In the old days, when a journalist met his final deadline, friends would gather round the grave, toss in a few memories, then make off to the bar for liquid comfort and disrespectful stories about the dear departed. Contrast this with the send-off for Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and 17-year maestro of “Meet the Press”, who dropped dead of a heart attack last week.
He got funeral ceremonies a pope and most U.S. presidents would envy: a private funeral with this year’s two presidential nominees sitting side by side on Russert family orders, with the Congressional leadership in the neighboring pews; George and Laura Bush at the public wake; thousands at the memorial in the Kennedy Center, with Washington and New York’s media and political elites massed in respectful homage.
Was Russert so extraordinary a fellow, to elicit so tumultuous a farewell? Surely not. He could be a sharp interviewer, but I can’t remember any occasions when I said to myself, “ Russert has given me a whole new insight into the way the world works.” There are many journalists and broadcasters I would put miles ahead of him.
Russert was a protege of Moynihan and a very close personal friend– many have said they were like father and son. Carl Ginsberg, who’s done excellent work on Moynihan down the years, sent me the following note on this relationship.
“A few years ago, in the course of promoting his book, Russert said that he — Russert — always made a point of getting home for dinner when in town to be with his son, Luke. The point was that even a busy and powerful dad can – and should – be attentive to his child. This was part of the Moynihan-tainted dogma about family Russert recycled for years: if poor blacks just made more of an effort with their families they could set their lives straight, help the kids and join respectable society. Moynihan once told me regarding black conditions, ‘it’s beyond economics… we can’t help them.’
It’s interesting that no matter how many sub-prime mortgages were sold through financial sleight of hand, packaged and resold (at a reported profit of 40per cent every two months at its height) and how many somersaults Moody’s did to give those mortgages — dubbed “collateralized debt obligations”– AAA rating (the rating agency 20 per cent owned by Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett, who today is sitting on $35 billion in cash)… and no matter the simple fact that the reason that poor people stretched for those mortgages was in desperation to get out of the clutches of miserable landlords…no matter what, the purveyors of capital never seem to be characterized as being “irresponsibility”; nor are their families ever scrutinized for their behavior.
But Moynihan — and Russert — couldn’t stop pointing the finger at irresponsible blacks.”
Russert was an insider, with a useful line in presenting himself somewhat to be an ordinary Joe from Buffalo (his hometown, where the flags have been flying at half mast). He didn’t have enemies, (which for a journalist is not an impressive credential). So this nice, popular insider was a fine advertisement for two professions – journalism and politics — whose collective ranking in public esteem is down there with salesfolk for subprime mortgages. No wonder they made haste to offer Russert to the people as the hero-journalist In hailing Russert, they got to hail and to ennoble themselves.
I was in Virginia the weekend after he died and the lead editorial in a local paper had this to say: “Tim Russert was the kind of newsman to which every journalist aspires; which every journalist wishes to emulate.” His conduct on Meet the Press was “fair and courageous, balanced and tenacious. Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, Russert held everyone accountable to the people of America. He demonstrated the highest qualities of professional journalism as well as the highest qualities of humanity…. a deeply religious man, a dedicated family man, a true American patriot.”
Now Russert had the power, the clout and the venue to ask tough questions in the run-up to the war in Iraq which began in March, 2003. There were plenty of serious people with informed views about whether or not Saddam Hussein really had nuclear missile to level London and bio-weapons to kill millions. But Russert was part of the Amen Chorus for a war that sent countless men, women and children to their deaths. When it mattered, he entertained no dangerous differences with the White House line. Was this a performance worthy of “a true American patriot”?
Did this “true American patriot” commanding the attention of millions every week not open his mouth to lament the fact that the U.S. government has been trashing the Constitution and tossing the Bill of Rights in the toilet? Negative on that one too.
We’ve had seven years of craven, culpable journalism – across the mainstream board. No one honors the reporters at Knight Ridder newspapers, who were among the few ones in the mainstream press, pre-war, to hammer away at the WMD lies. They never led off Russert’s or anyone else’s show. Russert was managing editor and host of Meet the Press, host of The Tim Russert Show on MSNBC, senior vp of NBC News, NBC Washington Bureau Chief, and regular political analyst on the Today Show, The Nightly News. So he was as responsible as anyone for the press collusion with the Administration. But now that the administration is looking bad, he’s not a collaborator but a tenacious knight, jousting with them, ‘truth-telling’, getting ‘the bad guys’ for ‘we, the people.’
Final question: Since NBC had a huge stake in Tim Russert’s future (“Meet the Press” brought in $50 million a year and they paid him around $5 million a year) you’d have thought the network’s executives would have taken a look at the tv screen and raised the alarm. Across the past three months he looked in increasingly awful shape, bright red in the face, overweight and sometimes with a slightly glazed, sad look. I told people I thought he was set to die of a heart attack right there in the studio, which is exactly what happened. On one sighting recently he didn’t take his loafers off in the gym, and when pressed about this casual approach to vitally needed exercise, gave a wink.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at email@example.com