June 19, 2008

Remembering Tim Russert: Big Head, Big Laugh, Huge Heart

"Russert's style was an innovation in news interviewing on television. It's made a huge difference. _ Ted Koppel

Sunday morning, I asked Bill Teller, one of the shift managers at Kaldi's Coffeehouse in downtown Clayton, Mo., if he thought the media coverage of Tim Russert's sudden death on Friday had become excessive.

"No," he said. Given how important Russert was to political reporting for so long, he had earned more than routine treatment. And of course you'd expect NBC to do even more for one of its own, Teller said.

Twenty-six years old, Teller reads newspapers _ the ink-and-paper versions _ and watches network news. He gets more information from Internet-based sources. From our previous conversations, I know he's informed and curious about current events and issues.

He was busy working the room Sunday _ picking up abandoned mugs, plates and napkins and wiping down tables _ when I asked him about Russert, but he stopped to consider my questions and answered thoughtfully.

Teller said he placed great value on Russert's political analysis during election coverage and the straightforward way he asked important questions to important people on "Meet the Press.""Especially this year," he said, "I think we're going to miss that a lot. There's a hole."

Teller paused for a second, then added, "I'm about to become a father. And I think there was just something about him dying so close to Father's Day. You know, with his closeness to his father and his son."

Over Teller's shoulder as we talked, I saw Tom Brokaw across the shop on the flat-screen above the fireplace. Brokaw was presiding over a special edition of "Meet the Press" _ sound off, captions on _ paying tribute to Russert. With him were several of the show's regulars, those who were especially close to Russert.

Even from across the room, even without sound, you could tell they were grief-stricken. But I didn't know just how shaken they were until I watched a tape of the program later. At one point, Brokaw called columnist Mike Barnicle "Tim" and declared that Russert "certainly" would have become a governor if he'd stayed in politics, maybe even president.

Had he become a priest, others offered only partly in jest, he surely would have risen to the position of cardinal, maybe even pope. As the show wore on, James Carville seemed to actually withdraw physically into his body and became essentially non-functional. His wife, Mary Matalin, finally reached over, took his hand and held it in her lap.

On Friday's "Late Night" on NBC, Conan O'Brien took a different approach, showing funny clips of Russert on the show. "I told him countless times," O'Brien recalled, "he reminded me of my Irish Catholic uncles: big head, big laugh, huge heart."

The thing about Russert was that he "got" three things that almost nobody gets at the same time: He got politics, he got journalism _ especially Washington journalism _ and he got television.

Russert left his position as chief of staff of then-Sen. Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., in 1984 and joined NBC as the assistant to Larry Grossman, then the president of the news division. He quickly parlayed his political instincts for what played well with ordinary people into additional responsibilities over daily news programming. He also had a knack for spotting promising talent _ he gave Katie Couric her first network job _ and realized that television news was much more like politics than like print journalism in that it was driven, all other things being equal, by personality.

Meanwhile, Russert's mastery of internal politics allowed him to survive intact in 1988 when the network got rid of Grossman, his original patron. A few months later, Russert emerged with greater power and influence than ever as the new chief of NBC's Washington bureau.

In 1991, he was named anchor of "Meet the Press" _ NBC still refers to the position, quaintly, as "moderator" _ after a year's seasoning as a regular panelist. At the time, the program was TV spinach _ vitamin-rich but dreary _ and it was getting creamed in the Sunday-morning ratings by "This Week with David Brinkley" on ABC.

"This Week" had been created around Brinkley by Roone Arledge, ABC's visionary news president, and it was a new concept for Sunday morning: comparatively fast-paced and driven by free-wheeling conversation among assertive print reporters and broadcast news personalities. The show caught fire and left CBS' "Face the Nation" a distant second and "Meet the Press" a remote third.

Russert's first challenge was to adapt himself to the demands of the anchor chair. It didn't take long. Midway through 1992, Ross Perot, the peculiar businessman-turned-independent presidential candidate, showed up for an interview and tried to play the fast-talking iconoclast that so many reporters had found interesting and amusing. Russert was having none of it. He kept pushing Perot to justify his outrageous economic claims, and Perot ended up morphing into a babbling parody of himself.

Just as important as the interview's content, though, was Russert's demeanor: The hotter Perot got, the cooler Russert stayed. In television, smart cool always beats crazy hot.

Finally, there was the Russert interviewing twist. Last Friday, Ted Koppel, one of television's greatest interviewers, talked about it on CNN with Larry King, one of television's worst:

"(Russert) created a new style of interviewing," Koppel said. "I mean, everybody does it now. ... If I were still doing 'Nightline,' I'd be doing it. ... Where you take a quote of something that a politician or some other guest said six months ago or nine months ago, you put it up on the screen and then you force them to sit there while you read through that entire quote. And then you make them confront it. People may not understand how different that is from the way it used to be before. But it was an innovation in news interviewing on television," Koppel said. "And it's made a huge difference."

When news broke Friday that Russert had died, we turned on the department set and watched continuous cable coverage of the story through the afternoon. At 5:30, we flipped over to NBC's "Nightly News," which devoted half the show to the story. My colleague and alleged boss Kevin Horrigan said he thought Russert would be appalled. "A real journalist wouldn't want the first 15 minutes of the 'Nightly News' devoted to himself," he said.

"Russert would," I cracked.

And he would, I think. First, he'd understand that his NBC colleagues needed to do it that way. Second, he'd understand that most viewers don't watch cable all day, and they'd want as much information as they could get about the sudden death of someone as prominent as he was. And third, Russert was a shameless sentimentalist _ and unapologetically so.

Like most of us who followed and wrote about television news, I knew Russert professionally and spoke with him from time to time, especially after I went to work for the New York Daily News in 1993.

Our only really personal encounter began when we both arrived at Newark Airport one day and ran into each other. I'm guessing it was the late '90s. We were both heading for work in midtown Manhattan, so Russert offered me a lift to town in the chauffeured car NBC provided for him.

On the drive to the city _ 20, 25 minutes at that time of day _ we talked about trends in TV news and gossiped a little about people, network executives, programming.

Then he steered the conversation to my living/working situation. Russert knew and liked _ Buffalo guy that he was _ that I was from St. Louis, not New York or Washington. He knew and liked that I hadn't given up my home in St. Louis and that I was essentially commuting back and forth. He seemed very curious about how that arrangement was working out on a personal level, and I thought I caught a whiff of skepticism in his questions.

If so, in that, too, Russert was prescient.



Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or e-mail him at [email protected]