I'm a huge admirer of Tim Russert's, and with the outpouring of tributes surely to follow over the coming days, I guess the most I could offer is a personal anecdote to express what sort of role he played for political journalists here in Washington. It's safe to say that one of the most rewarding moments in my relatively brief journalistic career was a complimentary call I received from someone on his research staff earlier this year. I had just broken the story on Ron Paul's newsletters, and minutes after it went up on our website, my phone rang with NBC on the caller ID. "How the hell did you get those?" the researcher asked. Paul had appeared on "Meet the Press" a week earlier, where he was subjected to Russert's signature questioning style, in which controversial or contradictory statements made 15 years or 15 days ago are flashed on the screen and the guest is asked to respond immediately. When I heard about Paul's upcoming appearance, I worried that Russert had scooped me. Ultimately, Russert wasn't in possession of the documents I had found, but he still went after Paul, much like a "small-town prosecutor with a Google search in his hand" as Leon Wiesltier recently characterized him. Which was all for the better, seeing that the crank Texas congressman had received nothing but softball press throughout the campaign. Anyways, it was enormous validation to know that a guy like Russert thought I did a good job.
Russert's television program was, and I hope will remain, the most serious political affairs show on television. Beyond its more than five decades on the air, no small part of the reason "Meet the Press" maintained its position as the preeminent Sunday talk show has been the seriousness of purpose that Russert brought to the table. He was a standout in a sea of mediocrity, nor did he give off the impression that he had a big ego. Keith Olbermann, Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews--all of these men, blowhards really, ultimately think that the great national stories they cover are about them. Olbermann ridiculously envisions himself as some sort of latter-day Edward R. Murrow, ending each program with "Good Night, and Good Luck." Matthews coos about how Barack Obama sends tingles up his leg. O'Reilly is, well, O'Reilly. Other Sunday show hosts lack the sheer giddiness and curiosity of Russert, and it shows in their interviews. When I watched Russert, what I saw was a man concerned with getting to the heart of a story, which, in Washington, is often wrapped up in several layers of bullshit, coated in a gloss of insincerity. If his effort to expose the hypocrisies and double-talk that so characterize this town at times seemed like the tricky work of a "small-town prosecutor with a Google search in his hand," well, small-town prosecutors serve an important purpose in our republic, and so did Tim Russert.
Russert was fully aware of his privileged station at the pantheon of political journalism, and he didn't take his position for granted. "I have a front-row seat. And I'm watching one of the most exciting political campaigns in the history of our nation," he recently gushed. What a pity he won't be able to see it through.