The Humble Moderator's Grand Goodbye

Luke Russert, Tim Russert's son, speaks last at Russert's funeral in Washington. Video by AP
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 19, 2008

Luke Russert has his father's sense of mischief. Speaking to the well-heeled mourners at Tim Russert's funeral yesterday, he read his father's favorite biblical passage: To whom much is given, much is expected.

"And after seeing the make of some of the suits and dresses in this room," Luke teased, "a lot is expected from this crowd."

Uncomfortable laughter rose from the pews at Georgetown's Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

Young Russert was spot on. In the extraordinary outpouring of grief since his sudden passing last week, this humble product of South Buffalo has been given the closest thing to a state funeral this town has seen since the deaths of Presidents Reagan and Ford. In life, the unassuming host of "Meet the Press" eschewed pricey suits and pretentious Washington in favor of Buffalo wings and the Buffalo Bills; in death, this commoner was turned into royalty by official Washington.

After days of wall-to-wall tributes to Russert on NBC, MSNBC and even rival outlets, President Bush joined thousands at Russert's wake on Tuesday. Condoleezza Rice, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Madeleine Albright were among the 2,000 to attend a televised memorial service yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center.

In between, a who's who of the elite was chauffeured down 36th Street for the funeral yesterday morning: Barack Obama, John McCain, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, George Stephanopoulos, Tom Brokaw, John Kerry, Brian Williams. The Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang "Ave Maria," just as he did for Reagan's funeral. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick -- himself a three-time guest on Russert's show -- delivered the homily, telling mourners to "pray that the beloved anchor of 'Meet the Press' is now sitting at the large table of the Lord to begin a conversation which will last forever."

The Russert family had taken pains to remember his common touch. It was this, after all, not his status among the elite, that caused the outpouring of grief after his death. They invited far fewer to the private service than the 640 the church could accommodate. The ushers and pallbearers were mostly family friends. The mourners included Sister Lucille, Russert's Catholic-school mentor from Buffalo, and Michael Patrick Avedon, grandson of another Russert mentor, the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

But officialdom had other plans for Russert's rites. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York gave away the secret location of the funeral by broadcasting the address in his public schedule. The Georgetown neighborhood e-mail group sent out a warning about street closures and media trucks. And by 9:30 yesterday morning, the west village of Georgetown was clogged with black Lincoln Town Cars and Cadillac Escalades, mounted police in dress uniform, TV crews at multiple locations, and curious neighbors.

"Senator Kennedy on the left!" called out an excited sound man. "Oh -- no," he corrected. "It's Al Hunt." Already in the church: Joe Biden, Bill Bradley, Tom Daschle, Mario Cuomo and New York Gov. David Paterson.

Half an hour before the service, twin gray Secret Service Suburbans rolled down 36th Street, and McCain hopped out, making a grim nod at the crowd. A few minutes later -- after Vernon Jordan strolled inside -- another pair of Secret Service Suburbans deposited Obama, who made the same pained nod, even though he was chewing gum.

In they filed: David Gregory, Chris Dodd, James Carville, Paul Begala, Mike McCurry, Victoria Kennedy.

"He is short," one of the neighbors remarked, spying Bloomberg.

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