Notebook — From the September 2008 issue

Elegy for a Rubber Stamp

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Many people loved Russert, and I don’t doubt that they had reason to do so. I’m sure that most of what was said about him on camera was true: that he was a devoted father, a devout Catholic, and a faithful friend, generous in spirit and a joyful noise unto the Lord. I mean no disrespect to his widow or to his son, but if I have no reason to doubt his virtues as a man, neither do I have any reason to credit the miracle of Russert as a journalist eager to speak truth to power. In his professional as opposed to his personal character, his on-air persona was that of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter, as helpless as Charlie Rose in his infatuation with A-list celebrity, his modus operandi the same one that pointed Rameau’s obliging nephew to the roast pheasant and the coupe aux marrons in eighteenth-century Paris: “Butter people up, good God, butter them up.”

With the butter Russert was a master craftsman, his specialty the mixing of it with just the right drizzle of salt. The weekend videotapes, presumably intended to display Russert at the top of his game, deconstructed the recipe. To an important personage Russert asked one or two faintly impertinent questions, usually about a subject of little or no concern to anybody outside the rope lines around official Washington; sometimes he discovered a contradiction between a recently issued press release and one that was distributed by the same politician some months or years previously. No matter with which spoon Rus sert stirred the butter, the reply was of no interest to him, not worth his notice or further comment. He had sprinkled his trademark salt, his work was done. The important personage was free to choose from a menu offering three forms of response—silence, spin, rancid lie. If silence, Russert moved on to another topic; if spin, he nodded wisely; if rancid lie, he swallowed it. The highlight reels for the most part show him in the act of swallowing.

November 7, 1993: Question for President Bill Clinton, “Will you allow North Korea to build a nuclear bomb?”

A: “North Korea cannot be allowed to build a nuclear bomb.”

February 25, 2001: Question for Senator John Kerry, “John Kerry, you going to run for President in 2004?”

A. “I’m running for reelection in 2002.”

Q. “How about ’04?”

A. “I’m not making any decisions beyond ’02.”

April 13, 1997: Question for Louis Farrakhan, supreme minister of the Nation of Islam, “Would you be willing to retract or apologize for some of the things you said?”

A: “If I can defend every word that I speak and every word that I speak is truth, then I have nothing to apologize for.”

February 8, 2004: Question for President George W. Bush, “In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?”

A. “That’s an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or a war of necessity? It’s a war of necessity.”

Having seen the original broadcast of the interview with President Bush, I remember Russert’s attitude as that of a trend-setting restaurateur anxious to please his best customer. The President delivered himself of his customary bombast (“Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I’m not gonna leave him in power and trust a madman. . . . A free Iraq will change the world. It’s historic times”); Russert was content to favor the harangue with polite suspensions of disbelief.

The attitude doesn’t lead to the digging up of much news that might be of interest to the American people, but it endeared Russert to his patrons and clients. Madeleine Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton Administration, expressed her gratitude to Olbermann: “Tim was amazing because I can tell you that, as a public official, it was really, first of all, a treat to get on the show.” Two days later, over at NBC, Mary Matalin (former CBS and CNN talk-show host, former counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney) seconded the motion, attributing Russert’s profound knowledge of national politics to his superb qualities as a rubber stamp. “He respected politicians,” Matalin said. “He knew that they got blamed for everything, got credit for nothing. He knew how much they meant. He never treated them with the cynicism that attends some of these interviews. So they had a place to be loved.” Remembering Russert on ABC, Sam Donaldson explained why too much salt in the butter makes it harder to spread: “He [Russert] understood as well as anyone, maybe better than almost anyone, that the reason political reporters are there is not to speak truth to power . . . but to make those who say we have the truth—politicians—explain it.”

More from Lewis H. Lapham:

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