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By Paul Jones
“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”-William J. Rapaport
It’s difficult to recall an important televised moment in which Tim Russert’s owlish face was not agleam with self-satisfaction. As though his excrescent snout were industriously secreting nitrous oxide. I used to wonder what, about his innately unpleasant work, he found so amusing.
The bonds with his father, Tim, Sr. and son, Luke, were obviously adamantine. Against all probability, he united the classes—of Washington’s reportorial peerage, and the reliably media-averse working white folk through whose lives he jovially trundled—in unanimous affection. CNN’s Anderson Cooper found time while in Africa, where nothing newsworthy ever happens, to call Russert “a remarkable journalist and an extraordinarily decent human being.” While the latter constituency, with whom the NBC News Washington bureau chief literally oversold his kinship in two bestselling books, was unwavering in its devotion. That’s remarkable for a man who was, according to media critic Bob Somerby, “made a multimillionaire by…conservative Republican defense contractor…Jack Welch.” Somerby argues on his website, The Daily Howler, that Welch, onetime CEO of NBC parent General Electric “hand-picked” Russert for “Meet the Press.” But Russert’s fabulous wealth and his summer castle on the exclusive island of Nantucket were inconsequential to these table salts of the earth.
At the Superfund site in South Buffalo that is Tim Russert Park, the jogging track is—perhaps fittingly, given his premature death at age 58 from coronary artery disease—abbreviated and misshapen like a pork chop. Pedestrians on the main street leading there are more “heterogeneous” than when young Russert trudged the sidewalks. But they embody unmistakable blue-collar values, like open contempt for motorized traffic.
Memories among the earlier generation here who met him are bland, but sincere: he was a “real nice guy” and “down to earth.” Around the corner at The Blackthorn, an Irish pub and men’s club where his father, “Big Russ”—titular hero of one of Russert’s treacly potboilers—is a member, recollections are slightly more flavored. Visiting the bar one night, he sat with the regulars, drank Heineken and “talked Buffalo.” (The Heineken seems slightly indiscreet for an inveterate brand-conscious Irish Catholic like Russert.) Co-owner Pat Lalley echoed the sentiment of every cable television obituarist when he said the newsman was “like an acquaintance.”
At some point, however, this vibrato adulation becomes discreditable. After all, what grizzled muckraker has ever boasted a wide circle of cordial acquaintance? Let alone among powerful people?
Yet Russert’s friend, Rush Limbaugh, called him “the closest thing there was at any of the networks to an objective journalist.” This is the Rush Limbaugh who claimed Hillary Clinton abetted the “murder” of Vince Foster; that no scientific basis existed in 1994 for concluding nicotine is addictive; and that Michael J. Fox “exaggerat[ed]” his Parkinson’s tremors for political purposes. In other words, don’t expect Seymour Hersh to be mourned so liberally.
You may pinch your sniffer and declare nasally that this reeks of selective quotation. Well, what to make of Russert’s inquisitorial flourishes as Democratic debate moderator? It was he who decided that Barack Obama must assuage the fears of Jewish Americans (and doubtless other armchair Confederates) by exorcising the anti-Semitic specter of Louis Farrakhan. A man whose endorsement Obama did not court, and whose company he did not keep; but who is swarthy, Chicagoan and, well, you get the idea. Meanwhile, John McCain’s public dalliance with John Hagee went unremarked for months, because Russert—lauded as one of Washington’s most resourceful men—couldn’t locate footage of the pastor’s hate screeds.
The encore to this sordid episode came many weeks later when Obama secured the party’s nomination. Russert marked the momentous occasion with the chauvinistic emission that he would “love to teach American history at an inner-city American school tomorrow morning.” Gushing, he asked his co-hosts, “How great would that be?” Comes the question: For whom, precisely? Imagine this man before such a classroom. Imparting the very contemporary lesson that, regardless what heights they might achieve, even the scions of Civil Rights must bear the weight of some “strange fruit.”
This curious favoritism is stranger still for a man whose career began in Democratic politics. If it’s possible to suggest such a thing in America, then perhaps his master passions were too working-class. He was a former altar boy who, according to Newsweek’s John Meacham, still regularly attended mass—long after his childhood schoolmates had lapsed. Like the Buffalonians so surprised that this successful fellow would continue to vouchsafe them essential courtesies, he retained his own tendency to be overawed. He felt blessed to meet two popes. His critics and friends portray him as a man in thrall—whether to Welch, to heads of state or something higher still. And the gauzy, ceremonial armor he donned as “Meet the Press” weekend warrior merely accentuated the flaws of his professional reverence.
In 2004, as Somerby noted, he allowed President Bush to stutter his way through a retrospective interview about prewar planning without venturing a single pointed follow-up. Later that year, as the election drew closer and the prospective veeps sparred, he inexplicably let stand Dick Cheney’s lie that the vice president had never before met John Edwards—though the NBC host knew it was false. Is it any wonder White House aide Catherine Martin, testifying at Scooter Libby’s trial, called “Meet the Press” the administration’s “best format” for propagating its messages?
NBC morticians misspent much of their nonstop tele-vigil futilely making over Russert’s derelict treatment of the Iraq War run-up. Chris Matthews contorted his glistening, dribble glass mouth and whimpered that Cheney’s threat of mushroom clouds had stifled his boss. “The guys who wanted the war used that one thing to sell the patriot in Tim…” he said. Defending “Tim’s” dutiful ingenuousness, he referred to him as “everyman…Mr. or Miss America—Mrs. America.” The country can sigh in collective relief that we at least were spared the swimsuit competition.
The normally sensible Lawrence O’Donnell portrayed Russert as “patient enough to let the history roll out and let us find out…the ultimate truth…” How magnanimous! Only a believer in omnipotent hands, perpetually sweeping brown-skinned detritus under the vast rug of time, could be so unvigilant. For what was the man compensated multimillions? Of course, Tim could afford to forbear, because his beloved fortunate son would never be imperiled overseas. Still, O’Donnell insisted Russert was dogged. “The answers,” he argued, “were oversimplified.” Remember that Russert’s greatest contribution to media was reducing the 2000 presidential election on a whiteboard to the words “Florida! Florida! Florida!” He was an insatiable gourmet of simplicity.
Russert’s answer to the charge of negligence, leveled at him by Bill Moyers in the film “Buying the War,” deserves its own well-lit display adjacent that whiteboard now in the Smithsonian. Asked why he didn’t verify the Bush administration’s intelligence on Iraq with other government officials, he replied, “I wish my phone had rung.” There, in his words, is the summation of his fabled reportage. Picture the Tim Russert Monument: the stone giant drowsing in his oversized host’s chair, his telephone cradled for eternity.
His faith in higher powers might explain his complacency, but it doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. In his penultimate broadcast as “Meet the Press” moderator, he bluntly called erstwhile White House press secretary Scott McClellan “part of the propaganda machine that sold the war.” He then extorted from his guest a promise that McClellan would donate a portion of his book sales to war victims. I thought Catholics had an overactive sense of sin.
The McClellan appearance was memorable for another reason. Russert patented the very simple act of poring over a public figure’s entire career worth of statements and asking them to explain the inevitable discrepancies—discrepancies that, alone, told no story. This tiresome technique of interrogation attained the stature of the Gordian knot in Beltway mythology. And woe betide any aspiring pol who came unprepared. But McClellan’s unruffled admissions that he’d simply been lying for years visibly perplexed Russert. As though the host, an unrivaled insider, had never really expected any guest to confess sheer opportunism. He’d only ever succeeded in teasing out more evasions. But a dissembling little knave undid the whole business.
Driving through Buffalo on Friday the 13th, hours after the announcement that Tim Russert—respected journalist and adored family man—had collapsed at NBC’s studios, I pulled over to the side of the road. Some teenagers were skateboarding in a small square. I got out and asked a few of them if they knew that one of the city’s most famous sons had passed. Only one answered.
“[He was] a guy who did the news and just died,” said Sean, 15. That was the clearest thing I heard in a weekend drowned out by rote eulogizing. All for a gormless leviathan whose clumsy bulk briefly rippled the manmade shallows of American political media.
On that Buffalo sidewalk, on the eve of Father’s Day, I thought of the Russert clan and hoped for their consolation. I thought, too, of the orphaned children and bereft parents of Iraq, and the fatherless sons and daughters of dead American soldiers. And I took heart later, on a damp, drear night, as thunderclaps roared and pitchforks of electricity scored the darkness. Buffalo had other sons, like Sean, of whom it could be proud. Go Bills.
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