Notebook — From the September 2008 issue
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On Monday I thought I’d heard the end of the sales promotion. Tim presumably had ascended to the great studio camera in the sky to ask Thomas Jefferson if he intended to run for president in 1804, and I assumed that the Washington news media would allow his soul to rest in peace. I was mistaken. For live broadcast on Wednesday, June 18, MSNBC staged a memorial service in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and if I’d thought that the bathos couldn’t reach new force levels, it was because I’d failed to account for either the cynicism or the vanity of a fourth estate that regards itself as the light in the window of Western civilization. Several wire services in town shut down their operations during the ninety-minute special as a mark of respect for the departed hero, his last rites not to be disturbed with disquieting reports from Afghanistan or ugly rumors about the national economy sinking further into the quicksand of recession.
The performance attracted an opening-night crowd of the Washington carriage trade, 1,500 notables come to see themselves in the mirrors. Tom Brokaw lifted a bottle of Rolling Rock (the workingman’s beer, Tim’s favorite) to say that “there will be some tears, some laughs, and the occasional truth.” Speeches from Maria Shriver, Mario Cuomo, and Mike Barnicle, who was moved to blow “a kiss goodbye” to the “boy of summer,” who “always, always left us smiling.” An Irish tenor sang “Ave Maria”; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick presented the homily, “Pray that the beloved anchor of Meet the Press is now sitting at the large Table of the Lord to begin a conversation which will last forever.” Via satellite from Cologne, Germany, on a large screen descending from somewhere up in the chandeliers, Bruce Springsteen appeared with his guitar to sing “Thunder Road.”
The program signed off with an orchestra playing “Over the Rainbow” while the guests made their way out to the limousines to be blessed with a sign from Heaven. Lo and behold, right there in the gray twilight, swinging low over the White House and the Washington Monument, right there in plain sight, there was a real rainbow in the sky. Later that night on MSNBC’s rebroadcast of the proceedings, Olbermann reported the rainbow as no coincidence. “I know that was Russert,” he said. “I’d recognize him anywhere.”
With Olbermann it’s sometimes hard to know when or if he’s attempting a joke, but if he was joking, at whom or at what was the joke directed? Certainly not at rainbows; probably not at God. Conceivably at the thought of MSNBC hunting high and low for the Easter eggs of truth, or at the idea of Tim as a knife-wielding journalist. Olbermann is an intelligent man, and how else could an intelligent man interpret the glorification of Russert if not as a joke, or as a ninety-six-hour public-service announcement paid for by General Electric, the company that owns the NBC networks but depends for its profit margins on its patriotic dealings as one of the nation’s primary weapons manufacturers. Jack Welch, the company’s former chairman and CEO, was among the mourners making a cameo appearance in the weekend film clips. “We all felt he was our friend. He represented us. We were proud of him. We loved him.”
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