A Death in the Family

Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief for NBC News and moderator of the top political talk show "Meet the Press," died suddenly on Friday at the NBC studios in Washington. Russert was 58. He is survived by his son Luke and wife Maureen Orth.
By Todd Gitlin
Saturday, June 14, 2008; 12:00 AM

I've watched "Meet the Press" almost weekly for years, and for the last couple of months, I've been writing a weekly "Russert Watch" column for the Columbia Journalism Review online and the Huffington Post. Last Saturday, I happened to catch part of his MSNBC interview with Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), and was struck by how different was Russert's tone in this format. Whether because he felt a special respect for Webb, or because the cable format afforded him an easy-chair approach as opposed to a prosecutorial style, he seemed to enjoy hearing somebody articulate ideas. I was planning to write my "Russert Watch" column this Sunday contrasting the opportunity he gave Webb to propound a view of the world with the more stylized ritual of "Meet the Press."

And here's the strange part: For all my disagreements with the way in which Russert framed his questions, when I heard that he had died suddenly, I was pierced by disbelief and sadness. It's odd, the feelings we have in a media-flooded age about people we've never met -- odd but not necessarily shallow. A lot of people who were equally strangers to him had strong feelings about Tim Russert, and some even burst into tears when they heard he'd died at 58.

Even critics who think that the whole journalistic enterprise is inadequate to the national challenge respected the intensity he brought to his long-running NBC ventures. He evoked large feelings: pleasure when he rattled the powerful, displeasure when settled too cozily into the conventional wisdom that he, after all, helped shape. Washington is full of insiders who never lose the feeling of being outsiders -- who cherish it, in fact -- while chortling at its folkways. Russert was an impresario of these outsider-insiders: the Buffalo guy who'd made it inside but wanted you to know that he hadn't lost his common touch. The fact that he had come from somewhere else he wore like a medal.

When he confronted his guests with texts and video clips, attending to language in a medium that is ordinarily not so careful with language, he knew how revelatory are the words of public discourse if one slows down long enough to read them. Yes, he had a propensity to play gotcha and to settle for too-easy answers, and to my mind it is usually less important that people have changed their minds than why. But Russert brought a cross-examiner's intensity to his Sunday ritual that made it valuable, and made him like a member of the family -- the jolly uncle, alternately playful and cantankerous.

You don't make a career like Russert's without loving the nuts and bolts of politics, the shop-talk, the tallies and projections. His love of the craft was palpable, and rightly commanded attention. His death, appropriately at his desk, was a death in the extended family of those who care passionately about American politics and are possessed of the conviction that the question of who and what prevails in Washington will make a difference on planet Earth.

As the reach and power of mainstream news withers, Tim Russert was the last, best interrogator left standing -- worth welcoming into our homes for the Sunday ritual of a good argument. Whether we shared his obsessions or yelled at the screen because we thought he had gone soft on the enemy, there will be an empty space now in our living rooms.

The writer is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company