Tim Russert and the ultimate sacrifice

A memorial to Tim Russert, who died suddenly of a heart attack on Friday, has grown in Russert's home town of Buffalo, N.Y. This morning's broadcast of 'Meet the Press' was the first since Russert's passing. (John Normile/Getty Images)


Much has been said and written about Tim Russert since his shocking death. I want to focus on just three remarks.

Chris Matthews said, "He was the hardest worker you can be."

Sally Quinn, the Washington doyenne, said, "He worked harder than anybody I've ever known in my life."

Barbara Walters said, "We have to think, do we work too hard?...What does this say about our own lives?"

Tim Russert, despite his hard-won status as the best political broadcaster in the business, never seemed larger than life. He was more like an exuberant  kid let loose in the world's biggest candy store. His joie de vivre on the job - coupled with his diligence, like a parochial school kid who had mastered his homework - made him appealingly human. His wielding of that whiteboard on election night 2000 ("Florida, Florida, Florida"), and again in 2004, was a decidedly human touch, especially when you see all the high-tech bells and whistles on the broadcasts this year, particularly CNN.

And, sadly, his manner of leaving this life - literally working his heart out for his vocation - was all too human.

Until this kind of tragedy occurs - a 58-year-old man taking medication for asymptomatic coronary disease, tending to his far-flung family, and working virtually 24/7 on an historic presidential election - it is easy to overlook this fundamental truth: Those of us who write or broadcast politics for a living are only human.

Our work is, quite often, physically exhausting. One does no favor to the body by working until 2 a.m. on an endless string of primary nights, then getting up at 6 and trying to fire up the brain for another long day and evening. I've been there all too many times, dating back to 1992. I have nodded off in many of America's finest airports. But Russert had us all beaten; one co-worker remarked the other night that, over the course of the protracted Obama-Clinton contest, he repeatedly drove himself to exhaustion...all while shuttling to Buffalo, where he had to re-situate his elderly father; and to Boston for his son's college graduation, and then to Rome for the post-grad celebration, and then back again for Meet the Press, his stints on Morning Joe and evening cable and The Today Show, and his story-planning duties as Washington bureau chief.

I'm not suggesting that such outsize human exertions should therefore protect us all from criticism. That's how the game is played, and we willingly choose this game. Russert, indeed, took a lot of heat. He was rebuked for being too hard on politicians, and rebuked for being too soft. He was maligned in some circles as a mouthpiece for "the liberal media," and assailed by others as an establishment lackey (or, as liberal blogger Glen Greenwald put it not long ago, "a government propagandist").

Whatever. Russert understood that such diverse reactions were inevitable; mostly, he was too busy having fun with his hard work, and working hard at his fun. I met him only twice, but I saw it all on his face. Prior to a debate in New Hampshire five years ago, in the makeshift press workroom, we struck up a quick conversation about the issue of the moment. He asked what I thought. I don't remember my answer - it was nothing profound - but his expression has stayed with me ever since: Unmitigated glee. Glee at the prospect of what the evening might bring. Glee like a kid at the entrance to a ballpark, preparing to pass through the turnstile.

Just hours before his death on Friday, fresh off a plane from Rome, Russert was characteristically enthused about the show he was planning for today: Joe Biden versus Lindsey Graham ("It could be a vice-presidential audition"). He was looking ahead to the '08 finals, and the challenge of how the press should handle the inevitable lies and smears:

"What we hope to do in this campaign is recognize there are big differences on big issues between John McCain and Barack Obama – the war in Iraq, Iran, Social Security, taxes.  You don’t need to get into this other stuff.  If it does surface, then I think the mainstream media has an obligation not to just instinctively put it out there without vetting it.  Or, if it is something that is manufactured as a virus, report on that – who did it and why."

If he had not worked this hard, he would not have been the guy we knew. He even left us some good advice going forward.

He was, only in hindsight, excessive in his pursuits, and indeed there is a hideously human dimension to this tragedy: a father has lost a son, and a son has lost a father, all in the wake of Father's Day. It's surely no consolation to his family if we note that Russert dedicated himself to the pursuit of a noble cause: journalism, the free flow of information, the First Amendment, the need (more than ever) to hold politicians accountable for their words and actions. That, in fact, is more than a noble cause. It is patriotism.