This is the grave of Tim Russert.
The most overrated media figure of the last half-century, Russert, as he would tell you over and over and over again in an attempt to create authenticity for himself, came from Buffalo, born there in 1950. Russert did come from the working class of course, as he let everyone know. His father was a sanitation worker and his mother stayed at home raising the kids. What always bugged me about Russert talking about his dad so much–Big Russ–is that Russert himself was such a creature of the Beltway, such a purveyor of the day’s talking points from the Republican Party. His father served as a symbol to give himself authenticity, but authenticity toward what end? How did Big Russ’s existence justify Russert having John McCain on for the 402nd time?
They were a Catholic family and so Catholic school it was for Russert and his siblings. He went to John Carroll University in Ohio. He was a rock and roll kid in the late 60s and early 70s who was known for getting artists to come play at this small school, including Bruce Springsteen early in his career. When he graduated, he got a job working for Daniel Patrick Moynihan. First that was in Moynihan’s legal empire and then it was working for the senator himself. This just seems incredibly fitting. Monyihan, who suffered from the white family pathology of racism, was the kind of conservadem that someone like Russert would think of as ideal. A little centrism, a little quiet racism, a lot of Catholicism, oh yeah, that’s the ticket. He rose to become Moynihan’s Chief of Staff. He left the senator’s office in 1982 to take a similar job for Mario Cuomo.
In 1984, Russert, who cultivated connections in the media like a hippie did for his weed, got hired by NBC in 1984 as a correspondent. He rose quickly in the organization and in 1989, took over Meet the Press. The Sunday news talk shows are horrible. They are all terrible. While you’d like to think of a world in which journalists could ask top politicians hard questions, they never turn out well. Russert’s entire world was the “Gotcha” question that led nowhere. The guy worked hard–he wasn’t lazy in terms of work ethic, though he was tremendously lazy intellectually. But all that hard work, all that digging up archival footage, all of it just led to gotcha television in which a politician would be excoriated for changing his mind from something he had said years earlier.
Moreover, it wasn’t as if Russert didn’t have his own ideological predilection. This is yet another problem with the Sunday talk show format. There’s this idea of having a Media Daddy tell us what is Right and Wrong. This comes out of the unique television format of the 1950s with three channels and the age of Murrow and Cronkite and Brinkley. But you don’t get hired into these jobs as a rabble rouser. No one is hiring Seymour Hersh here! No, you have to have the politics of NBC executives–low taxes, hawkish foreign policy, the belief that most Democratic men are women and women are men, moderate social liberalism, a strong skepticism of any programs that help the poor. And that was Tim Russert’s politics too.
But wait, there’s even more problems with the Sunday talk show format. These people weren’t that bright, including Russert, and were easily manipulated. Because Russert’s own politics were so transparent, it was super easy for Republican politicians–who have always been the preferred interviews for Russert and his successors–to play him like a fiddle. During the lead up to the Iraq War, which was the precise thing the Blob, including Russert, wanted to see happen, the Bush administration knew they could send Dick Cheney onto Meet the Press and Russert would lob him softballs that he could hit out of the park like he was shooting a dude in the face.
Russert combined a post-Watergate confrontational journalism with the intellectual curiosity of a rock. So rather than confront anyone in a useful way, it was gotcha gotcha gotcha. What Russert learned from Watergate wasn’t that journalists should confront and fight evil. It’s that journalists should confront for the sake of winning awards.
But people liked this. Russert was hugely popular. This was the much watch show on Sunday morning for millions of people. I find this incredibly depressing, but it goes far to explain why there was so little skepticism about the Bush administration’s lies to get us into Iraq. Tim Russert was A Trusted Voice. So why not believe Dick Cheney when he was on the show? Russert later defended this by saying that the polls were in favor of the war. Oh OK. Clearly journalists have no role in anything but channeling the conventional wisdom that is creating these polling numbers!
Supposedly anyway, Russert came up with the “red state blue state” paradigm as it currently exists. Evidently John Chancellor first used it, though in a flipped way, but it didn’t catch on. I’m not sure calling states red or blue is particularly useful but it has become ubiquitous at the very least.
Naturally, Russert was a total leaker. Scooter Libby told prosecutors that it was Russert who informed him that Valerie Plame was a covert CIA officer that then went to Robert Novak to write his infamous column as revenge for her husband Joe Wilson criticizing Bush claims that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Niger. Of course this was Russert. How could it not be? He got to be the important guy. He got to push for his war. He got to suck up to the Bush administration. Perfect. Russert had to squirm on the witness stand about this, which was a well-deserved blow to his reputation.
Russert hated the Clintons as well, like any good Beltway figure. Now, I don’t like the Clintons either, but that’s for their politics, not because they represented the kind of figures the Beltway doesn’t like. I vastly preferred Obama in 2008, but there’s no excuse for Russert throwing gotcha questions at Hillary during the Democratic debate he hosted, trying to test her knowledge on trivial things. Hell, all the way back in 2000, when she went on Meet the Press, he blamed her for Bill’s adultery!
Russert also loved Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation nonsense and went all in on it. He wrote a book about his own father and then more books on the relationship between Greatest Generation fathers and their sons. It was just eyerolling. The entire Greatest Generation thing is utterly ahistorical hogwash. It’s a symptom of a generation who don’t think they lived up to their parents turning them into romantic figures that we should all see as heroes. At the very least, how can this be the Greatest Generation when they produce people like Tim Russert as their children?
In 2008, Russert had a massive heart attack and dropped dead. He was 58 years old. The MSM lost their hero. Millions of viewers lost their favorite anchor. America gained a reprieve from a tired hack.
Tim Russert is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
If you would like this series to visit other hacks of Beltway journalism, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. David Broder is in Saint James, Michigan and Rowland Evans is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.