Tim Russert’s shockingly early death at age 58 is one of those passings that makes you stop and take stock of the man, the work he did, and the world he inhabited. Since 1991, Russert had hosted Meet the Press, NBC’s venerable news-maker chat show that began broadcasting in 1947. Meet the Press hosts have included the grave Marvin Kalb and the lightweight Chris Wallace, but no one brought his personality to the program the way Russert did.
A Jesuit-educated Irish-Catholic Democrat who worked for New York governor Mario Cuomo and New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan before forsaking politics for TV reporting, Russert dove into election analysis with a boyish relish. It was always clear that Russert loved the back-room clubbiness of politics, loved figuring out all the angles in any given political race, and had a finely trained mind for history, facts, and figures.
Once he assumed hosting duties of Meet the Press, Russert entered the inner circle of Washington media power, for better and for worse. He was able to attract the most powerful figures to his Sunday roundtable discussions, and radiated a ruddy pugnaciousness in his questioning. As the years went by and Russert settled into his role as a power player, his attitude remained adversarial, but he often pulled his punches, rarely taking on a high-profile Democrat or Republican in the most forcefully journalistic way. One assumes this was because part of the price for being at the center of Washington media is that one has to make sure the big names keep coming back week after week; throw too many verbal punches and Mr. or Ms. Power-Broker is likely to find a less heated venue. Russert’s achievement was to give the appearance of asking the tough questions while making his guests feel that nothing truly blunt or upsetting was going to be asked.
In the days ahead, much will be said about Russert’s legacy, and his ongoing influence on his profession. In fact, Russert was more like the end of the line, the last of a generation of gentleman journalists. Over on ABC, Sunday morning news analysis is presided over by George Stephanopoulos, who after almost six years of hosting This Week retains a mixture of callowness and cynicism that’s alternately tedious and irritating. That Stephanopoulos has managed to challenge Russert in the ratings must have startled Russert, who to the end maintained a serious, fact-heavy line of questioning.
Russert has died at a time when his own network’s news coverage is now starting to be dominated by the welcome aggressiveness of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, who is less inclined to let the powerful get away with a wink and a nod. But Russert’s winks had a beguling twinkle; his nods were the sage agreements of a political journalist who enjoyed the give-and-take of a good, civilized argument. In that sense, he represents the end of an era.