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.”

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.”

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.”

Speaking truth to power doesn’t make successful Sunday-morning television, leads to “jealousy, upsets, persecution,” doesn’t draw a salary of $5 million a year. The notion that journalists were once in the habit of doing so we borrow from the medium of print, from writers in the tradition of Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, 

H. L. Mencken, I. F. Stone, Hunter Thompson, and Walter Karp, who assumed that what was once known as “the press” received its accreditation as a fourth estate on the theory that it represented the interests of the citizenry as opposed to those of the government. Long ago in the days before journalists became celebrities, their enterprise was reviled and poorly paid, and it was understood by working newspapermen that the presence of more than two people at their funeral could be taken as a sign that they had disgraced the profession.

On television the voices of dissent can’t be counted upon to match the studio drapes or serve as tasteful lead-ins to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V and the U.S. Marine Corps. What we now know as the “news media” serve at the pleasure of the corporate sponsor, their purpose not to tell truth to the powerful but to transmit lies to the powerless. Like Russert, who served his apprenticeship as an aide-de-camp to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, most of the prominent figures in the Washington press corps (among them George Stephanopoulos, Bob Woodward, and Karl Rove) began their careers as bagmen in the employ of a dissembling politician or a corrupt legislature. Regarding themselves as de facto members of government, enabling and codependent, their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their practice equivalent to what is known among Wall Street stock-market touts as “securitizing the junk.” When requesting explanations from secretaries of defense or congressional committee chairmen, they do so with the understanding that any explanation will do. Explain to us, my captain, why the United States must go to war in Iraq, and we will relay the message to the American people in words of one or two syllables. Instruct us, Mr. Chairman, in the reasons why K-Street lobbyists produce the paper that Congress passes into law, and we will show that the reasons are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be suspicious or scornful. Together with the television camera that sees but doesn’t think, we’re here to watch, to fall in with your whims and approve your injustices. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your vices in the rosebushes of salacious gossip and clothe your crimes in the aura of inspirational anecdote.

I don’t doubt that Russert was as good at the game as anybody in Washington, but why the five-star goodbye? Why the scattering of incense for a journalist who so prided himself on being in the loop that off-camera he assured his informed sources that nothing they said was on the record? For a second-tier talk-show host, his audience a fraction of the size of Rush Limbaugh’s or Howard Stern’s, whose stock in trade was the deftly pulled punch? Why a requiem mass for a pet canary?

The production values were so far out of line with the object of their affections that the memorial services collapsed into absurdity. Unless, of course, the mistake was to think of the proceedings as somehow Christian in character and intent, a variation on the singing of a Te Deum in the National Cathedral instead of as something more along the lines of Homer’s Greek heroes sacrificing a milk-white bull to Apollo. Seen as pagan ritual, even the highlight reels made sense. The Washington news media worship at the altars of divine celebrity, and maybe they begin to suspect that despite the promise of their ceaseless self-promotions they are not immortal, their market share hitting new lows, their audiences drifting away to Comedy Central and the blogs. How then to regain the favor of the god in whose image they believe themselves created? With the offering of a precious gift, and what could be more precious than “the ideal American journalist,” a “basic old American patriot,” and the “friend to millions of people”? Before leading the animal to slaughter, the old Greeks dusted its horns with gold.

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