Saturday, June 14, 2008
The tragically premature death of Tim Russert
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.