Tim Russert is dead. Long live Tim Russert!
It should come as little surprise that, precisely at a time when the sanctimony of the Old Media stands threatened by blasphemes, bloggers and an increasingly agnostic public, the choirboys, priests and cardinals of the Media Church should treat the passing of a figure like Tim Russert as if it were the demise of the Pope.
As someone who himself has paid a couple of unscheduled visits to the CCU in the past couple of years, I intend no personal disrespect toward Russert or his family with whom we must all share our grief. But the flagrant disrespect shown us by the stage-managed, manufactured and excruciatingly prolonged televised requiem for Russert is rather breathtaking.
Russert collapsed on Friday just as I was beginning a 5 hour road trip through the Mojave desert allowing me, via XM Radio, to soak in the endless dirge begun by CNN and presided over, quite appropriately, by Bishop Wolf Blitzer. The Bishop -- and his long list of public mourners -- from John McCain to Jim Carville to the Clintons to Paul Begala to Colin Powell and countless others -- all seemed shocked, not only by the purported infallibility of Russert, but also by what they had apparently supposed was his immortality.
Over and over and over again, Bishop Blitzer loudly mused how was it possible that a 58-year-old man, seemingly in good health, could be stricken by a flagging heart? My own doctors had answered that same query from me a year ago by simply reminding me that I was a human -- much clearer information than the confused and inaccurate mumbo-jumbo about cardiac arrest doled out repeatedly by CNN's medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen.
In between her dollops of misinformation, as I barreled up I-15, I did learn the following: that Tim Russert was not only a fabulous, relentless journalist, he was also a model father, a model son, a devout Catholic, a man who never ever forgot his humble roots as the son of a garbage man and a man so in touch with blue-collar America that -- if only he had survived -- perhaps Barack Obama could have named him Veep to win over all those beer drinkers in Buffalo.
I had met Russert a couple of times -- twice out in Iowa during this or that year's presidential caucus. And he seemed nice enough of a fellow. In fact, after reading his memoir, I had acquired a certain amount of personal sympathy for him. Though he deftly cashed in on his taciturn dad, Big Russ, and celebrated him as a man who placed the values of "responsibility and accountability" over those of affection and nurturing, I began to see Russert as the victim of a childhood shadowed by an emotionally stunted father. What, in the end, is there to celebrate about a father who can't bring himself to say "I Love You" to his boy until that son is 54-year-old man? Brrrr.
But with all due respect for the dead, I would rate Russert as a journalist perhaps just above the median average. He certainly mounted his weekly pulpit of Meet The Press well-prepared by a hard-working research staff. He'd have his quotes and video clips lined up meticulously to at least, briefly, put his subject on the spot.
But what was baffling, if not downright maddening, about Russert's style, was that he would inevitably pull that knock-out punch and end the encounter with an embrace rather than a roundhouse right. Just when he'd get his guest to start backtracking, dissembling and stumbling, he'd gently let him -- or her--go.
Strangely enough, during his prolonged liturgy for Russert Friday afternoon, Bishop Blitzer -- chummily reminiscing with former General Powell -- noted the same tendency by Russert. But Blitzer found it praiseworthy. He always asked "the tough questions," said the Bishop of Russert. And then he added, admiringly: "But there was always the soft landing." Ah yes, "the soft landing," Colin Powell concurred.
Indeed, without unfailingly pulling that last punch Russert knew very well he would risk excommunication from the Inner Sanctum of the Beltway. A harder landing for his guests could dry up that most cherished of press commodities -- access and kinship with the powerful.
But back to CNN. After three straight hours of listening to Blitzer's prayer for the dead, I could stand no more. The desert I heard on the air seemed infinitely more vapid than the Mojave I was driving through. You also had to wonder what was in those cynical little heads of the CNN execs. Did they really believe that all those average beer-swilling Americans whom Russert presumably loved really wanted to stay glued for hour upon hour to hear the same regurgitations over the death of an elite, remote, talking head?
Probably not. The inexplicable amount of air time devoted to Russert's death surely was laced with some potent self-pity by the networks themselves. In the sudden death of Tim Russert they no doubt caught a passing glimpse and reflection of a fate they fear for themselves.
Looks like Andy Warhol -- who will leave a much longer lasting mark on the world than Russert -- was dead wrong when he mumbled that line about 15 minutes of fame. Warhol departed the earth in 1987 just when cable TV news was maturing. He could have no idea that two decades later, in the bottomless hole created by the continuous news cycle, 15 minutes wasn't anything at all. We could now go for hours and hours and hours over so very little.