Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Few events so reveal society’s unacknowledged values as a royal funeral.
So it was following the untimely death of NBC newsman and “Meet the
Press” moderator Tim Russert. We have no formal aristocracy in the
United States, but Washington has a self-appointed media peerage.
Russert was a political celebrity/courtier of exalted rank. To his
grieving colleagues and many viewers, Russert embodied the best of TV
journalism. Others think very differently about his legacy. First,
however, a modest personal remembrance. The one time I met Russert, he
couldn’t have been more gracious. Possibly because my thumbnail bio
described an urban, Northeastern, “hardy Irish-Catholic peasant”
background like his own, he asked how I came to live in Arkansas, and
about my wife and family. Even my pastime of following hunting beagles
around on horseback appeared to fascinate him. Then the “Meet the Press”
cameras came on and he put me on the spot. But hey, if you’re afraid to
fall off a horse, don’t get on. Russert treated me like a professional.
Part of his job? Sure. But in his place, I wouldn’t have bothered. So
the love and esteem expressed by Russert’s colleagues were surely
heartfelt. We should all leave such a legacy.
That said, Russert’s journalistic influence was deeply unfortunate. The
Washington Post reverently listed the models of limousines arriving at
his memorial service, along with the exalted personages riding inside.
Tourists brought cameras. Sorry, but when columnists, political
consultants and TV talking faces get treated like the prince of Wales,
something’s wrong. H. L. Mencken, justifiably famous in his day, would
Like Paris Hilton, many D. C. courtier journalists are famous largely
for being famous. I once asked a TV news director for a raise. He tried
flattery, saying viewers treasured my poor man’s Andy Rooney act. I
scoffed. Then he got real.
“Look,” he said, “we could find a wino under a bridge, buy him a suit,
teach him to read a TelePrompTer and make him a star.”
The station was paying all it could. We parted ways amicably.
On his dailyhowler. com Web site, Bob Somerby opines that Russert
started getting silly about the time he began writing books
mythologizing his humble Buffalo roots. Walter Cronkite never did that.
Somerby notes that MSNBC in particular has become an ethnic enclave. On
“Hardball,” they held an Irish wake for several days. All that was
missing was a bottle of Jameson’s, and that may have been under the
Some of it verged on self-parody. Here’s Mike Barnicle, seconding Pat
Buchanan’s claim that being Irish made Russert great: “I think it begins
with so many Irish Catholics of a certain age... and they come to life
later on with a missionary zeal for the truth because it begins in
parochial school. Who is God? Why did God make me? And the interrogation
during the Baltimore Catechism years of you in religion class five days
a week, you had better have those questions answered. You better be able
to answer them. And that—you bring that along through the years....
[T]hose roots are so strong, so deep, that you’re still doing that on
‘Meet the Press’ on Sunday 50 years later.”
Micks like Somerby and me remember pre-Vatican II Catholic pedagogy
differently. Rote memorization and authoritarian teaching create not
love of truth but tribalism and conformity. The first time I got sent to
Monsignor was at age 8, for telling a nun I didn’t believe God would
send my one Protestant friend Jeffrey to Hell because Jeffrey was a good
person, and that would be mean and stupid. The priest said Sister was
being a little harsh, but I needed to be careful about weakening my
classmates’ faith with impertinent questions.
Back to Russert and Washington journalism: In the sport of beagling, two
bad faults can get a hound disqualified. One is “cold-trailing.” I had a
beagle named Leon who’d hoot down scent trails so old the rabbits that
left them were probably being digested by coyotes. Leon made so much
noise about nothing that my pals dubbed him “The Journalist.” Then
there’s “ghost-trailing.” Unable to keep up, a hound will sometimes
invent a fictitious rabbit and make a great show of running it. Other
dogs learn to ignore him. Washington courtier-journalists have done
plenty of both recently. Russert was among the worst. Like most, he
obsessed over Bill Clinton’s sexual sins, but handled the Bush
administration’s Iraq war propaganda like the Baltimore Catechism:
Memorize, regurgitate. Linda Hirshman nails it in The Nation: “The
political leaders who did the best answering Tim Russert’s questions in
the last seven years—Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell—are
the authors of the most disastrous American foreign policy since the
Vietnam War, and maybe since 1776. The Russert Test was a disaster
because it rewarded people willing to lie unabashedly on TV.” And that’s
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.