Friday was a very unlucky day for viewers and voters who depended on â€œMeet The Pressâ€ moderator Tim Russert to get beyond poll-tested, scripted sound bites that media-trained politicians and corporate titans routinely spewed with impunity on other news programs to get at the facts needed for informed judgments about policy, personality and the pressing issues of the day.
It was also a very unlucky day for those of us who watched this consummate journalist for pointers on how to stick with a line of questioning until an interview subject was maneuvered deftly into a corner with no more wiggle room left to obfuscate or to evade. Â
Russert, who died of a sudden heart attack while preparing for Sundayâ€™s edition of the program at NBCâ€™s Washington bureau, was a lawyer and a politico before turning his considerable talents to journalism.
He was â€œfair and balancedâ€ well before Roger Ailes dreamed up Fox News. Foxâ€™s Bill Oâ€™Reilly – who never tires of reminding viewers and guests alike that heâ€™s a â€œtough interviewerâ€ â€“ often drives The Stiletto to near-apoplexy by losing focus and jumping to another topic before asking all the follow-up questions needed to pin his subject down. There was only one way to stop Russert from asking yet another follow-up question during one of his trademark grillings: Answer the last one to his satisfaction.
New York Times political blog, â€œThe Caucus,â€ includes condolences from many who found themselves on the receiving end of the â€œRussert treatment.â€ On Sunday morning, retired NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw led a group of Russertâ€™s closest friends and colleagues in a sort of â€œIrish wakeâ€ that took place on the set of â€œMeet The Pressâ€ (video link) during which they shared remembrances and tributes (Russertâ€™s chair was empty).
Hereâ€™s a snippet in which Brokaw and Russertâ€™s producer Betsy Fischer explain his famed interrogation technique:
TB: I always thought that both his Jesuit training and his legal education, which a lot of people didn’t have a full appreciation of, were so important to him because this broadcast was always about accountability. If you’re in the public arena and running for office, then we have an obligation to hold you accountable.
BF: Absolutely. And the way he would structure the questions was very lawyerly. We–he, he always knew how a candidate was going to respond, and he was, he was prepared enough to know that. And he would sketch it out in his mind: “I’m going to ask A, that’ll get us to B, that’ll get us around to C, and then there’s D.” And he, he knew how to get you into that cycle, and he was very skilled at that.
Brokaw and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin discuss Russertâ€™s transition from politics to journalism:
TB: We don’t have a big tradition in this country of people being in politics then in journalism, or going from journalism back into politics. But Tim really dropped that firewall because he did it with such integrity.
DKG: Â [H]e was able to become an objective journalist â€¦ I mean, journalism was to him the highest profession. He â€¦ set the standard. You know, the old days you had Edward R. Murrow and you had Walter Cronkite. People of authority who would look out at the television screen. But what Tim did was to make that transition to the world of relationship talking. That’s what so much television is now, talking. Think about how no razzle dazzle in this show. What it had were people sitting around the table and talking, talking like you might have talked 200 years ago but with civility in a time of polarized country.
Brokaw, Mary Matalin and James Carville describe the tough-but-fair â€œRussert treatmentâ€:
TB: I was always struck, Mary, by the fact that so many politicians came here and became deer caught in the headlamps, that when Tim would come after him in that civilized but persistent fashion, it would have been helpful to the candidates if they would have said from time to time, “You know what, Tim, you got me there.”
MM: It’s–they were double dumb if the got caught in the headlights, because, you know, we’re all talking about how much he liked politics. He genuinely liked politicians. He respected politicians. He knew that they got blamed for everything, got credit for nothing. He knew how much they meant. He never treated them with the cynicism that attends some of these interviews. So they had a place to be loved. He understood who they were. They were a combination, as was he, of idealism and realism, so if you messed up on this show, it was nobody’s fault but your own. â€¦
TB: Tim would do the show â€¦ [during the postmortem] we’d be talking about who did well â€¦ what their weaknesses were. This one’s got a chance to go. I remember who–a candidate whose name I will not use here, who came waltzing in here one day and crawled out the door. I mean, he thought he was going to be the next president of the United States. The next time he came, he was in much better shape.
JC: He was, And, and I know exactly who you’re talking about. And, and Tim was proud of, Tim was proud of the guy that he came again.
Brokaw and Gwen Ifill agree that Russert set the bar high for other journalists:
TB: I think he has elevated the process in a lot of ways.
GI: He made journalists better, too. I mean, one of the other postmortems that happened was around this table after every program, where we sat around and not only decompressed about what had happened on the program, but often what had happened in our reporting. I learned more things – some of them reportable, some of them not – around this table because that was part of the ritual.
And the group also recalled Russert, the man:
Matalin: He was ambitious for his friends. â€¦ If you had a book, he’d put you on one of his shows. He tried to help everybody. He wanted everybody to do their best. â€¦ he enjoyed everybody’s success, and he pulled for everybody’s success. And he put them in positions to succeed, starting with the interns. Â
Fischer: He always said the best exercise for the human heart was to bend down and pick someone else up. And he not only picked us up, but he held us up every week, and, as the backbone of the show.
Mike Barnicle: I mean, his working-class roots â€¦ he never forgot where he came from. But where Timmy came from, conditioned to south Buffalo, was much more than that. â€¦ he had a missionary’s zeal â€¦ for lifting people up, for helping people in times of trouble, whether you were his friend or whether you were a complete stranger.Â
Maria Shriver: [O]ne of the things that always struck me about Tim was his faith in G-d, his belief in prayer. He always carried a rosary around. And he would always say to you, you know, “I’m going to pray for you, I’m going to pray for your family, I’m going to pray for your uncle.” And you knew he meant that, that he actually would really do it.
Brokaw: There’s a word that is used so often these days as a test for national character in politics or in culture or whatever, and the word is authenticity. And our friend was as authentic as any human being I’ve ever met.
For her part, The Stiletto would like to think that Russert has wasted no time tracking down Dwight Eisenhower and the Shah of Iran and is hammering them about the genesis of Iranâ€™s nuclear capability and how best to diffuse the threat of the current regime weaponizing enriched uranium.
Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in theÂ Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th AnnualÂ Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe) along with CNN Political Ticker,Â Swampland (Time magazine) andÂ The Caucus (The New York Times).