I’ll miss watching Tim Russert. But perhaps his absence will be a reminder – and a motivator – that I could, and should, be in better shape. I’m thinking so.
I thought of this quite a bit during the days after it happened, but I was out of town and not plugged in and couldn’t write about it then. I had elected not to take my laptop for what was intended as a single night’s stay-over. I did write in my notebook, but anything I wrote in my notebook would have to be transcribed. And I couldn’t e-mail it anyway.
The single night stay-over became an impromptu four-day weekend. At first I regretted not having my laptop with me, but then not being able to do certain work became an agreeable consequence of my circumstance. I balanced the diluting battery power of my cell phone, with which I judiciously navigated through the pound or two of daily e-mail and sent occasional messages to the newsroom. I didn’t have my charger (the phone was well charged for a one-night stay with the fam), and I was a few miles from my car charger – from a contemporary communication point of view, I was out to lunch (a not unpleasant place to be).
I heard about Tim Russert’s passing as I was wrapping publication of the Weekend Old Colony Memorial, filling in for editor Tamson Burgess, who was actually taking a day off. The newsroom was mostly empty when reporter Casey Meserve poked her head into my office and asked, “Did you hear…?” I hadn’t. Like the rest of the world, I was stunned. But deadline loomed, and I had to focus. I’d think about it later.
When I got home that night I tuned into MSNBC to hear Russert friends and associates tell viewers about his passing, apparently from a heart attack, while working. One after another television journalist talked about his dedication to his craft, his propensity for preparation, his marvelous character, his affection for friends and family. I didn’t have to hear it to believe it. I’d listened to Russert for years, and he was simply believable – the phrase “what you see is what you get” applied to Russert. Not that I knew it to be true, but it was very easy to believe. Some people we just know are genuine.
That Sunday I watched Meet the Press, curious to see how Russert would be remembered on his show. Tom Brokaw hosted the program (he will moderate it through the election season), and he was joined by a cast of Russert regulars. They talked in loving and respectful terms about this bear of a journalist and teddy bear of a man. He was the sort of guy we’d all like to know – you just knew that.
I add my name to the long list of Russert admirers. Always well prepared, he queried his guests mightily, often as they grimaced, groaned and groped for a way out of the corner he often pinned them in. From the years I watched him I believed he was an equal opportunity interviewer – he didn’t care what political party his guest was from; he’d nail anybody. And do so politely. One of his classic moves was to pierce his guest with such penetrating questions – which the guest simply could not answer publicly – as to put the person clearly on the spot with no way out, and then Russert would let him off the proverbial hook. You could practically hear the guest beg, “No mas…”
Russert tutored politically under the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan before going into journalism. On his interview program, which I recall watching several years ago, while, I believe, Moynihan was still a senator (he left the Senate in 2001), Russert asked him a leading question, and Moynihan responded after a pause with a reworking of a quote he offered after John Kennedy was killed. I believe these quotes to be accurate, but if they are not precisely so, they are close.Russert asked: “What does being Irish mean today?”
Moynihan replied: “Being Irish today means knowing the world will break your heart someday.”
It was as if Moynihan was asserting (reasserting?) the blue-collar, somewhat victimized base of our Irish brethren, the foundation from which his people would continue to rise. Russert, of proud Irish decent (and, of course, highly accomplished and successful), appeared to feel the words in his heart. It lends deeper understanding of his endearment to his Buffalo, N.Y., background and the support of his blue-collar Buffalo sports teams, who didn’t always win, but who were always in the game.
I realized after watching the conversations about Russert on TV that he and I had three things in common. We were both born in May of 1950 (he was a couple of weeks older than I), we both had careers in journalism, and we both gained weight on the job (I haven’t been to the gym in a couple of years, and it shows). The similarities stop there, but the message doesn’t. His colleagues suggested that Russert put off attention to his health because of his work. I wonder if perhaps I do, too. I don’t get proper exercise, I could certainly eat better, and I sleep little. Except for pushing the waistline, I feel OK. But, I’m guessing, so did Russert before he toppled.
I’ll miss watching Tim Russert as part of my Sunday morning routine – coffee, chores and Meet the Press. But perhaps his absence will be a reminder – and a motivator – that I could, and should, be in better shape. I’m thinking so. It takes a lot more than just thinking about it. But it begins there.
Scott C. Smith is a senior managing editor with GateHouse Media New England, based in Plymouth. Anyone else tired of the weight-challenged club? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.