Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Passing of Giant in Political Journalism and a Proud Human Being

Picture of “Meet The Press” moderator Tim Russert who passed last from a heart attack. This picture is Courtesy of yahoo.com image search

I only watched him for about a year, but in that one year, I got a better understanding of politics that I ever had before. He made me a better thinker about important issues. He made a believer that the issues are country faces are important. More than anything, this man that I watched from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Sunday morning on NBC that the common man can become anything in this world he wants to be because he was able to, with some help from a great father.

As many of you know now Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and the great moderator of “Meet the Press” passed away last month from a sudden heart attack. He had been during that day working on voiceovers for this Sunday’s edition of his show at NBC’s Washington Studio.

While I had only become a serious watcher of “Meet the Press” for about a year, I learned a great deal about politics and respected the kind of journalist that Russert was. He was somebody who cared about the issues. His questions to each politician that appeared on his show where questions that made it seem like it came from us. He had a knack for asking that one question that just seemed to be on the mind on all Americans that tuned in to watch him. To me the best example of that was the March 16, 2003 “Meet the Press” when he asked VP Dick Cheney in reference to going to war in Iraq, “Do you think the American people ar4e prepared for the long costly and bloody battle with significant American casualties?”

“I don’t think it is likely to unfold that way Tim because I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators,” Cheney said.

One thing that North America is learning five years later that there have been significant casualties of over four thousand American soldiers killed, the economy has taken a serious hit and has seen our country looking for answers.

As I watched each show that he moderated and his 90-second political reports that he had about three to four times a week on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and that he had each morning on the Today Show, I saw someone who was prepared, knew what was coming and could deliver on cue.

The one show that really made me see “Meet The Press” as different than any other show was when he had entertainer Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School to discuss their book “Come On People: On The Path from Victims to Victors.” It show me that he was a journalist that did care about the issues that our country was facing like the number of African Americans who drop out of school and are going to prison. The only other times that I saw Cosby and Poussaint discuss their book on television was on The Oprah Winfrey show and on Our World with Black Enterprise. That was one particular Sunday Russert struck gold.

More than anything, Russert was a journalist who did his reporting in the simplest way it can be done. The best example of that is when he does his political analysis whether it is on ‘Meet The Press,’ NBC Nightly News or on Today, he does not use graphical maps or computerized charts, he uses a white, dry erase board. It was that board he used on Election Night Nov. 7, 2000 where he wrote on the board three times that Florida would decide the winner of the presidential race. He used that same board about a couple of months ago on Nightly News in deciding the number of delegates necessary to decide who would be the Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party between Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Russert wrote on his Board that Obama needed a little over 90 delegates and Clinton needed over 270 to clinch the nomination.

He was also someone when you heard him on television that you learned something of great historic significance. I learned from a clip that the CBS Evening News played on Friday that this year’s election was the first time since the 1952 election that an incumbent president or vice president is not running for president. As he put referring to the race, “It’s wide open.”

One of the great things that respect about Tim Russert was how he worked his way into being one of the smartest, brightest and hardest working political journalist of our time. I learned in reading about him the last three days in the New York papers that this was a man who started within the fabric of politics. He worked former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Sen. Daniel Moynihan. He worked under the best and he found a way to take what he learned and bring to the table in the journalism world at NBC and the rest is history.

What I really respect about Russert in seeing his life being told in the last few days was what he was like away from his seat on Sunday mornings.

He was someone who was very dedicated to his family. He was an avid sports fan, particularly of the Buffalo Bills of the NFL. He always smiled and showed great enthusiasm for life that was infectious. As I heard throughout the weekend on television from his colleagues at NBC to his competitors on CBS and ABC, they all had a tremendous amount of respect for Russert on and off the television set.

On Sunday’s edition of The Chris Matthews Show on NBC, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell said how he gave a “Meet The Press” hat to her 94-year-old father once, which he wears proudly still.

Al Hunt, Washington Executive Editor of Bloomberg News also mentioned on the same show of how he bought his son Jeffrey a baseball cap to cover the scar he had after the surgery from a serious accident. Hunt’s son to this day now has 400 baseball hats. He also mentioned that when he came home from college about a month ago that one of the first calls he got was from Tim Russert.

As for his own family, Russert was a good of husband and parent as you could have hoped for.

In hearing Russert’s son Luke, who appeared on the Today show on Monday, you could tell of how much of a solid kid he was and that his father was always their for him. To me the best example of how close Luke was to his dad was when he mentioned to Matt Lauer about how he would come up to Boston and he would spend some time with him and his friends and that the age difference never showed.

What really hit home for me about the interview was when Luke mentioned that last moments in the studio where they showed a picture of he stood over the chair with the lights dimmed we saw his dad sit in every Sunday morning with his head down. That is when we knew that one of the best that brought politics into our living rooms every Sunday morning was gone.

Since 1991, Tim Russert brought politics into our lives and made us clear right from the beginning that the issues that he brought to the table each week were issues that were important to us. He brought values to the table that made his guests from those vying for political office to those that want to change politics in our nation prepared to come on his show and answer questions in a true and honest way. More than anything, he was able to remain at the top of his profession not being a yeller, screamer or someone that was just about himself. He was about making others better, about having fun after he got his work done. Being someone others can come up to as they did so many times when they saw him and asked questions about the state of affairs in America.

Basically, Tim Russert was always himself; saw whoever he was talking to as important at the key moment. He made his family a priority as much as he made his work and he earned the respect of those he went up against every Sunday morning like CBS Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer, who also serves as host of Face The Nation and George Stephanopoulos, ABC’s Chief Washington Correspondent and host of This Week.

“Tim and I butted heads for 18 years on Sunday mornings and yet somehow along the way we also became friends,” Schieffer said this past Sunday. “Tim did it the old fashion way. He did not need a squadron of producers and aides to get him briefed up for big interviews. He just kept up with things on a day-to-day hour-to-hour basis and then he did his homework. In our business, you know which of your colleagues do their own work and you know which ones don’t and somehow the public has a way of figuring that out as well. Tim was nothing fancy. No bells or whistles, he just sat them down [meaning his guest] and asked those questions, but they were good questions, but they were always good questions. I think what made him so good was he realized that news programs were about the news, their not about the newscasters. I think that’s why he got so much news himself.”

I will miss watching Tim Russert, particularly now in one of the greatest elections for the White House that I have ever seen play out. I will especially miss how he closed every show when he said, “If it’s Sunday, it’s ‘Meet the Press.’ ”