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Affable, with Irish gusto for politics

June 14, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

Journalism is, at best, a fairly ephemeral trade. Tim Russert is one of those rare journalists who actually leaves a legacy because he was the right man at the right time with the right technique.

In 1991, when Russert took over "Meet the Press," the Sunday morning television interview show had become pretty much a mannered and moribund genre. Russert, who joined NBC in 1984, quickly changed that and -- within a year -- a dying show had been doubled in length to one hour and renamed, "Meet the Press With Tim Russert." The host, who by then was also NBC's Washington bureau chief, brought to bear a couple of qualities uniquely suited to the format and the era.

Jesuit educated -- Canisius High in Buffalo and John Carroll University in Cleveland -- Russert was also trained as a lawyer. He understood deeply the value of preparation and studied for each interview at length and in depth. Subjects on "Meet the Press" soon found themselves confronted with signature Russert de- vices -- video clips and highlighted quotations from their past. He understood the foundational value of initial questions and how to follow up effectively on his guests' responses.

It was an intensity new to Sunday morning television, one complemented by Russert's passion for politics. That inclination was particularly fortuitous and well-timed because over the life of Russert's tenure on "Meet the Press," America was becoming a more intensely partisan and politically preoccupied nation. Imbued with the Jesuit fondness for dialectic, Russert was able to take the opposite point of view from whatever partisan sat across the table from him and to carry through the interview with complete conviction.

In other hands, it was a technique that could -- and ultimately did become -- coarsely confrontational and mindlessly adversarial. Russert never fell into that sort of mannered trap because he was so essentially likable. He had a passion for politics in part because he was by nature an old-fashioned Irish pol, an instinctual listener with a keen sense that everybody has their interests -- a man with the right word in the right ear at the right time.

In that sense, the formative experience in Russert's life was the five years (1977 to 1982) he spent as chief of staff to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). In those days, Moynihan's office was a seething pool of intellectual contention -- intense Catholic activists who could quote Duns Scotus and Dorothy Day with equal facility; young Jewish intellectuals on their way to neo-conservatism; assorted ambitious academics and guys who just loved bare-knuckle New York politics. Russert presided over all with unshakable aplomb.

It was that natural politician's ability to disagree civilly and to make a joyous experience of difference that underpinned the success of Russert's "Meet the Press." Unfortunately, as the years went on, it also fueled a certain descent into "character" status, a cloying willingness to trade on a sentimentalized Catholic boyhood and working-class roots.

It also was the natural pol's promiscuous affability that proved Russert's Achilles' heel.

Watching the cable news networks in the hours after his death, one was struck by the outpouring of admiration and affection from across the political spectrum and from journalistic colleagues of every sort. It was impossible not to be struck -- once again -- by just how incestuous and claustrophobic the Washington-based nexus of politics and journalism has become.

Thus, in all that gush across four networks in dozens and dozens of voices, hardly a word was spoken concerning Russert's role in the recent trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. That's odd because Libby's conviction on perjury and obstruction of justice charges was, in some large part, based on Russert's testimony. Like former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Russert was one of the high-level Washington journalists who came out of the Libby trial looking worse than shabby.

Libby testified before the grand jury investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity that he first learned she worked for the intelligence agency from Russert during a phone call on another matter. Russert took the stand to contradict Libby only because he'd been subpoenaed -- a summons he and NBC had strenuously resisted on grounds of journalistic privilege.

As it emerged under examination, however, Russert already had sung like a choirboy to the FBI concerning his conversation with Libby -- and had so voluntarily from the first moment the Feds contacted him. All the litigation was for the sake of image and because the journalistic conventions required it.

If Russert's legacy stands for anything, it's that journalists have an obligation to preserve as complete a record as possible -- and to hold those responsible for that record accountable. In the outpouring of grief, affection and fellow-feeling that followed his sudden death, that didn't happen. Perhaps that's understandable under the circumstances, or perhaps it's another insight into the limitations of the sort of "insider" journalism of which Russert was an exemplar.



Now an op-ed columnist and book critic for The Times, Tim Rutten formerly wrote Calendar's Regarding Media column.

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