A Careful Evisceration Of Tim RussertS

Lewis Lapham's forthcoming Harper's column on Tim Russert is not entirely unexpected, given the cranky literary liberal's public pronouncements on the late host of Meet The Press. But Lapham, sometimes slammed as insufferable bore, has spun a compelling essay out of his rough initial pronouncement that "1,000 people came to [Russert's] memorial service because essentially he was a shill for the government." Maybe Lapham's thorough disassembling is so tasty this time around because the reverence for Russert (not to mention his son Luke) was so completely over the top: two days and three nights of televised memorial, or some 96 hours of airtime, by Lapham's count. Lapham's column is called "Elegy For A Rubber Stamp," entertains the concession that Russert was probably a good father and friend and Catholic, and then swifty moves on to saying Russert had "the on-air persona of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter," that his "stock in trade was the deftly pulled punch" and that Russert was a "pet canary." Further excerpts after the jump.

To an im-
portant personage Russert asked one
or two faintly impertinent questions,
usually about a subject of little or
no concern to anybody outside the
rope lines around official Washing-
ton; sometimes he discovered a con-
tradiction between a recently issued
press release and one that was dis-
tributed by the same politician
some months or years previously.
No matter with which spoon Rus-
sert stirred the butter, the reply was
of no interest to him, not worth his
notice or further comment. He had
sprinkled his trademark salt, his
work was done. The important per-
sonage was free to choose from a
menu offering three forms of re-
sponse-silence, spin, rancid lie. If
silence, Russert moved on to anoth-
er topic; if spin, he nodded wisely; if
rancid lie, he swallowed it.

Worse, even, than Lapham's words is the overenthusiastic praise he presents from Russert's establishment friends.

Madeleine Albright, Clinton's Secretary of State: "As a public official, it was really, first of all, a treat to get on the show."

Cheney aide Mary Matalin: "He never treated [politicians] with the cynicism that attends some of these interviews. So they had a place to be loved."

Sam Donaldson, ABC: "He [Russert] understood as well as anyone, maybe better than
almost anyone, that the reason political reporters are there is not to speak truth to power... but to make those who say we have the truth - politicians - explain it."

It's easy to fall in love with Lapham's alternate view:

Long ago in the days before
journalists became celebrities, their
enterprise was reviled and poorly
paid, and it was understood by work-
ing newspapermen that the presence
of more than two people at their fu-
neral could be taken as a sign that
they had disgraced the profession.