1,500 Admirers Gather to Get The Tim Russert Story Right

Luke Russert, Tim Russert's son, speaks last at Russert's funeral in Washington. Video by AP
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

From the three network anchors to a former governor to the Buffalo nun who taught him in seventh grade, Tim Russert's extended family bid farewell yesterday to "an unmade bed of a man, with an armful of newspapers and a cellphone to his ear," as Tom Brokaw described his colleague.

A generous slice of New York and Washington royalty -- television stars (Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer), current and former White House aides (Ed Gillespie, Karl Rove) and politicians (John Kerry, Bob Dole) -- made their way down the Kennedy Center's red-carpeted, flag-bedecked Grand Foyer. Outside, NBC's Andrea Mitchell and her husband, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, comforted Russert's wife, Maureen Orth.

Hours after a private funeral attended by President Bush, Barack Obama and John McCain, the more than 1,500 invited guests gathered in the Concert Hall to remember NBC's Washington bureau chief, who died Friday of a heart attack.

Brokaw set the wistful-but-humorous tone at the outset, saying the assembled included family, friends "and the largest group -- those who think they should be his successor on 'Meet the Press.' " He recalled how Russert, an inveterate political gossip, would start every conversation with "Tommy B, what's happening?"

Brokaw said he has been stopped repeatedly by "strangers on the street, tears in their eyes," including a construction worker who said Russert "seemed to be one of us."

As MSNBC televised the memorial service, anchor Brian Williams, perhaps mindful of criticism that the tributes have grown excessive, sounded a cautionary note. "I'm not much for this talk that Tim's death is the end of what he stood for, his brand of objective journalism, all that he built up. I don't think Tim, candidly, would have believed that either," he said.

Reaching for the metaphorical, Williams addressed the coronary blockage that killed his colleague at 58. "How is it," he said, "that the heart that sustained so many of us through its goodwill stopped beating for the man who depended on it for his life?"

The speakers blended heartfelt admiration for Russert the newsman and onetime political operative with tales of his generosity as a friend and devotion as a father. The stage was framed by oversize photos of Russert doing everything from playing softball to greeting Pope John Paul II.

Maria Shriver, California's first lady, recalled her nervousness when she started at NBC after having been fired by CBS. "I'm Irish Catholic, too -- there aren't that many of us here in this building," Russert told her. Shriver described Russert as a tad overzealous in insisting that she -- a member of the Kennedy clan! -- needed his help getting her daughter into Boston College. (Whatever his efforts, the girl wasn't accepted.)

Russert's onetime boss, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, offered the day's only example of Russert blatantly lying. After Cuomo pushed through the nation's first seat-belt law in 1985, the two men were in a Buffalo motorcade when their car was struck from behind and Cuomo -- having forgotten to buckle up -- hit the dashboard. As reporters rushed over, Russert blurted out: "Thank God for the seat belt!"

Sister Lucille Socciarelli said she named Russert editor of the newspaper at Buffalo's St. Bonaventure School as "a means to channel his excessive energy." She said they often discussed the local basketball teams and "he rattled off all the statistics, right from his own head."

The loudest applause greeted 22-year-old Luke Russert, who displayed great poise as he called his father the most optimistic man he had ever met. "I ask you this Sunday in your hearts and in your minds to imagine a 'Meet the Press' special edition, live from inside St. Peter's gates," he said. "Maybe Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr will be on for the full hour."

It was, without question, the only memorial service ever to begin with strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- a selection from Russert's iPod -- and close with a videotaped tribute from Bruce Springsteen. Russert had never been able to book him as a guest, but The Boss recalled seeing him, "beaming like the rising sun," in the front row when he staged a concert for "Today."

In the recording from Europe, where he is on tour, Springsteen said: "Luke, this is for your pop." He delivered an acoustic version of "Thunder Road," with its refrain about seeking the promised land.

Russert understood, above all, that the news must go on. So as the guests filed upstairs to the Roof Terrace for a reception, Williams, who turned to Russert for analysis on so many primary nights, got ready to broadcast "NBC Nightly News" from the hall where they had said goodbye to his friend.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company