors that day – Peter Jennings on ABC, Tom Brokaw on NBC and Dan Rather on CBS – are gone now, whether through death or forced retirement. Their years of experience gave them the strength to make it through that day. Who among today’s crop of journalists is even in their league?
And now Tim Russert is gone as well. Of course, the news will go on and Meet the Press will even go on without him. But we lost more than just another TV reporter when Russert’s enlarged heart stopped beating on Friday.
We lost a fine public servant, one whose only bosses were, in order, the truth and the American people. That is why we grieve for him, and for us. May he rest in peace.