Notebook — From the September 2008 issue

Elegy for a Rubber Stamp

Fulfilling your duties, where does that land you? Into jealousy, upsets, persecution. Is that the way to get on? Butter people up, good God, butter them up, watch the great, study their tastes, fall in with their whims, pander to their vices, approve of their injustices. That’s the secret.
—Denis Diderot,
Rameau’s Nephew

At 3:39 p.m. on Friday, June 13, Tom Brokaw interrupted NBC’s network programming with the late-breaking news that Tim Russert had died—of a heart attack earlier that afternoon while preparing his Sunday broadcast of Meet the Press—and by the top of the next hour the story was being wrapped up in the ribbons of a national tragedy. Maybe not as tragic as the falling of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane into the Atlantic Ocean but undoubtedly an historic moment, up there in lights with the death of President Ronald Reagan and the loss of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer on the field at the Little Bighorn.

On the off chance that a bereaved citizenry might be slow to recover from the shock and reprocess the awe, MSNBC throughout the rest of the weekend projected an election-night air of developing crisis. Brokaw and Keith Olbermann took turns reading statements incoming from the leaders of the free world—“Tim was a tough and hardworking newsman” (President George W. Bush); “He was the standard-bearer for serious journalism” (Senator Barack Obama); “The explainer-in-chief of our political life” (Senator Joe Lieberman); “Always true to his proud Buffalo roots” (joint communiqué, Bill and Hillary Clinton); “A gentleman and a giant” (Senator Edward Kennedy); “He was hard. He was fair. . . . He loved the Buffalo Bills” (Senator John McCain).

During the delays between bulletins, Brokaw and Olbermann introduced a procession of Washington media celebrities arriving with rush deliveries of op-ed-page solemnity and camera-ready grief. For two days and three nights, they paid tribute to the glory that was Tim and the grandeur that is themselves. Before the red carpet was rolled up on Monday morning, America had been comforted in its sorrow by, among others, Andrea Mitchell, David Broder, Mike Barnicle, Al Hunt, Bob Woodward, Gwen Ifill, Sally Quinn, Howard Fineman, Jon Meacham, Maria Shriver, Pat Buchanan, Ben Bradlee, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Brokaw found Russert’s death so hard to imagine that his only word for it was “surreal”; Olbermann borrowed his parting word from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” The choir standing by in the studio supplied the doo-wop vocals.

“This is a blow to America” (Peggy Noonan)

“An unfathomable loss” (Brian Williams, from Afghanistan)

“The gold standard in everything he did” (Chris Matthews, from Paris)

“The ideal American journalist” (Dan Rather)

“He was a friend to millions of people” (Barbara Walters)

By Friday evening the rending of garments had spread, like a bloom of algae on an endangered Florida ecosystem, to all the other news organizations in town, many hours of sweet remembrance on ABC and Fox News as well as on CBS and CNN, more of it on Saturday and Sunday, Tim’s friends and fellow on-air personalities thickening the sentiment, strengthening the highlight reels, bringing the perspective. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t miss any of the major talking points—Russert a “devoted father” and “a reverential son”; Russert, “Hail Mary and full of grace,” certain to have been enthroned as the Pope had he chosen a career in the Catholic Church; Russert a “basic old American patriot” and a true friend of the common man; Russert likened both to Tom Sawyer and to Huck Finn, to Teddy as well as to Franklin Roosevelt; Russert born poor and humble in Buffalo, “Irish, ethnic, working-class,” gone forth to become rich and famous in the capital of the universe but never losing sight of the Buffalo River; above all, Russert the tough-minded journalist, hard-hitting and relentless, unafraid to speak truth to power, so fierce in his interrogations that for a trembling public servant seated across the table from him on Meet the Press “it was like going up against an All-Star pitcher in Yankee Stadium.”

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