Tim Russert: The Smile That Lit Up Journalism

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 Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008

But he couldn't have died. It seems impossible. Tim Russert can't be gone because he was having too good a time.

He was an expert at journalism, politics and the ways of the world, yes, but he also seemed to have mastered happiness. He'd won trophies and plaques and certificates by the score, and if there were an award for getting what you want out of life, he would have won that, too.

When news broke yesterday that the NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of "Meet the Press" had suffered a fatal heart attack, the general reaction was absolute, stupefied incredulity. It couldn't have happened -- not to him. Not to someone who so thoroughly epitomized ebullient contentment.

Tim Russert, without the slightest doubt, was in love with his life and lived it with contagious esprit. He got to do what he most wanted to do, and thus did it with a seemingly unstoppable zest. But nothing is unstoppable; that might be one cruel moral of the story. Russert had the dream job he'd coveted; a marriage to journalistic superstar Maureen Orth that made them one of Washington's most glamorous media couples; and a son, Luke, who gave Russert obvious and contagious bliss.

No wonder -- as more than one eulogist noted yesterday -- whenever you ran into Russert, he usually had a smile on his face, and behind that smile an eagerness to share some tender morsel of news or a topical one-liner. He was smiling the last time I saw him, just days ago -- even though we were both caught up in the infuriating bedlam of Dulles International Airport. Russert was on his way to Italy for a trip that he would cut short so he could return to Washington and prepare for this week's "Meet the Press."

When he took over the program in 1991 (and it seems now as though it was always his), "Meet the Press" was all but choking on its own dignity, having long since become an institution but a decidedly stuffy one, perfunctory and at times enervated. Russert dared to personalize the show -- to mention his beloved Buffalo Bills, extend birthday wishes to his adored father, Big Russ (who has survived him), or to his son -- and some of the old guard sniffed in disapproval at what they saw as a tarting up of broadcast journalism's Old Grey Lady.

But Russert modernized the program, brought it out of the age of stiffness and formality and gave it a dynamic new immediacy. Now it made news as well as reflecting and reporting it, shaking off cobwebs and layers of dust that had accumulated since the program's early radio days. "If it's Sunday, it's 'Meet the Press,' " the new moderator said at the show's conclusion, and if it was "Meet the Press," it was very much, absolutely and entirely, Tim Russert.

How'd you like to be the poor guy who follows him in the job?

Russert brought to the show his personal love of politics -- the big game -- having perfected his skills while working for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan but leaving partisanship behind once he crossed the border from participant to savvy spectator. He did it without sacrificing any of the show's credibility or gravitas.

Although former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw's voice broke when he reported the news of Russert's death at 3:40 p.m. -- then joined current anchor Brian Williams for reminiscence and tribute -- the plaudits and encomiums proffered by Russert's competitors might have been even more impressive. Fox News Channel went wall-to-wall with coverage just as MSNBC was doing, and among those weighing in with praise was FNC Chairman and Chief Executive Roger Ailes, who said, "It's hard to find a picture of Tim where he isn't smiling. He was just a guy who enjoyed life."

"He really was the king of the media here in Washington," said Fox commentator Chris Wallace, whose own Sunday interview show airs opposite "Meet the Press." Wallace admired Russert, he said, even though when it came to ratings, "he beat me like a drum."

From ABC News came more expressions of admiration. George Stephanopoulos, whose "This Week" also airs opposite "Meet the Press" in many markets, said, "Tim loved everything about politics and journalism because he believed in it. . . . Every day he brought Washington home to his viewers and made all of us better."

Russert used to joke about being "not just another pretty face" for television, and on the surface, he was anything but the typical fair-haired anchor or commentator common in broadcast news. Maybe that made him seem all the more real to viewers, who also found politics and government more accessible, more understandable, as Russert presented them on the air. He found politics infinitely entertaining and was usually able to translate that delight to the proverbial folks at home.

Not that Russert lacked ambition. He was keenly competitive and played to win. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann recalled that Russert often concluded memos to staff members with a gung-ho "Go get 'em." When he was named "Meet the Press" moderator, one NBC News staffer noted, one of Russert's first official acts was to have a large framed photograph of himself placed among those of other NBC luminaries in the hallway of the network building on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington.

Even worshipful colleagues recalled yesterday that Russert commanded a large salary and made sure he had friends in all the front offices, both in the news division and on the corporate side. His current contract had been extended through 2012, and Russert was hardly the type to be contemplating retirement when that year rolled around. The story of his life always seemed his to write, the tale his to tell, and so it is that his premature departure is almost obscene, certainly absurd, unimaginable. He had the energy and drive of a hundred novices and cub reporters.

"He'll be missed as he was loved -- greatly," Brokaw said at the end of the bulletin on Russert's death. The sense of shock was palpable throughout the day and into the night, and making Russert the big story, out of all the news happening in the world, hardly seemed self-indulgent. After all, Russert transcended his role and job, and became an icon of trust and gusto and fair play to a degree greater than that of many of the politicians he interviewed.

Russert was tough and rigorous in his questioning. One of his trademarks was using a subject's own words -- blown up and posted on the screen -- to exact a newsworthy response. But he wasn't out to draw blood or humiliate people; his credo really did seem to be "with malice toward none." He was by nature a fair-minded kind of a guy, and spite, bullying and nastiness were not in his playbook. They would have tainted the show -- worse, they would have spoiled his fun.

If that was unthinkable, so is the idea of this felicitous and edifying ritual suddenly and without warning coming to an end, of it being Sunday morning and time for "Meet the Press," but with Tim Russert absent. It's just not right that he is gone, just not right. It's an affront, an outrage, an act of cruelty -- and something that Russert never was: unfair.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company