Laughter, Tears and A little Truth
If only Tim Russert had been there. He could have booked Meet the Press through, well, eternity.
"There" was the Kennedy Center Concert Hall overlooking the Potomac River, where a crowd of movers and shakers I would estimate at well over a thousand gathered to salute Russert, NBC’s Washington Bureau chief and longest-serving host of Meet the Press who died suddenly last week.
The thread that ran through the comments from the stage Wednesday was the size of Russert’s heart, which at first seemed a little jarring given that he died of a heart attack and had an enlarged heart. But it worked as a metaphor for his outsized enthusiasm for everyting he did, including mastering politics, journalism and fatherhood.
Earlier in the day, Russert’s funeral had been held at Holy Trinity Catholic church in Washington, where, according to attendees, Barack Obama and John McCain sat side by side. "The calm before the war," said one. "Only Tim could have brought them together, and he would have loved it," said another.
And Russert wasn’t done bringing folks together. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sat side-by-side in theConcert Hall while a few rows away, Jeff Zucker hugged Katie Couric and Bill Clinton talked with (It think itwas) Condoleeza Rice. Hillary Clinton was there as well. The Woodward and Bernstein teaming was appropriate since the Kennedy Center is only steps away from the Watergate hotel. Ben Bradlee was also in attendance.
The event was billed by host Tom Brokaw as a wake–"some tears, some laughs, and the occasional truth"–and following in that tradition there were stories told on Russert as well as about him. He may have fancied himself a fisherman, said friend Mike Barnicle, but "he would need a grenade to get fish out of the ocean."
Former Governor Mario Cuomo told the story of a parade in Buffalo that his then aide Russert set up after Cuomo had pushed through the first seatbelt law in the U.S. But Cuomo said he had failed to tighten his seatbelt and, sitting in the front seat, had hit the dashboard when the car hit the one in front of it and was rear-ended at the same time. The press appeared immediately and asked how the governor was. "Thank God for the seatbelt," said Russert without missing a beat.
Cuomo’s story reminded me about one my father used to tell about covering the arrival of a circus train for the company magazine–the company being the railroad that owned the train. The train derailed, but my father managed to write the story in such a way as to skip over that little detail while remaining entirely accurate in what he did report. My father is germane because at the end of my interview with Russert, we swapped stories about our fathers, their service in World War II, and their impact on our lives. In fact, among the pictures of Russert that dotted the Concert Hall stage was one with the Pope and one with his father, "Big Russ." By all accounts, it would probably be difficult to say which he admired more.
MSNBC covered the tributes, and sent out reams of transcripts which are certainly more accurate than my notes. But there were stories from the audience as well. When the color guard entered and exited, it may have been the quietest a room has ever been that boasted Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews, James Carville, and John McLaughlin under one roof. Not to mention Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Joe Lieberman, David Gregory, Madeleine Albright, Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Rose, Dick Ebersol and more news and political stars than there are in the heavens.
Russert clearly loved his country and the opportunities it afforded him, and that reverence seemed to transfer to the crowd. Washington crowds are notorious for talking through anything, so the incredible hush that fell over it as the flag moved past was notable for the absence of that familiar murmer.
As that crowd waited for the wake to begin, the music which bracketed the service began, with selections from Russert’s iPod, including James Taylor (Fire and Rain, You’ve Got a Friend), Van Morrison (Tupelo Honey), PaulSimon (You Can Call Me Al), Joe Cocker (A Little Help From My Friends) and Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run). Springsteen closed the proceedings from Europe with a version of Thunder Road dedicated to Russert.
The picture of Russert painted for the audience by a group of friends and colleages including Brokaw, Maria Shriver, his elementary school teacher, former Governor Mario Cuomo, son Luke, and others, was of a man of deep faith, a faithful friend, a tireless journalist, and celebrant of life. He came across as a man who loved to be at the center of news, politics and his family, often with a Rolling Rock beer in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
I could have added my own brushstroke. I interviewed Russert once for our Hall of Fame, a dauting task even though I was out to praise, not bury, him. When I asked him about his interview style, he said that what he really disliked was people who simply read their questions one after the other and don’t follow up on answers that need follow-up. Rest assured I made sure not to read my questions or fail to follow up. I like to think he was giving me a heads-up so as not to fall short of a standard he kept and held others to.
The praise for Russert the man, the father, the politician and the journalist, was effusive. But it also felt genuine, perhaps an explanation for what some have labeled "overcoverage" of Russert’s death by a media establishment that clearly liked, make that loved, and admired him. Frankly, I am all for saluting an honest, enthusiastic, hardworking, journalist, even if it means taking a break from the latest tablolid scandal to do so. From all appearances, his was a life worth celebrating. He certainly did.
After the wake, guests made their way slowly to the rooftop terrace for a reception and mingling. As if on cue, a storm squall swept through the city, followed by clearing skies and a double rainbow that filled the East Window of the reception room.
"That’s a sign," someone said excitedly to Luke Russert, who enthusiastically agreed. "That’s Tim," said a man who identified himself as an old friend from Buffalo. "He said once that he would send one down."