After “Meet the Press” ended each Sunday, it didn’t end. The bright lights would go down in the studio, but Tim Russert would keep talking, chatting, going on as if he never wanted the moment to be over.
If you were one of the guest journalists on the panel, you would stay in your seat and talk with him. On or off the set, Tim never acted like a superstar.
“Meet,” as it was always called in the business, often had a small audience in the studio, usually just a dozen people or so sitting on folding chairs off to one side. They were usually students and always in awe watching history unfold before them on live TV.
Tim would spend a lot of time with them after the show, answering their questions, signing autographs, posing for pictures. He was a man of small kindnesses. Last year, just before the Iowa caucuses, when I was standing in the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott hotel nervously waiting for a cab that was never going to arrive for an appointment for which I was already late, Tim came up and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey, I’ve got a car. I’ll drive you.” And he did. Just like that.
He was not a creature of Washington. He was a kid from Buffalo, and it showed. People in Buffalo treat each other like neighbors, and that’s the way Tim treated people.
Having worked for both Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Mario Cuomo, Tim went from politics to journalism at a time when the chasm between the two was vast and not easily bridged. But Tim bridged it, and he did so by dint of sheer talent and a relentless commitment to fairness.
Much was made by politicians of passing the “Russert Test,” of showing you could go toe to toe with him on live TV. Some passed, and some failed. But Tim never hit below the belt, was never snide or snarky or sneaky. His specialty was bringing up a politician’s own words, own actions, own votes — which were often contradictory — and asking for an explanation.
It could be devastating. It reminded me of the H.L. Mencken line: “Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.” Tim dispensed justice every Sunday. “If it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press” was not a boast, it was a fact.
He was aided by great researchers and his wonderful executive producer, Betsy Fischer. “Meet” was a relentless search for truth in an era dominated by spin and deception. It was not easy. Live TV is never easy; Tim just made it look that way. He knew, of course, the show was in part about him. He knew the power of personality in both politics and journalism.
A few days after my first appearance on the show, a guy stopped me on the street and said, “Hey, I saw you on the Russert show Sunday.” The Russert show. People would say that a lot. “Meet the Press” had a long, proud history, but Russert made the show his.
I was petrified the first time I went on the show — I was petrified every time I went on the show — but Tim would always be there in the Green Room beforehand to talk to you, and he would always be smiling, energetic, enthusiastic, looking forward to it all.
In a profession in which it is easy to burn out, Tim never did. Tim did his work without fear or favor. That’s tougher than it sounds in this town. And he was gracious. He never needed to prove that he was the smartest guy in the room (though he often was). When somebody else on the show did well, Tim was delighted.
After each show, I would take my “Meet the Press” mug home with me. After about the third time, Russert said, “Hey, you’re not selling those on eBay are you?” He was kidding, but I assured him I was not selling them. I put them on my desk. Sure, they were trophies, but they were also memories and reminders: reminders of just how good political journalism could be if you worked at it hard like Tim did.
“Meet the Press” set the agenda and drove the news and made itself indispensable even in the face of formidable competition. Russert brought a sense of joy and a sense of importance to what he was doing, a sense that even though the political process could be small and demeaning, it could also be great and essential to our nation and to our democracy.
Tim Russert will miss the ending of one of the greatest elections in modern U.S. history, but be gave us the tools and insights and good examples to carry on.
But if it’s Sunday, we’ll miss Tim.
Tim Russert, TV Legend, Dead At 58:
Memorable Tim Russert Moments:
Friends, Colleagues Respond With Grief:
Tim's Bio On...