Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Apple #320: Tim Russert

[Update Note: it is now 2 1/2 weeks after I originally wrote this entry, and I have just learned that Tim Russert had a heart attack in the studio and died today (June 13). He was 58 years old.

He was so looking forward to this upcoming election. He said that, finally, we have two candidates who are very different on policy issues and that the public has a distinct choice. He was excited about that and looking forward to interviewing both of them.

He was also very excited by the fact that the Democrats had all but nominated the first African American candidate for President. He said that if he had to choose something else to do besides cover the election campaigns, he would love to be teaching history in an inner city school on such an historic occasion. He teared up with a kind of joy when he said this.

What a blow. I keep looking at other news stories because I want it to be not true. But they're all saying that it is true, that he's gone. I didn't know him, but I will miss him. Thanks for all your good work, Tim.]

First let me say that I try to keep politics out of the Daily Apple. I think that, in general, the topic runs contrary to the purpose of the Daily Apple which is to be informative, yet also delightful in some way. I do not find politics to be delightful. I am, however, impressed by Tim Russert's interviewing skills. Where other people dig on Charlie Rose -- and I do see the appeal there -- I dig on Tim Russert.

(Image from Media Bistro's Fishbowl NY)

My affinity for Mr. Russert is a newly-blooming thing. Until this year, I never watched any of those shows with people yakking at each other about what they think might happen tomorrow or next week, and then shouting about how the other guy was wrong and an idiot, etc., etc. Blech. But this year, I've been watching a lot of the political debates. And when I watched the Democratic debate in Ohio, in my opinion, it was Tim Russert who won that debate.

A few nights previously, the candidates had debated in Texas, and they kind of ran the show all over Campbell Brown (CNN) and a couple of other guys. Then at the debate in Ohio, Brian Williams (NBC) was asking some pretty fluffball questions at the outset, and the two candidates were talking on and on and on about healthcare, saying the same things back and forth we'd all heard 100 times already and not really making any progress.

Then Tim Russert took over the questioning. On one topic after another -- important policy issues such as NAFTA, the export economy, a timetable for Iraq -- he nailed them down and got them to give specific answers. Or, he got them to be as specific as any political candidate is going to give during a debate. He presented them with pertinent, concise facts or quotes from the candidates themselves that sometimes directly conflicted with the candidates' stated positions and then asked them direct questions about those contradictions.

And, what I think was a coup that nobody has really talked much about since, he got Hillary to say -- using all sorts of qualifications but she said it nonetheless -- that she wished she could take back her vote authorizing the war in Iraq.

To be fair, I think Hillary scored a couple of points on Obama during that debate. She knew a lot more details about Medvedev, for example, and she got Obama to say he would reject and denounce the support of Louis Farrakhan. But overall -- and I said this out loud when the debate was over -- I thought Tim Russert won that one.

And ever since, I've paid closer attention when I see him on TV, either speaking as an analyst on days when election returns come in, or when segments of his show Meet the Press are aired later. (I don't actually watch that show; there is no way I am going to watch a TV show about politics on a Sunday morning. Just ain't going to happen.)

Time and again, I see him presenting specific and often difficult details that you know are making the guy (or the woman) in the other chair squirm just listening to them. Then he doesn't let his interviewee off the hook, but he asks specific, direct questions about those details. And often, he gets an actual answer. Or sometimes a lot of stammering, which is an answer of its own kind. Not easy to do when you're talking to people who are well-schooled in the arts of rhetoric, redirection, and qualification.

Tim Russert, at work interviewing somebody
(Photo from the Daily Galaxy)

If Tim Russert were running for any sort of office, I would vote for him. But actually, I'm glad he's not. We need people like him to stay outside of politics and make those slippery candidates sit still for a second and actually give us some answers.

In fact, here's what he said about how he views his job:
I believe very deeply, particularly about someone running for president, that if you can't answer tough questions then you can't make tough decisions. And so I apply that standard to all candidates from all parties.

Thanks, Tim!

  • His weekly interview show Meet the Press, which airs on Sunday mornings on NBC, is said to be the most quoted television news program in the world.
  • NBC also claims that, since it is in its 60th year, Meet the Press is the longest-running program, bar none, in the history of television. Russert has been its moderator since 1991.
  • Just one of Russert's job titles would be a feather in anyone's cap. His current positions include:
      • Moderator, Meet the Press
      • Political analyst, NBC Nightly News
      • Political analyst, Today show
      • Anchor, MSNBC
      • Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief, NBC News
  • Has covered and analyzed Presidential elections since 1984.
  • Has interviewed countless leading political figures, many of them on multiple occasions. As of 2005, Russert had interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney 10 times. Based on those interviews he was asked to testify in the case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby about who knew what when, and Russert's testimony played a key role in the results of Libby's trial.
  • He is credited by The Washington Post as being the person who coined the terms "red state" and "blue state" to refer to Republican-voting and Democratic-voting blocks. (I can't say I'm all that pleased about this item.)
  • Negotiated and supervised the live televised appearances of Pope John Paul II, who also said a private Mass, on the Today show in 1985.
As the Vicar of Christ approached me, you heard this tough, no-nonsense hard-hitting Moderator of Meet the Press begin our conversation by saying, "Bless me Father!" He took my arm and whispered -- "You are the one called Timothy" -- I said yes, "the man from NBC" -- "Yes, yes that's me." "They tell me you are a very important man." Somewhat taken aback, I said, "Your Holiness, with all due respect, there are only two of us in this room, and I am certainly a distant second."

  • Covered influential international events such as the six summit meetings between the USSR and the US between 1986 and 1991.
  • Won an Emmy for his coverage of Ronald Reagan's funeral.
  • Was listed as on the Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" of 2008.
  • Has 43 honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities across the United States.
  • Has won numerous awards recognizing outstanding accomplishments in journalism.
  • Has produced two "Day in the Life" documentaries about the Bush Sr. and Clinton White Houses.

Russert with his son, Luke, on Luke's first birthday
(Photo from the Big Russ and Me Photo Album)

  • Appeared in an episode of Homicide (Life on the Street) called "The Old and the Dead" in 1995.
  • Was born in Buffalo in 1950 and went to Canisius High School.
  • Is still an avid Buffalo Bills fan, by the way, and ends his Meet the Press broadcasts during football season by saying, "Go, Bills!" He took the staff of his show to the Superbowl when the Bills played (and lost to) the Cowboys.
  • Earned his law degree from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
  • He says he supported himself through law school by booking a Bruce Springsteen concert in 1974.
  • Got his early introduction to politics by working as special counsel (attorney) to the US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then to the New York State Governor Mario Cuomo's office in the late 1970s to early 1980s.

Russert and soon-to-be-Senator Patrick Moynihan, 1976
(Photo from the Big Russ and Me Photo Album)

  • It was shortly following his position in the Governor's office that he went to work as an analyst for NBC.
  • His wife is Maureen Orth, who writes for Vanity Fair. Together, they have a son, Luke.

Tim with his dad and his son.
(Photo from the Big Russ and Me Photo Album)

Sources, About Meet the Press with Tim Russert
Film Reference, Tim Russert biography
Yahoo! TV, Tim Russert Biography
Gilbert Cruz, "10 Questions for Tim Russert," Time, February 14, 2008
IMDB, Biography for Tim Russert
Commencement address, Niagara University, May 21, 2000


  1. with Tim's death, I have a renewed interest in his life; how rare to find someone in the political world who is smart, truthful, likeable, ordinary and at the same time extraordinary. thank you.

  2. Tim will be greatly missed. People like him are very rare these days. My thoughts are with his family and friends at this time. I watched him every Sunday. I will miss you Tim, thank you for all that did.

  3. Thanks for helping us mourn this man of integrity. I feel as if I've lost a friend, though I never met him.

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  6. My heart breaks for a man I never personally knew but felt I did thru so many of his friends...

    Your family is in my prayers Tim...

  7. I'm only 14, and Tim Russert was one of the most influential people I had in my life. He is my Tom Brokaw, as my mom would say, who is an avid watcher of both Russert and Brokaw. When I heard the news, I completely broke down. I can't believe he's gone, but he led a great life, and got me into current events, especially politics. I will always be grateful for that.

  8. My sincerest sympathy to his family. What a lovely and incredible person he was. This is the kind of person who leaves a hole in everyone's life when they pass. And, people like Tim Russert are so few and far between.


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