I've been an addict of the Sunday Morning political shows since the early 80s. I'd always been fairly active on a political level. My mother tells me that when I was 10 I made my own anti-Nixon fliers and passed them out in the streets. I have a vague memory of this but only vague.
I watched avidly every week, Meet The Press, then hosted by Garrick Utley, This Week, then with David Brinkley and the entertaining if ear shattering McLaughlin Group. Politics is one of many things I geek on.
I remember when Utley retired and a man I'd not known at all named Tim Russert (my own fault for not knowing him. I was still young and getting to know how it all worked) took over Meet The Press. I was, to say the least, unimpressed. The tone shifted for me from something rather serious and thoughtful to a sort of 'golly gee whiz' amazement at being there and lost was the sense of the important matters of the day. To top it off, the end of the show was suddenly a cheerleading moment for the Buffalo Bills.
Now this sort of thing, after being harangued by Jack Kemp for years who, to paraphrase Joe Biden, only spoke with a noun, a verb and a football metaphor, was the last thing I wanted. A Bills fan in particular, cheering them on every week after interviewing Al Gore or Dan Quayle or Paul Simon, etc. It didn't offer perspective. It only distracted.
Mind you I would feel this way no matter what the team was. Call me a purist, call me a grouch. But to me that has no place on a show of that nature. I don't mean to trash Russert as a human being, or anything like that. He was clearly a good man, a good father and well beloved of his colleagues. The grief of everyone on MSNBC was beyond palpable and that speaks volumes about him. The moving story of Somewhere Over The Rainbow playing as they filed out of his memorial service only to be greeted by two rainbows over Washington D.C. would fail to melt only the coldest heart (or a lackey of Fox News).
But the thing is this; Tim Russert may not have necessarily ushered it in, but he did quicken what I call the Press as celebrity/buddy buddy with pols/whose team are you rooting for casual attitude that contributed to a kind of dumbing down of the American Press.
In the old days, Meet the Press was just that....a politician or business leader or somewhat other prominent person facing a PANEL of journalists of all stripes. Each journalist had a series of questions for those leaders and those leaders had to answer. Those reporters were a mix of political leanings so you knew that no matter who the guest was...it would not be easy.
Now Mr. Russert could go hardline from time to time. When he was on his game he was amazing. But he wasn't always on his game and that came with a cost.
That's not to say that Tim Russert made it easy all the time. But a very dangerous thing happened in the early years of this century. Suckered by the current administration, Tim Russert single handedly turned Meet The Press into Dick Cheney's briefing room. Week after week members of the Shrub administration would come on in the months leading up to the war and well into the war's development and never be challenged in those "exclusive" interviews. Russert, falling hook line and sinker for the mushroom cloud smoking gun let Condy, Dick, and ultimately little George ("see, I'm a war president") get away with murder.
That dogged pursuit of truth that his friends have mournfully touted so much this past week
was tragically gone.
Now just because I never fell for any of that nonsense, being a dumb, struggling actor in New York, doesn't mean that Tim Russert can't get suckered. I have the advantage of being outside of the beltway and while it was obvious to me that the administration was full of it. That Colin Powell's presentation never had credibility. Pictures of trucks in front of a shack tells me that there's a picture of a truck in front of a shack.
I expected to hear that kind of statement on Meet the Press or on This Week with George (Irrelevent Questions) Stephanopolis, which essentially mimics the single interviewer format. I didn't. Tragically, none of us did.
I think it was Keith Olberman who said that Mr. Russert really did believe that there were WMDs in Iraq or felt that even if there was a slight chance that it was true....etc.
But that wasn't Tim Russert's job. Tim Russert's job was to use those prosecutorial skills so that we could be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were going into Iraq out of necessity or the truth, which was that we were propagandaed into going by oil men who wanted their property back.
The United States deserved better.
The folks at NBC are scrambling to figure out who will replace Mr. Russert. I would suggest to them, if I could and if they cared, that they go back to the old format. Have a regular moderator, but have a panel of well established journalists, not former speech writers or campaign managers. Real journalists. There is no need for all the shows to have the same layout.
Make our employees truly answer to us with a diverse group of men and women who will, by virtue of whatever side they are on, make them answer to us as they should.
Meet The Press is the longest running television show of any kind. I'd like to see it deserve that place again.
Having said that, my heart does indeed go out to the Russert family and to all his colleagues. I am disgusted by Fox News' team of slanderous and childish dismissals of Russert just being part of the "liberal media". Or the ridiculous storytelling of Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman arguing for that lone chair. It degrades the memory of a man so obviously loved and admired by so many. Respect must be paid even among rivals. Unfortunately Rupert Murdoch and this crew have no class.
Whatever my dissatisfaction may be, only a fool would deny Tim Russert's impact on this country, both good and bad. As I said earlier, when he was on his game he was quite amazing. And he deserves to be remembered for that. And as a politics geek I had to relate to him when he would gather his panel of talking heads together with such glee and excitement.
But we have a responsibility to the living to learn from the mistakes of Tim Russert and those like him as well as be inspired by their considerable accomplishments. To learn from our mistakes as audience and citizens and hold those that work for us and those that probe for us to hold to a higher standard no matter what they themselves personally fear. Otherwise the terrorists win.