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Tim Russert

Tim Russert was a gifted and cunning Sunday-morning interrogator who, while never quite disturbing his genuine persona or television’s conventions, used his outsized position on “Meet the Press” to rattle many more politicians than any of his on-air rivals did.
/ Source: The New Yorker

Our colleague Calvin Trillin once referred to the televised weekend bloviators from Washington as the “Sabbath Gasbags.” Which was fair up to a point. Countless cubic feet of hot, polluted air are regularly unleashed into the national atmosphere by politicians and commentators on the networks and the cable stations, making life almost too easy for our most acute press critic, Jon Stewart. There would be no “Daily Show” without Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and the (not quite so big anymore) Big Three.

And yet Tim Russert, who died Friday at the age of fifty-eight, was a gifted and cunning Sunday-morning interrogator who, while never quite disturbing his genuine persona or television’s conventions, used his outsized position on “Meet the Press” to rattle many more politicians than any of his on-air rivals did.

“Meet the Press,” which began as a radio show in 1945 and débuted on NBC two years later, is the longest-running program on television, and Russert, who began hosting in 1991, was its longest-running presider. Print reporters often look down on their colleagues in television as overpaid, underprepared, and soft on power, but the print reporters who assembled on “Meet the Press” in the days of Lawrence E. Spivak, the program’s originator, were rarely as probing as Russert was at his best. With the help of his staff, Russert was especially good at arming himself for an interview by compiling a politician’s previous statements in all their contradictions.

Google was his tool and Gotcha his game. But it was Gotcha at its highest form. Russert’s gift was to employ his bluff, nice-guy, good-son Irish Catholic upstate persona (“Go Bills!”) to offset the avidity with which he would trip up his interlocutors. Arianna Huffington, who once called Russert a “conventional wisdom zombie,” was among the many critics who pressed him to go much further, but Russert, more than anyone with a remotely equivalent job, did not back off easily, whether it was with Dick Cheney, in 2002, peddling nonsense about Iraq or with Al Gore, in 2000, trying to ease his way out of a line of questioning on abortion:

RUSSERT: When do you think life begins?
GORE: I favor the Roe vs. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did—
RUSSERT: Which is what? When does life begin?
GORE: Let me just say, I did change my position on the issue of federal funding and I changed it because I came to understand more from women—women think about this differently than men.
RUSSERT: But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don’t believe life begins at conception. I’m just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?
GORE: Well, look, the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question—
RUSSERT: Which is?

Russert was no radical. He wanted the zing of confrontation but was always careful to withdraw at a certain point, the better not to cross the line between tough and hostile in the viewer’s eyes. There were limits to his approach, and blogs both liberal and conservative sometimes purveyed the notion that he was nothing more than a cozy role-player in the Beltway drama. That notion was deeply unfair. His preparation insured that a politician could not drift long in a mental comfort zone. After one particularly contentious Sunday session, John McCain recalled that he told Russert, “I hadn’t had so much fun since my last interrogation in prison camp.” That expression of grudging admiration may well have been McCain’s clever means of D.C. ingratiation, but one can guess it’s not one he would have thought to extend to most of Russert’s network and cable colleagues.

Russert was a central figure in the Washington media establishment––an interview with him long ago became a ritual of American political campaigns—but he ascended to that lordly position from modest beginnings. In Buffalo, where he grew up, the Sisters of Mercy were his teachers. He graduated from John Carroll University and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, at Cleveland State University. His avenue to journalism was through retail politics in New York: after law school, in 1976, he joined Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Senate campaign and became his chief of staff in Washington.

Russert did not come to television without an insider’s sense of politics as it is played on the ground. During Moynihan’s 1982 reëlection campaign, it was Russert who pointed out to reporters inconsistencies in the record of a Republican opponent, Bruce Caputo: Caputo had claimed to be a draftee and an Army lieutenant when, in fact, he had taken a civilian job in the Defense Department as a way to avoid the draft. Caputo’s campaign ran to ground, and the phrase “to be Russerted” entered the lexicon of New York politics. “Get me a Russert,” Gary Hart later demanded of his staff. Lawrence Grossman, the president of NBC News, was so taken by Russert’s grasp of practical politics that he hired him as his assistant; eventually, Russert was appointed chief of the Washington bureau.

Russert was defined as much by what he was not as by what he was. He was not lazy or lax, he was not an ideologue or a cynic. Beyond his family, Russert’s passion was politics, and he cared enough about the game to try to keep it, and its players, honest.