I tried to resist the temptation, but I feel as though I must say a few words about the immortal Tim Russert. I know there are thousands, if not millions, of tributes to this wonderful man, so I won’t try to offer some deep insight into who he was or what he meant to America. That should be obvious by now, if it wasn’t before (and I can’t understand why it wouldn’t have been.) To be honest, I’m not sure I can offer anything at all. But three days later I’m still in shock. I tried to write about baseball, but all that came out was Russert. So here’s what he meant to me.
Like many twenty-somethings who closely follow the Beltway, I first became intimately familiar with him on November 7, 2000. The first time I was able to vote.
I had no idea I was watching history. Someday the bitterness of the election that still lives in much of the U.S. population will have long passed and 2000 will serve as little more than a curious end game to a complicated election process. But it will be studied, and Gore’s name will live with Tiden’s and Cleveland’s in the blank spaces of history exams for decades to come.
But to those who watched the events unfold live, the disputes and recounts and court battles will not have lived on that Tuesday night. Those all happened in the days and weeks following. And grouped in those following days and weeks will be the events that actually did occur that night – the press stating Gore was President before recanting, then later calling the Presidency for Bush before recanting yet again. Or waiting for a Gore concession speech that never arrived. Or Bush telling reporters that he will win Florida and “you can write that down,” immediately followed by speculation on what Thanksgiving night at the Bush’s would be like if his prediction ended up hollow.
Because looking back on November 7, the big event wasn’t the election. It was Tim Russert.
If this story is to be told to our children, Russert will probably play the supporting actor to the dry erase board. But to me it wasn’t Russert’s board. At eighteen, I had thought that it was a decidedly low-tech and amateurish way to get information across. But combined with that smile Russert always accompanied with his fanatic doodlings, it seemed like we were watching a nerdy school boy playing news with a home camera. He would get so excited every time he’d come up with a new electoral count scenario, grinning from ear to ear and showing Brokaw look at what I’ve done!! It was bizarre, but it was also enduring.
If you look at how cable news shows handle the election-night results now, it’s all about who has the fanciest and flashiest dry erase board. But at the end of the day, that’s all they really are. Just different versions of Russert’s board. He seems to have really changed the way TV handles elections in a fundamental way that night. One of his many contributions – probably not the most important, but potentially the most memorable.
At the time, however, I was put off by this child-like figure, invading what I felt was the most important event of my lifetime with such a naïve narrative. But that was really what people loved about Russert, wasn’t it? His childish naivety. Of course, he was probably the least naïve person in all of television. From everybody’s accounts, he certainly seemed to be the smartest. But he never seemed like he was a professional newsman. He always seemed like a little kid standing on the courthouse steps, begging his heroes to “Say it ain’t so.” He was innocence exposing the culpable. And he always won, so he always made us feel as though innocence had won, too. And because of that, he gave me hope.
And now what is the news going to do? Outside of Chuck Todd, I can’t think of a single person who is even remotely capable of matching his unique mix of insight, intelligence, and boyish charm. So I hope Todd can do a good interview.
It was touching that MSNBC spent all weekend devoted to him, but I doubt it was much of a good tribute to Russert. With the exception of a block of Sunday afternoon, it was a loop of about three or four hours of Russert tribute material all weekend. Tim Russert was always about “hard news.” He resisted the temptations to blur entertainment with news, as most of our modern television press has done. He didn’t like the horse race aspect of politics and was always trying to sway the conversation to ideas and policies. And though it was fitting for MSNBC to devote the whole weekend to him, I thought it was a little disrespectful to him to just loop through the same material over and over and over again. I don’t think that’s what he would have wanted. He would have wanted there to be real news going all weekend. The best tribute (I can think of) to Tim Russert would have been to replay a wide swath of interviews and Meet the Press shows relevant to today’s topics all weekend. This tribute would have simultaneously showcased his abilities and his work while also providing real news and commentary. Most importantly, it would have escaped the “infotainment” which modern news organizations try to pass off as public import – the very trap Russert was so successful in avoiding (if not downright ignoring), but which ended up being the vein of his tribute.
I cannot help but feel that his passing is an omen for the four and a half months to come. We need Tim Russert more than ever. We need calm candor, but television news cannot seem to provide that. We need reason, but we are marketed fear. We need honest questions and long answers, but will be given partisan bullet points and thirty second responses.
We’ll have walls of TVs and touch screens and flying pie charts. And all I’ll really want is one damn dry erase board.