Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tim Russert (1950-2008)

When I was a junior in high school, the first stirrings of the 1996 presidential election began. For some reason, I was sent an offer to receive a year of Newsweek for only ten bucks, and my dad got it for me. I read all the articles on politics each week, and as the campaign moved forward into the primaries, I got hooked. I began to get up early on Sundays to watch Face the Nation and Meet the Press just so I could keep up with everything, even more amazing that my family had finally gotten off my case about sleeping through church. It thrilled me that there was television that not only challenged me, but didn’t spell everything out either. The assumption was that you would have a certain level of knowledge if you were viewing, and it forced me to learn and catch up. Bob Schieffer and Tim Russert challenged me.

There is supposed to be a line separating news and entertainment, not to mention journalism and politics. And for the most part this works in print, but I’m not altogether sure that it’s even practical on television. When Russert appeared on the screen, he not only was someone highly connected within the world of Washington politics; he also was a character who people really liked and welcomed into their homes. He came across as a good guy, but also an authority. He would grill those who were in the upper echelons of power, yet not disrespect them by undermining or attacking them. He was assertive and unrelenting, but when he wished the hapless Bills good luck at the end of a broadcast, you felt like he was the kind of person you’d want to have a beer with.

This was even more obvious n his MSNBC interview show. He demonstrated real delight when he was talking with a person he found interesting about a subject he was interested in (usually history or politics, or political history). Despite the fact that he was an aide for a Democratic senator, he did a good job of taking the opposite side of an issue when questioning people.

The last time I watched Meet the Press was at the end of last year, when Russert grilled Mitt Romney for an hour. I thought Romney did pretty well against the onslaught, but it reminded me why I liked Russert so much: he pressed hard and asked incredibly tough questions. But his show was about the questions and answers, not the personalities of the host and commentators. In a television world being overrun with style over substance, Russet always thrived on presenting a lot of substance with style. It was the best of both worlds.

I’m not one to get upset about famous people I’ve never met passing away, and that’s not the case here. But there is a soft spot in my heart for a man that helped foster my interest in politics, an interest that has led to a deeper understanding of the world we live in. Though I no longer watch television, I still feel like I’ll be missing something this election season.

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