The death of Tim Russert last Friday was not only a shock to the journalistic world, but also to the wider American community, judging by the reactions across the blogosphere and in my own anecdotal experience with friends and family.
His passing is truly a great loss, above all because he was a family man, and a man whose popular approach to journalism–asking the questions the guys at the VFW post would ask–made us feel he was somehow a friend of all of ours, a guy who would sit down and have a beer with us. The media, especially TV (and now the Internet) have alsways fostered that familiarity, and that fantasy. But certain people have an ability to connect that somehow transcends the media ephemera, and Russert was one of them. Part of it is that he probably would sit down and have a beer with you.
But of course there is always a temptation to read into the death of a celebrity or public fixture some greater meaning for the rest of us. With Russert it is a temptation we should yield to. For behind the widespread mourning is a sense of loss, whether conscious or not, of two intertwined cultures: Journalism and Catholicism.
Read the tributes–from those who really knew Russert–and you quickly see how Catholic culture and the journalistic vocation were inseparable parts of Russerts’s life, and of a world that I must say, with perhaps too much nostalgia, may be passing away.
Among the best is a Time magazine essay by Russert’s longtime friend Joe Klein, who starts, and ends, with Russert’s Catholic framework:
Back when he was just starting in television — and ever since but particularly back then — Tim Russert was astounded by the joys of the job. Early on, he helped arrange an interview with the Pope for the Today Show — and Tim did it up right: He brought along red NBC News baseball caps for the Cardinals and a white one for the Holy Father. “He put it on!” Tim told me when he came home. “We have pictures!” Then he said, more quietly, “But, you know, it was really something being in his presence. You felt something holy. It was almost as if the air was different.” And that was Tim — exuberant, irreverent, brilliant and devout, a thrilling jolt of humanity. We were friends for 30 years. We closed a few bars together in the early years, before Maureen shaped him up; we talked politics incessantly; we shared summer rentals; we watched our kids, especially Luke and Sophie who were born a few months apart, grow up, go to Jesuit colleges (Tim got a kick out of the fact that Sophie, a Jewsuit, aced New Testament at Fordham) and, a final happiness for Tim, we saw them graduate.
Wolf Blitzer recalls his and Russert’s chance to meet Pope Benedict XVI during the pope’s Washington visit last April as emblematic of who Russert was:
Tim Russert and I were the only journalists on that special guest list. We were both thrilled, but Tim, a devout Catholic with deep roots in the Church, was very excited. While we were waiting for the pope to arrive, he was like a little boy. He had his rosaries in his hand, ready for the pope to bless them. This was not the Tim Russert whom we all saw and admired as he grilled presidents, prime ministers, kings and mere politicians. When the pope finally approached him, he could barely utter a word. This was a special moment, and he knew it. For those of us who knew him for a long time, we certainly could appreciate what he was enjoying. His roots in Buffalo, New York, were deep and very humble. His dad, “Big Russ,” was a sanitation worker who had often worked two shifts to make ends meet. Russert knew where he was coming from, and as a result never complained about his own hard work for NBC News.
Catholic News Service has the best wrapup of Russert’s Catholic background, and how it always informed his present vocation. Among the gems:
Russert told church workers attending the 2005 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering that “if there’s an issue that Democrats, Republicans, conservatives and liberals can agree on, it’s our kids.” With “15 million kids largely living off the streets” and 12 youths shot dead daily in the United States, addressing the issue is imperative, Russert said. “Who are our children? How do we get into their hearts and minds,” Russert asked, “to get them to see the value of our values?” In dealing with his own son, Luke, Russert added that he tells him, “You are always, always loved, but you are never entitled.”
He was also praised by Cardinal John Foley, the Vatican’s longtime media maven, who told of lunching in Rome with Russert and his family just two days before his death. Foley was a longtime friend who had baptized Russert’s son Luke, but Russert was undoubtedly also trying to get an interview with the pope–something he was awlays angling for, no matter who the pope was:
The cardinal thought so highly of Russert that he tried to help him get a papal interview — first with Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI. He thought Russert’s persistent questioning style would have highlighted the message of both pontiffs. “He was always respectful of the individuals he was interviewing, but he didn’t let them off the hook. He always went for the truth and went for an illuminating answer,” Cardinal Foley said. “And I thought, the pope had a lot of truth to share. It would have been wonderful if that opportunity had occurred, but it didn’t,” he said.
Throughout, Russert, an icon of Sunday morning TV, always kept his vow to God to faithfully attend Sunday Mass if his son–who had just graduated from BC–was born healthy.
Russert was also “never ashamed to be identified as a Catholic, which I think is very important,” Cardinal Foley said. “There are a number of people who want to keep sort of hidden, but not Tim. He was always proud of the fact that he was Catholic,” the cardinal said. “That was one of the reasons he wanted to interview the popes, to help make what they were saying more public. It was an act of loyalty on his part, not an act of exploitation,” he said.
The CNS blog also has a roundup of other Russert-related Catholic moments.
Much will be missed, not least of which will be what Russert would have said two weeks hence at the annual Catholic Common Ground lecture at Catholic University. The title of the talk was “Learning from the Political Process for Common Ground in the Catholic Church.” Russert was someone whose old-fashioned political instincts–his distaste for hypocrisy combined with his decency and respect for those he’d disagree with–would surely come in handy in the church today. Russert was marinated in Catholicism and Catholic culture and embraced the ways of being that came with that–rather than tossing them aside as mindless rituals or cultural baggage. Such “baggage” was the stuff of Russert’s religion. But he also rejected those neo-orthodox Catholic puritans who would banish anyone (like fans of Common Ground) who would sought to encourage dialogue and greater communion in the church. In don’t think it is too much to say that for whatever the faults of the Church and her children, like Obama on race, Russert would no more deny the dignity of other Catholics than he would his own faith. That is an aspect of the Church and Catholic culture that Russert’s passing makes me fear for.
Then there is the journalistic side, where Russert’s sense of Catholic social justice (see above) and his desire to “afflict the comfortable and confort the afflicted”–all the while remaining on good terms with both–are perhaps also passing away.
The New York Times’ media critic, David Carr, has one of the most perceptive analyses–and tributes–to Russert’s journalistic success.
The rhetoric and remembrance deployed on his behalf — the flags in his hometown of Buffalo flew at half-staff — brought to mind the death of a beloved religious figure. On the broadcast wake Sunday, during what would have been his weekly hour on “Meet the Press,” Tom Brokaw and others referred to him variously as a priest, a cardinal and even, in the words of his friend Mike Barnicle, a pope. Which he sort of was, by the way. To many Americans, politics may seem a festering culvert rife with self-dealing and egos, and with very little of real value. But there is a smaller, intense demographic that experienced the political narrative as a kind of civic religion. Those people assign a kind of nobility and greater purpose to the calling. And to those people, Mr. Russert was the high priest, the one above all others, so much so that my dad scheduled his Sunday Mass around the show.
But Carr also argues that death spared Russert from a worse fate, that of being rendered obsolete by the blathering blogosphere and “citizen journalists” with agendas and attitude and absolutely no expertise, or ethical grounding. I have to resist that epitaph, if only out of loyalty to my chosen profession, and hope in hope for the future of legit journalism on the Web, and in the belief that a strong society is an informed society, one that is informed by upright and intelligent people–like Tim Russert–asking the questions we’d like to ask, but being savvy enough to get the real answers. Perhaps I am just ignoring the inevitable–a liberal (in the classic sense of the world) standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”
Howard Fineman of Newsweek, a Russert friend and colleague, said something to the effect that if he were ever tempted to become Catholic–not that he is planning to leave Judaism–it would be because of Tim Russert.
In his remembrance of Russert, Fineman notes the fear many of us feel. But his encomium is also the best motivation for advancing the legacy Russert left behind:
After Russert, the deluge? Not to canonize him, but he operated in a way, and on an assumption, that seems all but lost in modern America: the ability to debate, to argue, with a reverence for the frail humanity of all. We live–and we in journalism are truly immersed–in an accusatory culture that often denies the essential personhood of those we question or attack. I wrote a book in defense of the idea of argument, but without the Russerts of the world–seeking facts, demanding real answers and not rhetoric, but demanding in a respectful way–the American experiment in argument will not continue to work. Russert’s death is a blessing only in this one sense: we all need to stop and think of what he was aiming for and what he believed in, which was a country capable of governing itself through the practice of intelligent discussion and debate.
Now that is a banner to rally under, and a true memorial to a Catholic journalist, and to Catholicism and journalism.
See a nice CNN sampling of shots of Time Russert at work and with Family.