Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Truth Seeker (Inspiration series, week 24)

Tim Russert wasn’t there to make friends – He was there to get to the bottom of the issues.

History demands truth tellers. For as much as we humans may aspire to be and do good, there is a millenium’s worth of examples of our never-ending capacity to do quite the opposite. And so, throughout time, we have relied on a relatively few souls to dig beyond what is being said to what is actual and true. In a world where communicating information can be done by anyone, our trust is tested on a daily basis.

And so, to honor my chosen profession (despite not being an active practitioner myself), I selected for this week a man who made his name not just for great reporting an punditry, but for his commitment to the truth. 

I’ve heard more than one person on TV lament the loss of Tim Russert. As voices clamor for bigger audiences and layers upon layers of information cloud the facts, it is difficult not to wonder who he would be talking to and what he might be able to unravel. 

Born in 1950 in Buffalo, NY, Russert brought a clear-eyed, practical approach to news and politics, perhaps a natural response to a sturdy, blue-collar upbringing. After graduating from law school he worked as chief of staff to Senator Daniel Moynihan and chief counsel to Governor Mario Cuomo. In 1983 he made the switch to broadcasting – by 1989 he was NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and two years later, talked to host Meet the Press. 

It was there that Russert truly made his mark,  as he took the show from a half-hour to an hour. He also injected greater depth, as seen though longer and well-researched interviews with high-profile political players. There were no easy questions when one faced Tim Russert. Just clear ones, with the expectation that the answer would be as clear. If not it was sure to be challenged.

In 2000, he confronted Senate candidate Hillary Clinton on her 1998 responses to questions about her husband’s behavior in the White House, calling them out as “misleading.” (Clinton said she didn’t know they were true when she said it). 

Four years later he challenged George W. Bush for saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and they were the reason for invading that country. And in 2008 it was Russert’s questioning that led to Barack Obama’s rejection of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in 2008.

There were plenty of “gotcha” moments on his Meet the Press. But that was the thing. They really weren’t, not in the sense that they were unfair or in any way inaccurate. They were simply a clear sign of a journalist who’d done his homework and would not be daunted by the title, history, or reputation of any guest. And he wasn’t shy about his intentions to cut through the talking points – no one could say they didn’t know what to expect. 

When he died suddenly in June of 2008, it was as though an actual light had been turned out. This voice, this mind, who had gone after the truth for 16 years on Sunday mornings, would no longer be there to get the answers the public sought. The outpouring, from colleagues and subjects (even the adversarial ones) told the story:

CBS News “Early Show” Co-Anchor Harry Smith: ” Man,  did Tim Russert love politics. He ate it, lived it and breathed it. His knowledge of it was organic, internal and genetic. It showed in his every broadcast, in his every debate appearance. He was not afraid, nor was he intimidated. And because he was so good at what he did, we were the beneficiaries. He was in that chair for us, and we were damned lucky he was.”

House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: “He was one of the smartest, toughest television news journalists of all time. And he was an astute student of American politics. I can say from experience that joining Tim on Meet the Press was one of the greatest tests any public official could face. Regardless of party affiliation, he demanded that you be straight with him – and with the American people who were watching.”

Nine years later, in a world where truth feels malleable and integrity can seem rare, Russert’s presence is more missed than ever. Listening to the chatter — and the obfuscation — it is hard not to imagine people sitting opposite Tim on set and trying to get past him with spin. Would he yell, I wonder? Or laugh at the absurdity? How would he get to the truth?

Part of my decision to steer away from hard journalism. I think, was knowing that professionals like Russert had it covered. They set a high, high standard for the rest of us. Whether interviewing the President of United States or a local official, those at the top of the field are both experts and students, constantly learning so that no subject could get past them with a sly response or non-answer.

Though he was not here nearly long enough, Russert’s left a legacy that we can still look to – we can demand more of our leaders, and of our journalists. They are often the public’s most visible ally in the quest for facts. 

As citizens, it is all too easy to leave governance to those who choose it as a career; questioning takes time and requires us to be engaged even when it’s not convenient or comfortable. But if we are to preserve our democracy, and this republic that has been handed down over 240 years, we must be willing to stand up and demand more. To ask the hard questions, fact-check the answers, insist on integrity both in action and word from those elected to lead us. 

It’s true we don’t always have direct access to them ourselves, and so we will always need to rely on people we trust to help us keep our representatives accountable. And so today, in addition to remembering Tim Russert, I thank all the journalists who forego the niceties to hold the feet of politicians to the fire when it matters most. They are invaluable and the best are irreplaceable. 


My Dad, the Artist (Inspiration series, Week 23)

Dad on his wedding day, June, 1962

My father never really fit the traditional American father mold – probably because he wasn’t American by birth at all. He was Swiss, and retained a certain European-ness, in his tastes, his speech, his clothes – he loved football but would never have been seen in a jersey (I don’t recall him ever wearing a t-shirt).  He was even cool when smoking – he preferred Benson & Hedges, the brand from London. He had monogrammed shirts and loved James Bond. To be fair, he did also have a fondness for Jack Nicklaus and John Wayne.

What set Dad apart, other than his clothes and his accent, was his creativity. Though he earned his salary in marine insurance, he had an artist living inside him, one who came out often, around the holidays, on birthdays, and even on vacation.

He was famous for his Christmas cards, which were made by hand each year. From a pen and ink rendering of our Teaneck home to linoleum block prints featuring Christmas trees and wreaths, a Roland Rueger original was something to treasure. Many people kept them all and continued to display them year after year.

His handwriting added to the beauty of the things he made. One year, when a dollhouse from Santa to my sister and me would be late, Dad penned a letter from him to let us know. It was impeccable and left no doubt in my mind that it was, indeed from the North Pole.

When a good friend and neighbor turned 40 in 1976, Dad wrote a poem for him that was silly and slightly bawdy. The family has it to this day.

Knowing his love of jigsaw puzzles, that same family presented him with an all red one as a joke. I’m not sure how long it took him, but he finished it – then promptly turned it into art, scrawling graffiti and having it framed, then returning it to the gifters.

Dad’s art came out on my birthday, too. He would take fingerprints of each partygoer and under his pen they became animals – fluffy rabbits, a duck – that he would carefully place in a little wooden circle frame. I still have one of mine.

There was perhaps no better outlet for his talent than the beach, where we’d spend two weeks every summer. Dad could only get time off for one, and by the second morning was usually on the sand before most of us were up.

He made us race cars, big enough to sit in and good for hours of fun, especially when the waves were too big or I just didn’t want to get wet. The details, from the wheels to the lights and dashboard, were stunning.

The highlight of vacation, though, was the sandcastle. Dad would haul out his equipment – buckets, shovels, and all of the little carving and shaping tools – and get to work. He was at once serious and light, totally focused and yet peaceful, in a state of calm. Back and forth he’d go to the ocean to fill a pail with water, stopping only for lunch and perhaps a quick swim.

Crowds would gather as they realized this was to be no ordinary structure. Kids would get too close and I’d want to warn them off. The pride was overwhelming. This was my dad building, doing something that was so obviously better than anything around.

The castles came complete with moats, bridges, windows, and towers. They were huge, at least in my memory – big enough to imagine myself in as the princess. I don’t have tons of memories from childhood, but I can picture Dad walking around his creation, sculpting staircases and trees with the wet sand he’d let drip though his hands. It was magical.

Watching him draw was too. He’d sit at the dining room table, instruments in hand, and it was like another person emerged. One day when I was about 12, I found a big red book of Dad’s – the “Famous Artist’s Course,” a correspondence class that taught the basics and then some. It was a sign to me that though art may have been a hobby for Dad, it was also very real and deserved a commitment. Over the years I’ve worked through bits of it. Perhaps that will be my next project.

The circumstances of life meant that time with my father- especially as an adult – was limited, and there are days when the unsaid words and experiences hang heavy in the air. If I could do it again I would open up more, share more, and for sure, get him to talk more about the art he made and what it meant to him. Though I can’t do that, I can remember the very real artistry that ran through his veins and thus, through mine. I can work to fulfill my own creative dreams, in honor of the man never let go of his.

I believe that art – whether done as a painter, a singer, an architect, or a landscaper – runs deep in the genetics of humans. The desire to express ourselves is always present, and we each seek our best and most natural path to do just that. It is one of the most indelible marks of a life well lived. I am forever grateful for a role model whose artistry left a huge impression on me and spurs me to nurture my own.

I miss you, Dad, today and always.

The Unexpected Hero (Inspiration series, Week 22)

Just two weeks after a terrorist attack killed 22 of her fans, Ariana Grande took the stage for all of them.

If someone had told me that I’d be celebrating a 24-year old pop star for this series, I’d have laughed. I knew who she was, having watched her in Victorius and then Sam & Cat with my niece. Cat was goofy, often daft, but always sweet. But I wasn’t going to start listening to her music. 

I went on with my suburban life while Ariana went on tour, building a legion of young fans. And then, after what I’m  sure was like any other wildly successful concert, a terrorist blew himself up outside the arena, taking 22 lives and injuring more than a hundred. Fans – many 16 and under – scrambled and shrieked as they (mostly) escaped. Not old enough to drive, they were made the target of madmen seeking to wreak havoc and destroy whatever they could. Victims included young women and men, parents, and a police officer.

One can never truly know how they’d respond. But I can see myself taking a month – or 3 – to recover from a trauma like that, if for nothing else than fear that someone would try again. Ariana chose a different path. She visited with victims, expressed her horror, and then, two weeks later, despite yet another attack in London, took to the stage once more, this time with an even bigger purpose.

The concert she organized had a name – “One Love Manchester” – and it resonated throughout the show. More than once she looked like she might not make it through, but she held her head high and sang with the kind of emotion that reached far beyond her target demo.  She brought in a high-energy team of pop stars, from Pharrell and Katy Perry to Niall Horan and The Black-eyed Peas. Oh, and Justin Bieber, who I’d previously thought of mostly as an example of not handling fame very well.

He made me cry. 

Ariana was more than the concert organizer. She was the lynchpin of the event, joining friends on stage, talking about the need for peace, and serving as a beautiful example of what humans can be – a poignant counterpoint to the disregard for life that had brought her there. Standing with her arm around the young and tearful lead singer from Manchester’s Paris Wood High School choir, she took on the role, as comforter, that she surely hadn’t expected. 

I remember another concert, decades ago, that brought together the biggest stars alive to raise awareness and money for AIDS. I watched hours of coverage and marveled at the effort. The passion left a similar impression. To me, the timeframe, her age, and the personal trauma make Ariana Grande’s amazing act of kindness perhaps even more remarkable. 

By the time the first few bars of her last song played, I was in tears. Few songs are as wistful, hopeful, and sorrowful all at once as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She performed it as though directly to those who had lost their lives, and as a message of healing to those they left behind. 

In a time of uncertainty, when radicalism and hate can reach across the world, powerlessness can seem like the prevailing (and permanent) state of being. But as long as we have artists who will stand up and declare our resistance to the messages of hate, we retain our humanity. As Grande told the crowd:

“I think the kind of love and unity you are displaying is the medicine the world needs right now. So thank you for being just that.”

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