The Outsider's Insider
Tim Russert knew he was a big deal -- he had a healthy ego and an accurate sense of his accomplishments. But I'm confident that he would be stunned at the magnitude of the reaction to his death, especially among people who never met him. There's a sense that something more than the man has been lost.
I've appeared occasionally on "Meet the Press," and this year I often worked with Russert on MSNBC's election coverage. Since last Friday, when Russert suffered a heart attack while preparing for Sunday's show, I've been stopped a number of times by people I don't know -- in the street, in the supermarket, at a restaurant -- who extended condolences as if a member of my own family had passed away. I've gotten e-mails from both friends and strangers saying they were touched by Russert's passing in a way that surprised them.
The temptation is to chalk this up to Russert's great skill as a broadcaster -- effortlessly projecting his personality through the screen. As friends, colleagues and the subjects (or victims) of his interviews have attested, he was a great guy. At this point, after a weekend of nonstop tributes, it would be self-indulgent for me to add my own litany of personal recollections and unadulterated hosannas. Suffice it to say that he deserved it all.
But why such a huge reaction? I think it's not just because of who Russert was, but also because of the role he carved out for himself as a kind of ombudsman -- the mediator not only of a television show but of a weekly dialogue between the public and the political establishment.
In an age of postmodern irony, there was nothing remotely postmodern or ironic about Russert -- or for that matter about his television show. His "Meet the Press" presented the nation's political discourse as we would like it to be: sober yet good-natured, always civil, scrupulously informed. The show flattered guests and their subject matter by taking them seriously and, by extension, flattered the millions of viewers who reliably tuned in every Sunday morning by taking them seriously as well.
Much has been made of Russert's "everyman" persona -- the blue-collar kid from Buffalo who never lost sight of his roots. It's true that Russert didn't put on airs, but he never pretended to be a regular guy and I doubt many people saw him that way. In fact, he was the insider's insider, with connections and access -- and also wealth and influence -- that no one would remotely consider ordinary. If there is a Washington "bubble," Russert lived at its center.
What he did so effectively was confront his fellow insiders with the questions and concerns of those living outside. This was not a unique gift -- other great journalists do the same thing. But Russert did it so well, and gradually aggregated such a large audience, that he came to occupy a unique position in the nation's political life. He made "Meet the Press" a rite of passage for anyone seeking high office, a confessional for politicians who had sinned, a briefing room where generals could defend their strategies.
"Meet the Press" has been on the air for an incredible six decades -- Russert was the longest-running host, at 17 years -- and the show clings to some charming traditions. After each segment, a photographer comes out to take a picture for the archives. When the taping is done, snacks are brought to the set and the guests linger for a while, chatting with the host -- about their families, about baseball, about the news of the day and about what's likely to be the news of tomorrow. It's all so civilized that it feels almost anachronistic.
Tim Russert wasn't an anachronism, though. Journalism is going through a phase of traumatic transition -- newspapers are losing circulation, the broadcast networks are losing viewers, the Internet is changing everything. The temptation is to think of Russert as a throwback. But actually he was the state of the art because he did what any journalist, in any era, needs to do in order to thrive: He made himself essential.
That, I think, is why there is such an outpouring of sympathy over his death. He is so desperately missed because he was so necessary.