Saturday, June 14, 2008

The tragically premature death of Tim Russert

Portrait of a Perfectly Perplexed Pundit
Tim Russert, 1950-2008, RIP

I originally uploaded this screen capture to Flickr after the Ohio primary under the title "Portrait of a Perfectly Perplexed Pundit," and it was part of one of my many wrangles with Tim Russert. Now that he has died far too young, I treasure this image, because it goes to the heart of what I think about the man.

Tim Russert was seen very differently by different people. Inside the Beltway, the Washington insiders recalled him as a powerful player, honest, dedicated and diligent in his pursuit of the truth. A political junkie who had worked for two of the most respected centrist Democratic politicians of their time, Pat Moynihan and Mario Cuomo. A bright, hard-working man who loved his family, believed in his country, and worked his way up to the pinnacle of media power from his working class origins in Buffalo, and who never forgot where he came from or what he owed his dad, Big Russ.

In the left blogosphere, there was polite concern for his family -- and an amazing amount of vitriol. Recalling the respectful, unquestioning audiences he gave Dick Cheney, many saw him as a propagandist for the Iraq war and a tool of the administration. Some held him personally accountable for the war, arguing that he was more responsible than any other single individual, which struck me as naive in the extreme -- if he hadn't been there, NBC would have found another cheerleader in the runup to the war.

My views were somewhere in the middle, I suppose. And I miss him the way you miss someone you always liked to argue with who is suddenly gone. I think he really was a straight arrow, and a mean, hard and cynical time is terribly hard on a straight arrow who rises from humble roots and achieves the American Dream, in this case success in the Washington media establishment. He was raised to respect legitimate authority and love the U.S. The U.S. he loved was not a country that tortured prisoners, suspended habeus corpus and waged unprovoked aggressive war based on a tissue of lies. And then he found himself serving the ends of an administration that tortured prisoners, suspended habeus corpus and waged unprovoked aggressive war based on a tissue of lies. I think he was aware of the contradictions, and the effect was corrosive.

During the Scooter Libby trial, he had to endure an entire nation hearing testimony about how he had been used by the administration and how they viewed him as nothing more than a useful tool. As the war went from bad to worse, and more and more of the lies were exposed, he must have wondered about the role he had played in helping facilitate the tragic fiasco.

That's why I treasure this image now in a very different sense from when I put it up on Flickr. I think it shows a perplexity that surfaced more and more during the last years of his life. I think he was starting to question why everything was going wrong and why so much of what he believed in had turned so tragically dark.

Our lives are stories whose meaning is determined in large part by how they end. Tim Russert deserved a chance to live long enough to grow from what he seemed to be learning at the time of his death, and to put his hard-won knowledge to better use.


Bruce said...

Madison Guy: I've known that you write extremely well for a long time. Every now and then, I read something you've done that makes me want to affirmatively state it again. The Tim Russert post is solid and moving. Thank you.

Bruce Geiger

CitizenReader said...

I will preface this by saying I am cold, hardhearted wench.

There. It's good to have that out of the way.

Although one hates to speak ill of the dead, I disliked Russert less for political reasons than for book publishing ones. "Big Russ and Me" would have been fine, but was "Wisdom of Our Fathers" really necessary? For a man who was making plenty of money as a media commentator? I dislike anyone who capitalizes on their formulaic claptrap that is designed only to make more money and to appeal only to the sentimental--that sort of thing doesn't further debate or thought, it simply follows the money.

It may be simplistic to blame him for the Iraq War, and of course ABC would have found some other ninny to promote their party line and the line of the ruling power. That doesn't make it right. Somewhere down the road somebody has to start saying no, and it could have been Tim. But it wasn't. That would have hurt his earning potential, after all.

I'm sure his family is hurting. And of course 58 is too young. But for me to personally feel the loss? He was not my family member or a personal friend, or a symbol of anything I held dear. He was simply a person doing his televised job, and frankly, in such a way that is not irreplaceable. So to ask for sympathy is simplistic to ask--and again trading on the sentimental.

Anonymous said...

I realize you are trying to be decent in your blog and that is ok, but, that guy was a big fat lying idiot. I think if you reached 58 years old, you have had plenty of time to learn and grow. Don't kid yourself, that guy didn't notice any contradictions. When pressed on why he didn't ever check with other sources on Dick Cheny lies, he said....and i am paraphrasing myself here...."They should have called me, I am just a simple guy from Buffalo, I didn't know". He played that simple blue collar shit beautifully, made a lot of buddies in Washington, sold a lot of crap books to simple Americans. I've went really easy on that jerk out of respect for your decent blog.

Dr Bud "safety gloves are for fags" said...

You are lamenting that Russert didn't live long enough to reach the agreement with you that he seemed to be groping towards. I hope that whent he day comes--far hence--you will be euologized for your views rather than some inferred, developing ambivalence about those views.

I certainly sympathize with Russert, who died too young, and for his grieving family. However, I agree with suggestions above that TV news is largely theatrics and that missing the Russert persona is sort of like missing Carl Kolchak--which I do, but Kolchak was only a character played by Darren McGavin. Tough, workin' stiff interrogator Tim Russert was a character played rather well by Tim Russert, human being.

Madison Guy said...

For the record, I despised Russert's show, which I sometimes watched like a passerby mesmerized by the trainwreck of American democracy. I just didn't see any point belaboring the obvious.

What I was groping toward was a consideration of how American public life is filled with examples of people who not only have a second act but totally reinvent themselves. Take Ariana Huffington, for example -- one of Russert's bitterest critics. She was a conservative far more blatant than Russert who reinvented herself as a liberal and has been widely welcomed and accepted as such.

He died too young, and because his life was cut short, he never had the chance to reinvent himself. Given his almost reflexive deference to power, it would have been interesting to see what his career would have been like with President Obama in the White House.

CitizenReader said...

Madison Guy,
Fair enough. I understand your point about reinvention but I don't really think it counts when you're reinventing yourself to find a bigger media audience and paycheck--which is really all Huffington has done as well. (That is, of course, only one woman's opinion.) Sadly I am of the school that agrees with Homer Simpson: "People don't change. Or if they do, they quickly change, and then quickly change back."

Charles J Gervasi said...

I loved the way Russert would grill powerful people. My only complaint was that he often grilled them with some lame populist argument that their opponent had used instead of an intelligent argument.

He was still my favorite talking head. I called the show "Russert". I can't imagine it without him.