June 14, 2008

Dogged Interviewer Carried Public Trust: ‘Meet the Press’ Moderator, 58, Leaned in to Ask Toughest Questions of Politicians

By Rich Heldenfels, The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio

Jun. 14--It seemed as if Tim Russert was always leaning. Leaning in for that nugget of information he was doggedly digging out of an interview subject. Leaning forward to be closer to the person he was talking to, because he had a good story to tell, or something to show on the dry-erase board he had covered with numbers and other markings.

And, unless you were the subject of one of Russert's grillings, it was tempting to lean right back toward him. He promised friendship and openness as well as information. We weren't friends, but I interviewed him several times over the years, and I remember them as enjoyable. A bit about the latest news might be followed by an anecdote about Big Russ, his father. Or he might reminisce about his days in Northeast Ohio as a student at John Carroll University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. There was always something to talk about.

It wasn't that Russert was always right. In 1995, he came to Cleveland for a long-scheduled speech. It proved to be a short trip, because it was the day after the Oklahoma City bombing, and he had to get back to work. At that point he was working the terrorism angle, lining up a Middle East expert for that Sunday's Meet the Press. As we now know, something very different had been behind the bombing.

But it wasn't for a lack of work that Russert might get something wrong. He worked the phones, he worked his sources, spent three or four days preparing for a big interview on Meet the Press.

For all his appearances across the NBC universe, he called Meet the Press "the highlight of my week."

Even if he hadn't spent part of his young adulthood in Ohio, he would have come here because of its place in the political landscape.

Arming himself with as much documentation as he could muster, he would sit, ready to challenge the slightest misstatement from a politician. Woe to the politician who saw him leaning forward.

"I just ask questions," he once said to me. But he did so while thinking he carried a public trust.

"If you compare it to a newspaper, Meet the Press is the front page and the editorial page," he said. "I've never done a program on JonBenet Ramsey or O.J. Simpson.

"When Princess Diana died, I did a show on the two most recognizable women in the world and gave Mother Teresa equal time to Princess Diana," he said. "I will proudly take that to my grave, and maybe even earn my salvation for it."

I don't think he has to worry about salvation, or pin it on just one thing. A Democratic politician before he turned to TV news, he was proof that you didn't have to take your old beliefs with you to the new job. He grilled people from both sides of the aisle, and independents to boot.

Yes, there were times when he could be overzealous in pursuit of the answer he wanted to a question, especially after it was clear that he would not get it. There was considerable debate over whether he was biased for and against some people, although Russert tried to keep his opinions to himself. (He once wrote that anytime his father branded a Meet the Press guest a phony, his father was right. But he never said who Big Russ had branded.)

But you knew that Russert wanted, more than anything else, to get the best news -- and to deliver it to you just the way you might hear it from the person in the next cubicle at your office. He spoke simply but clearly. He brought great zest to his reporting.

And that, of course, is why people, including me, were so stunned on Friday to hear that he had died. Russert was this great, vital personality. Even sitting, he conveyed energy and excitement. His face would light up, the smile would spread. "Look at this," he implied, much the way he did last Sunday when gleefully offering an old insight from Robert F. Kennedy at the end of Meet the Press.

I did look, Tim. Not all the time. But I looked. And I wish I had a chance to look with you again. Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in a blog at http://www.ohio.com. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 and [email protected]


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