Monday, June 16, 2008

Sunday Will Never Be The Same

Tim Russert 1950-2008

"Our issues this week...."
It really is amazing when you think about it how completely rooted in the working class the icons of American broadcast journalism have been. The very last thing that one is expected to remember when looking at an ancient kinescope of Edward R. Murrow is that the man started off his career as a lumberjack. That was never the case as far as Tim Russert was concerned. His very persona just screamed working class. The suits he wore were never custom-made; they were always off-the-rack. Tom Brokaw once joked that Tim had three tailors: L, L and Bean. He never developed the seemingly cool detachment of so many of his colleagues. His almost childlike wonder and enthusiasm at the circumstances that this native of Buffalo, NY and son of a sanitation worker found himself in - to be a part of history in the making - was the most appealing thing about his personality. And it has to be conceded for the record that he had, without a doubt, the worst haircut of anybody in the history of television - with the possible exception of Seinfeld's Kramer. He really was one of us.

It was at the NBC News Washington bureau that Russert collapsed and died of a massive heart attack on Friday, June 13, 2008. Like Murrow before him, his career as a broadcast journalist began entirely by accident, having started off as an aid to the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The program he hosted for seventeen years should have been renamed the Russert Show. In it's original format which was moderated by the late Lawrence Spivak, a public person was questioned by three or four members of the print and electronic media. It hadn't really been "Meet The Press", so to speak, for years. Tim Russert literally changed the face of the Sunday morning talk show. One-hundred years from today, historians writing of this confused and confusing age will not be able to omit his name from their texts. He was that important to the times in which he lived.
During Tim Russert's reign, Meet The Press was must-see, essential viewing for anyone who wanted to be able to comment intelligently on affairs of state. As has been mentioned too many times to count during the last four days, between the years 1991 and 2008, the road to the White House went directly past his desk. The candidacies of more than one over-confident politician has imploded before a national television audience for no other reason than their failure to adequately prepare for prosecutor Russert's tough but fair interrogation. It was a program that the self-respecting political junkie missed to his or her detriment.
Learning of his sudden death on Friday afternoon was enough of a genuine shock to bring tears to many an eye. It took me a minute or two to actually absorb what I was hearing. The reason I always identified so strongly with Russert was because of the similarities in our backgrounds. We were two Irish Catholic guys from upstate New York, educated in parochial schools. He never failed to credit his beloved teacher, Sister Lucille, for instilling in him his love of journalism. This intelligent but mischievous kid's insatiable energy had to be channeled in a positive direction. The good sister decided to take matters into her own hands. She started a school newspaper for no other reason than to make thirteen-year-old Timmy Russert it's editor. That is a story I can relate to. In the sixth grade at St. John's Elementary School in Goshen, NY, I was "punished" after school one day by Sister Carroll and forced to learn Lincoln's Gettysburg Address" by heart. That was the beginning of my life long fascination with the Great Emancipator. It was also my introduction to the beauty of the spoken word. Tim never forgot Sister Lucille's influence on him and was not shy about bringing her down to the NBC News studios in Washington, introducing her to everyone. I am forever grateful to Sister Carroll. Nuns are funny that way, aren't they?
Whenever a news person writes a book, it usually has to do with that reporter's various journalistic exploits - real and imagined. This guy wrote a book about his dad. "Big Russ and Me" was his memoir of growing up in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, only a couple of steps above the poverty level in working class Buffalo. He told the inspiring story of Timothy Russert, Sr. holding down two full time jobs in order to feed, clothe and educate his family of three daughters and one son. It is a book about values and how the old man was able to instill those values - subtly and not-so-subtly - in his only son. They'll still be reading it a century from now. It is that good. If you haven't yet read Big Russ and Me, you really should. It reminds us, yet again, that a father's influence on a child can have incalculable effect - for good and ill. It is truly one of the great books of the era.
The epilogue of Big Russ and Me was a letter to his only child, his son Luke:
"Imagine. When Grandpa was just about your age, he left high school to help win World War II. When the war was over, he came home and took on another mission - raising a family and educating his kids. As you know, for most of his life he worked two jobs and never complained. I have never seen him bitter or cynical about anything or anyone. To this day, Grandpa believes his glass is two-thirds full. Or, as he puts it, 'I'm truly blessed.' And so are you."
The guy was a gem.
Recently he had been the subject of some criticism. There were a couple of times on an otherwise delightful Sunday morn, when I would find myself shouting as loud as I could at the TV screen when he would fail to ask a member of this twisted administration a follow up question that - right or wrong - I believed needed to be asked: "Yo! Russert! WHASSAMATTA YOU???" Earlier this year, in a PBS documentary called, "Buying The War", Bill Moyers gently but justly admonished him for naively allowing himself to be used by Dick Cheney in a September 2002 appearance on Meet The Press that "catapulted the propaganda" in the run-up to the war in Iraq. It should be said in Tim's defence that he was not alone. Most of the news media swallowed the lies of the Bush Mob whole. Perhaps it was inconceivable to this patriotic, child of the fifties that his government would deceive its citizens about something as serious as committing American troops to fight and die in a war in a far off land. It really is hard to believe when you think about it. The American press should have learned a hard and bitter lesson from the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Sadly, they did not. Perhaps it is a lesson that each generation of journalists will have to re-learn.
But, all in all, his was an honorable and distinguished career. This was a life well lived and nobly spent. This was a man with a good and great heart. How ironic it is that it was his own heart that failed him in the end. How sad it is that this man who was nationally known as a devoted son, loving father and husband, would die at the start of the Father's Day weekend. The shock and grief of his colleagues at the network is a testament to how much he was genuinely, deeply loved. That NBC News will have no trouble filling one of his shoes there is little doubt. Good luck to them trying to fill both.
His opinion had weight. Just last week after the final Democratic primaries, when Barck Obama's nomination at the convention in August became a forgone conclusion, Senator Clinton still refused to concede defeat. I seriously believe that she only succumbed to the inevitability of the moment after Tim Russert announced to the world on MSNBC, "It's over." When someone with the knowledge and the gravitas of Russert tells you that the party has ended, it's generally a good idea to pack up and pay the piper.
Back in the early nineties when former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke sought the office of governor of Louisiana, he made the serious mistake of sitting down before Tim and an audience of millions. When he revealed that he was unaware of the fact that a quarter of the population of Louisianans lived in poverty, when he could not even name the three largest employees in that state - after claiming that his campaign was about jobs and economics - his candidacy was finished. Tim Russert merely chewed the silly bastard up and spit out the bones. By the way, whatever became of that knucklehead?
It is instructive that the hate-mongers on the far right were never able to lay a glove on him. The very idea of describing Tim as a "latte-swirling elitist" doesn't even come close to passing the giggle test. For all his worldly success, he could not and never even attempted to separate himself from his humble roots. A devout Catholic, Tim Russert was not afraid to talk openly about his religion and what it meant to him. His absolute passion for life, his joyful love of children - his and everyone else's - and his contagious devotion to his vocation - could only have been the result of a deep-seated spirituality that grounded him and was the core of his very being. Maybe we might all learn from that. Maybe this good and decent man was guided by something so simple and yet so profound that few of us are able to fully comprehend it. I realize that it's wrong to speculate on the judgement of God, but it really isn't that much of a stretch to conclude that the very first words Tim Russert heard after his body hit the floor were these:
"Welcome to My Kingdom, thy good and faithful servant."
Forty years ago when Tim was still a senior at Canisius High School, a long-forgotten yet eminently talented pop band called Spanky and Our Gang had a minor hit with a lovely tune that was called, "Sunday Will Never Be the Same". Ain't that the truth!
I'm sure going to miss Tim Russert.
Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
Condolences to Tim's wife Maureen Orth, his son Luke, his three sisters B.A., Kathy and Trish, and, of course, to Big Russ.
Wisdom of Our Fathers
by Tim Russert


At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just realized this Sunday morning that my weekly virus scan was set for the hour that Meet the Press comes on my cable. That was always one hour that I knew I would not need my computer. It will not be the same but I hope it will be just as good as when Tim did it.

At 10:50 PM, Blogger Prairie Waif said...

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on : nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131)

And, for Tim Russert, I can think of no better personal eulogy.

The shock of finding out that the "BREAKING NEWS" was that Tim Russert had collapsed at work, was transported to hospital and died, brought many tears to these eyes. So young! So vital! So in the present!

What would his family suffer on the flight home from Italy? Who delivers such news? Who wants to believe it?

We have been left a legacy of political interviews, insight and a new methodology for assessing those who want our support to become our public servants. We have much to thank him for in accomplishments and and credo.

We must HONOR the spirit Tim Russert brought to our national conversation and lives by continuing his tradition of "Questioning with respect and due diligence to get an answer for the question asked, not the answer given." Tim took note of the difference, and with his lawyer's prosecutorial skills, made certain he got an answer.

We must continue this legacy within our own search for truth and the spirituality of, and in, this world.

Tim Russert was raised in faith, lived with compassion and left us with a grace to believe upon.


At 8:20 AM, Blogger Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Well put, MJ....

Did you see the Bruce Springsteen feed from Europe yesterday at Tim's Memorial at the JFK Center for the Performing Arts? He sang Thunder Road. It was beautiful.

It was a typical Irish wake: Laughter, tears and Rolling Rock!


Tom Degan

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Prairie Waif said...

Sunday Morning: 2008 June 22

If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

Tim Russert signed-off on Sunday, 2008 June 08, as always, and has left this Sunday morning bereft of his presence and wondering how the future of political discourse begins today. His untimely death on Friday, 2008 June 13, shocked media , viewers and friends.

I saw Tim's Memorial Service, live, from John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Tom, you and I, raised in the Irish tradition, Baltimore Catholicism and Mass on Sunday, understood that a 5 day wake for another compatriot, was too short. A wake, when done traditionally, goes on until the last laugh of stories have been told, the handkerchiefs have been wrung-out from tears of laughter and of sorrow, that a wonderful friend has left us, and will stand in glory before God. A good Irish Wake ends when the stories, laughter, tears and booze run out.

I thought it extremely fitting that the Irish Catholic co-horts of Tim Russert, and the nation of journalist he had mentored and brought to national attention, and thus informed us, were gathered to reminisce about their friend, collegue and the presence that shaped so many journalists, across the network and cable news, radio and print media.

The vitriolic career autopsy has surprised me. Who were those people to say that the world didn't care about his journalistic talents, his management style as head of NBC's Washington Bureau Chief?

The Friday afternoon that Tim died, I tapped on my neighbor's door as he had just returned from his shift at the pork processing plant. I broke the news, *HERE* in Canada, and the color drained from his face as he proclaimed, with shocked surprise, "WHAT?! What happened? Do you have the news on at your house?!"

Tim Russert had global impact through his example and mentoring of journalists. The National News in Canada, BBC, and news overnight, from many countries, eulogized Tim and his talents; too many to eulogized effectively.

The attack of his career "autopsy", can be described as unwarranted and based upon ignorance of the Irish Diaspora, that created more descendants' of Ireland living outside their ancestral home than any other ethnic group, that must be the reason, for the murder of crows that accumulated to pick over the death of career and friendship, displayed with only vitriol, lack of grace and compassion.

I believe it fair to reflect upon a career and point out disagreements, however, once the Pandora's Box had been opened of all but hope, the furor seemed to build with a never ending crescendo with each "score."

"What's with us being subjected to Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle, Tom Brokaw and all the other Irish Catholics being given Prime Time(!) to hold a public wake---minus the Guinness? WHO ARE THEY (?) to discuss the overwhelming Irish in police forces, firehalls and journalism?? And as if these venerable institutions couldn't exist without the Irish!" My, what condescension given to the accomplishments of those raised by Jesuits and eating Corned Beef and Cabbage as their celebratory and heritage meals.

Those "spitting" with glee during their dissection of an 18-year career really didn't have the larger picture of Tim's impact on the journalistic world, nor the history of the Irish Diaspora.

Food was abundantly donated from around the world to feed the Irish during the Potato Famine of 1845-1849. Was it really a "famine" or an orchestrated "genocide?"

Ireland was a land of shareholders, paying for land to the British Aristocracy who had never set foot on Irish Soil but took advantage of it's every blessing.

Ireland at this time was, according to the Act of Union of 1801, an integral part of the British imperial homeland, "the richest empire on the globe," and was "the most fertile portion of that empire," AND REMAINED A FOOD EXPORTER THROUGHOUT THE FAMINE PERIOD.

Where did the exports go, if not to feed the starving impoverish, and suffering Irish shareholders? To the English Empire, specifically these pseudo-aristocrats who laughed at the death and despair, all the while pocketing proceeds from the money of those dying by the thousands.

The diaspora of Ireland has been argued that it wasn't done due to famine, but genocide perpetuated by absentee landlords and laws which prevented the distribution of tons of donated foodstuffs; they rotted on the docks of Belfast and Dublin. And yet, Ireland, and its Roman Catholicim was being "ethnically cleansed" from their Island.

Why do the Irish think they alone are those who fill police stations, fire halls and are "beat" reporters; "who were they to ethnically-load these jobs,asked the autopsy participants"? The answer is simple; they were the lowest of the low, jobs acceptable only for a group of non-English-speaking immigrants.

The signs in shop windows and newspapers exhibited open zenophobia and hatred of the displaced Irish. The Irish were met with signs in shoppe windows, advertisements and day-jobs with, NO IRISH APPLY! and other derisive terminology.

The Irish took the jobs that were the lowliest, those held in disdain, and yet were afforded to them; the beat cop, wandering the darkened gas-lit streets and back alleys; the firemen who risked, and lost lives and the crime reporter. These means to feed the family were the lowest of the low; fit and acceptable for only for the refuse of the teaming shore, the Irish.

So, while the commentators and self-appointed judges of Tim Russert's career as a journalist picked at the career body, right down to the cartilage, the did so out of malicious ignorance; few, if any could hold a candle to their own careers and shed such light on their own darkened corners, which, as humans, we all have acquired.

The feeding frenzy of this murder of crows will sustain them as they diminished another life to elevate their own.

The fact that a man, my neighbor, employed as an intestine remover and cleaner at a hog processing plant, would be shocked and watch the news of Tim Russert's death, in a land that was not covered on Russert's beat, speaks enough to silence the impotent cackling with the sound of respect.

I leave with a poem from another great Irish Reporter/Poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852):

The Minstrel Boy

The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you'll find him;
His father's sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him, —
‘Land of song!’ said the warrior-bard,
‘Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!’

The Minstrel fell! — but the foeman's chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its clouds asunder;
And said, ‘No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery.’

Tim Russert, sent off with Thuder Road, and the rare double-rainbow hanging over the sky of Washington D.C., will never sound in slavery; this is right, and just, for this world.

Mary Josephine Bernadette Welch

At 6:23 PM, Blogger Avram Mirsky said...

Sorry, Tom. I have to part company with you on this one. I have nothing against Mr. Russert and I feel for his family. But as a journalist, I believe that he was an enabler of the criminals who currently run this country in more ways than he was not.


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