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.