Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert: R. I. P.

I have always been a political junkie of sorts. I can remember our vacation in 1980 because it was during the GOP convention. In 1984, in Fairbanks, Alaska, I watched the Democratic convention. And I've always been an NBC man. Well, let's put it this way: when you're a kid, you are what your parents are and they were NBC folks: David Brinkley (before the jump to ABC), Tom Brokaw, John Chancellor, Roger Mudd, Robert Bazell (science), and more.

By the time I got to college and discovered that there were news programs on Sunday morning (I was always in church), I naturally gravitated to "Meet the Press." By the time I got there, Tim Russert was already sitting in that chair. Once I learned about Sunday morning news shows, I was quite happy to have a VCR because I would tape "Face the Nation" and "This Week" and always watch "Meet the Press" live. Why was that? Because of Tim Russert.

If there was one thing you got from Tim Russert it was enthusiasm. There were times when he would just be giddy with excitement at an interview. Other commentators were as competent and they delivered the news with aplomb. But it was the giddiness that distanced Russert from the crowd.

During these past two presidential cycles (2000 and 2004), I took great joy in listening to Russert's predictions as election night wore on. And, in the age of whiz-bang visuals, there was Russert, white board and marker in hand, erasing and writing new numbers in Bush's or Gore's column. There's something to be said for a guy who uses such a low key presentation style. It's the information that matters, not the medium.

I think what got Russert so giddy all the time was he realized that he was an active participant in history. He loved history. If you doubted that, all you had to do was watch his CNBC program where he sat down opposite a person--usually someone who had written a book--and just talked. Sure, there were questions but you got the sense that you were the fly on the wall just listening to a couple of people talk shop.

Every night when I watch Brian Williams tell me the news, I'm usually home and in the process of preparing dinner or talking with my family about how their day went. The house is usually noisy at these times. But when Williams would turn to Russert--with his long introduction, "Washington managing editor and moderator of Meet the Press--the house got a little quieter. That was either as a result of me shushing the family or me turning up the volume on the TV, thus quieting the family. Either way, Russert's baritone voice boomed across the screen, giving us all just a little bit extra.

Tonight, and this Sunday, things will be quiet. It will a quiet of a different kind. Sure, there will be another moderator for Meet the Press. Sure, there will be another Washington managing editor for NBC News. But they won't be Russert. For all the warmth that Williams exudes when reading the news, no one quite had Russert's enthusiasm.

That is what I'm going to miss the most. Enthusiasm. Politics are important. Sure, they can be mundane, but it's important. It's an essential component for our nation and our government. You always got the sense that Russert knew that and was just excited that he had a role to play. And play it he did.

One last thing about Russert's enthusiasm: every time you watched him, even this past primary season that went on for five months, you always saw Russert smiling. For lots of us, we chagrined when Super Tuesday or some other primary contest didn't resolve the Democratic race. Russert was grinning. He was loving it. Secretly, he'd probably admit to hoping for a brokered convention just to cover it. You always got the sense that he was pinching himself, constantly trying to discover if he was dreaming. Surely, he might have thought, I must be dreaming because I have an awesome job.

Little did we know that we should have been pinching ourselves. Surely, we might have thought, we must have been dreaming these wonderful years since 1991 when Russert became the moderator of Meet the Press because such a wonderful, intelligent, and, yes, enthusiastic guy was sitting in that chair. Unfortunately, this coming Sunday, we're going to realize that we were not dreaming. It was real. Tim Russert was real.

Man. Am I going to miss him this fall. We all will.

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