TIM RUSSERT HAS BEEN DEAD for more than three days now and has not yet been resurrected, so it must mean that he wasn’t Jesus after all. Just the pope.
It should come as little surprise, at a time when the sanctity — and the sanctimoniousness — of the media establishment is being rudely violated by blasphemers, bloggers and an increasingly agnostic public, that the various choirboys, priests and cardinals of the Media Church should treat the passing of a figure like Tim Russert as if it were, in fact, the demise of a pontiff.
As someone who himself has paid a couple of unscheduled visits to the CCU in the past few years, and who is less than a year younger than Russert, I intend no personal disrespect toward him nor toward his family, with whom we must all share a ration of grief. But the howling dis shown to the rest of us by the stage-managed, manufactured and excruciatingly prolonged televised requiem for Russert has been rather too much.
Russert collapsed last Friday just as I was on a road trip to Vegas. For three solid hours, from Victorville all the way to Frank Sinatra Boulevard, via XM Radio, I was drenched in the endless, uninterrupted funeral dirge officiated over, quite appropriately, by CNN’s Bishop Wolf Blitzer. The bishop and his long list of public mourners and lloronas — from John McCain and Jim Carville to the Clintons and Paul Begala to Colin Powell and countless others — all seemed shocked by what they had apparently and incorrectly supposed had been not only his infallibility but his mortality.
Over and over and over, Bishop Blitzer loudly queried a cruel, uncaring universe on how it was possible that a 58-year-old man, seemingly in good health, could so suddenly be stricken by a flagging heart? My own doctors had answered that very same bedside musing from me a year ago by simply reminding me that I was, um, a human — a much clearer explanation than the confused and inaccurate mumbo jumbo about cardiac arrest dosed out repeatedly by CNN’s so-called medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen (who desperately needs a refresher course in the nearest ER).
In between her dollops of misinformation, as I barreled up I-15, I did, however, learn the following: Tim Russert was not only a fabulous, relentless, feared and flawless journalist, but he was also a model father, a model son, a devout Catholic, a man who never, ever forgot his humble roots as the son of a garbage man, and a man so in touch with Blue-Collar America that — if only he had survived — perhaps Barack Obama could have named him Veep to win over all those beer drinkers in Buffalo. (Sarcasm aside, by Sunday night some pundits were openly suggesting that Russert could have and should have run for the presidency!)
I had met Russert a couple of times — twice in Iowa during this or another year’s presidential caucus — and he seemed like a nice fellow. In fact, after reading his memoir a few years ago, I had actually acquired a certain amount of sympathy for him. Though he deftly cashed in big time on his saccharine rendering of his taciturn dad, Big Russ, and celebrated him as an icon of the Greatest Generation — as a man who placed the values of “responsibility and accountability” over those of affection and nurturing — I came to see Russert as the victim of a childhood shadowed by an emotionally stunted father. What, in the end, is there to celebrate about a father who can’t bring himself to say “I love you” to his boy until that son is a 54-year-old man? Brrrr. (The torrent of this weekend’s canonization of Russert, by the way, included assurances from Bishop Blitzer and assorted other electronic clergy that Tim had passed down his father’s set of wholesome, provincial Catholic values to his own son, Luke — though no one explained how the latter somehow recently secured the anchor’s seat on a national sports-radio talk show before he graduated from college.)
Call me a sinner, but I would rate Russert perhaps just above the average as a journalist (though he was a much better political analyst than he was a reporter). He indeed mounted his weekly pulpit of Meet the Press excruciatingly well prepared by a hard-working research staff. He’d have his quotes and video clips lined up meticulously to, at least briefly, put his subject on the spot.
But what was baffling, if not downright maddening about Russert’s style, was that he would inevitably pull that knockout punch and end the encounter with an affectionate embrace rather than a roundhouse right. Just when he’d get his guest to start backtracking, dissemble and stumble, he’d gently let him — or her — go unscathed. Any pol facing a Sunday morning date on MTP could leave his boxing gloves at home and would require no more than a prepping for a medium-paced pingpong match.
Strangely enough, during his prolonged liturgy for Russert on Friday afternoon, Bishop Blitzer — chummily reminiscing with former general Colin Powell — uncritically noted the same tendency by Russert. Tim always asked “the tough questions,” proclaimed Bishop Blitzer. And then he added, admiringly: “But there was always the soft landing.” Ah yes, “the soft landing,” Powell thoughtfully concurred.
Indeed, without unfailingly pulling that last punch, Russert knew very well that he would risk excommunication from the Inner Sanctum of the Beltway. A harder landing for his guests could dry up that most cherished of press commodities: access and kinship with the powerful. That’s how Russert began his career, as a shrewd, smart political operative — a role he never really outgrew. Till the end, his temperament, his disposition and ambition positioned him to be a much, much better source than an actual reporter. When I go, I also want oodles of uncritical praise — but not from the subjects of my reporting.
BACK ON CNN, after three straight hours of listening to Blitzer’s droning prayer for the dead, I could stand no more. The desert I heard on the air seemed infinitely more vapid than the one I was driving through. Nor was there any relief on MSNBC, nor on NBC — Russert’s home congregation — as hour after hour after hour was twittered away on what had become the non-news of his passing.
It might be obvious, but here goes: At a time in history when broadcast journalism students are lectured on how they’ll have only a minute and 40 seconds rather than 2:20 to tell an important national story, how can anyone justify the chunks of “news” airtime devoted to Russert?
You had to wonder just what was in those cynical little heads of the CNN and MSNBC execs in all of their feigned piety. Did they really believe that all those average, beer-swilling Americans whom Russert presumably loved (as we were told fifteen hundred times this past week) really wanted to stay glued for hour upon hour to hear the same hollow orations and testimonials over the death of an elite, remote talking head?
I don’t think so. The inexplicable amount of airtime devoted to Russert’s death — which continued into this week, with NBC doing a live broadcast of his private memorial service on Wednesday — is most certainly charged with a potent and perhaps unwitting dose of self-pity. In the sudden death of Tim Russert, his employers and colleagues no doubt caught a passing glimpse of their own mortality. Not as individuals but as institutions. For Russert, it was cholesterol. For MSNBC and CNN, it will be YouTube. What else can explain such prolonged, arrogant self-obsession and narcissism?
Looks like Andy Warhol — who will leave a much more lasting mark on the world than Russert — was dead wrong when he mumbled that line about everyone eventually getting 15 minutes of fame. Warhol departed the earth in 1987, just as cable-TV news was maturing. He couldn’t have had any idea that a mere two decades later, in that bottomless hole created by the continuous news cycle, 15 minutes wasn’t anything at all. We could now go for hours and hours and hours — even days and days — talking about so little while blithely and simultaneously ignoring so much else.
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