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Linda Keenan Headshot

My Big Russ

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There are three people who gave me a passionate love of news and the only one is left, John McLaughlin. The other two were my mother, who died a decade ago, and Tim Russert, who died today. This is one of the rare moments I'm happy Mommy isn't around to switch on the news, because this would have crushed her.

Tim Russert is already being lionized for the Washington powerhouse that he was, but I wanted to express what he meant to a little-girl news junkie growing up far from the action of national politics, sitting around wonkishly watching the news with her Mommy. For me, he was the superstar who made it out, but still wasn't ashamed of where he came from.

My parents were Reagan Republicans, and I came of age in Albany New York in the 1980s. My home was fervently Irish-Catholic, obsessed with Holy Cross and Boston College, and filled with laminated, well-worn novenas. It didn't matter that Tim Russert had worked for Mario Cuomo (disliked by my parents) or Pat Moynihan (respected by my parents, not for his politics, but for his intellect and, let's face it, his ethnicity). Tim Russert was our guy, and Mommy was intensely protective of the young journalist phenom she called her "big teddy bear".

He was Irish-Catholic, of course, Jesuit-trained, from Buffalo, and came to work in our midst in Smalbany, as some of us self-hating Albanians call it, before beginning his stratospheric rise into broadcast television and political history.

I remember vividly when he arranged for the first American interview with Pope John Paul II. I had recently been booted out of Catholic confirmation (for being too cynical, my parents were told), and I wasn't much interested in the Pope. But for my mother, it was as if Tim Russert had parted the seas himself. "That's our Tim. It's all because of Tim." When he would talk about Buffalo, my mother would always marvel at his connection to his roots and his beaming pride, and say something to the effect of, "thank goodness someone loves Buffalo."

I was finishing college when he started hosting Meet the Press, and I knew better than to call Mommy at the Russert hour on Sunday morning. "My guy is on," she would say, "are you watching?" which was more commandment than question. I was watching at a frequency that was probably a little weird for a young grad. For me, he was the first person who displayed a visceral love for the game, the players, the process of politics. Some might critique this as one of the antecedents of politics-as-sport, but coming from Albany, I was bred for a love of political theater (that's one thing, of course, Albany has in spades). I was also thoroughly engrossed with his command of the material, his methodical attack plan, the twinkle at every turn, and the barely-suppressed outrage he would have at something he thought was unjust or dishonorable.

In about an hour, The McLaughlin Group will be on (someone my 4-year son knows by name), another Jesuit master of the political game, and I have to say I've been worried about losing McLaughlin, another of Mommy's favorites, but not the big Teddy bear. If Mommy was still here, she would be saying novenas for Tim Russert's family. For my part, I'll be watching McLaughlin as always, but thinking of them.