In what may or may not be an irony of some kind, but should probably not actually be noted, because it's sort of ghoulish and in poor taste, political journalism superstar Tim Russert went out today with a Friday newsdump, that hallowed Washington DC practice of burying news no one wants to see. Earlier today, June 13, 2008, Russert suffered a fatal heart attack. While working, obviously. Because he worked a lot, and he always looked like he loved it.
So. We all know the basics of the story. Big fun guy from Buffalo, worked in the New York Democratic party machine for Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Made the switch to journalism, got hired by NBC in Washington, and ended up the bureau chief four short years later, in 1988.
In 1991, he took over Meet the Press and quickly became one of the most important names in DC journalism. His journalistic style was a civil, well-read version of the GOTCHA that would take control of cable.
"Lawrence Spivak, who founded ‘Meet the Press,' told me before he died that the job of the host is to learn as much as you can about your guest's positions and take the other side," he said in a 2007 interview with Time magazine. "And to do that in a persistent and civil way. And that's what I try to do every Sunday."
This could be an irritating style. Russert's specialty was pointing out a contradiction in a politician's vast record of spoken positions. Oftentimes this meant a descent into entirely useless minutiae. Though almost as often it was enlightening, or at least entertaining. It's certainly preferable to the Chris Matthews method of shouting whatever comes to mind, no matter how crazy. And Russert always knew his shit, even when you were fairly certain he was missing the point.
From Meet the Press he dictated the conventional wisdom of Washington's political establishment-a harder trick to pull off in the days before Drudge, The Note, the internet, Politico, and the rise of what is essentially meta-journalism disguised as political analysis. Russert just selected some insiders-usually white, usually male, every week well into the 2000s (such is DC!)-and allowed them to spin their little hearts out. It's still engaging television, even when it makes you want to level Washington and maybe give Philly a second chance as Capital.
But it was as the country's wonky guide to electoral politics that he perhaps undid some of the damage of the institution of the Sunday chatfest. Because Russert and his whiteboard did an admirable, commendable job, every four years, of explaining our insane and anti-democratic political process to a nation that has always been unclear on the subject. The electoral college, slightly demystified, for one night. Civics lessons are rare on television, and effective ones should be applauded.
And yes, it's actually shocking, and sad, to think that this November all we'll have is John King and his Blade Russert touch screen wall, or Keith Olbermann and his pseudo-gravitas, or poor bored Katie Couric to guide us through that stressful Tuesday night nationwide farce.
Russert died at work, as we said, at NBC's Washington studios. He is survived by his wife, Maureen Orth, his son Luke, and, tragically, his father, the hero of Tim's happily non-self-aggrandizing 2004 memoir, Big Russ and Me.
(Attached: a video montage of some of Tim's notable television moments.)