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How Tim Russert Got His Start

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan had the touch of a poet. He was also a practical man. In 1982, after Tim Russert's political skills had assured Moynihan's reelection, the senator invited me to lunch in New York. "I need your advice," he said. "Let me clutch my wallet," I replied. "No, no. This is easy," he said, grandly announcing his mission: "We need to get Russert a real job."

Loyalty was deep in the DNA of both Moynihan and Russert. Their relationship helps explain Tim's state funeral and the length of this grand Irish wake, so astonishing for its lack of begrudgers. Historians would flunk a test if asked to define the difference between the statements of Ted Kennedy or Dick Cheney, John McCain or Barack Obama, moderates, liberals or conservatives, all united in mourning.

The grief is genuine because Tim was. His life and death proved that even in Washington, the personal outranks the political. Even that jaded town recognizes that talent, generosity and hard work trump the art of parroting partisan talking points.

At that 1982 lunch, I suggested to his boss that Tim's legal training was sufficient to command a good position. "At what kind of law?," Moynihan growled "Anti-trust? No, he should be in the media business. He has the skills, the knowledge and what I'd call pizzazz." Moynihan said that Mario Cuomo, newly elected New York governor, wanted Russert as counselor, "but Tim should only take that job for a couple of years."

We then talked about someone both Moynihan and I knew. David W. Burke, son of a firefighter, became a top aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. His next stop was Albany, where Burke advised Gov. Hugh L. Carey, whom Moynihan called "the best damn governor of New York since Al Smith." Burke then worked on Wall Street before becoming executive vice president of ABC News and later president of CBS News.

Dave Burke was the role model for Russert's path because the intersection of news and politics requires a traffic cop with the qualities Moynihan listed. (One might add the eye for detail that animates superior political staffers.) At ABC, Burke encouraged the expansion of ABC's half-hour "Issues and Answers" into the hourlong "This Week With David Brinkley." In 1984, Larry Grossman, president of NBC News, hired Russert as a news executive, but Tim hid his pizzazz under a bureaucratic bushel until a new NBC News honcho, Michael Gartner, coaxed him before the camera. The former editor of the Des Moines Register, Gartner knew about politics because his brother David was a close aide to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

The Russert era on Meet the Press began in 1991, continuing the tradition of MTP's longtime honcho, Lawrence E. Spivak, who announced each Sunday, "Remember, the questioners are not expressing their point of view. It's their way of getting a story for you." Russert also stood in the NBC tradition of Huntley, Brinkley, Chancellor and Brokaw, despite his short apprenticeship in news.

The shuttle between politics and press occasions much huffing and puffing in Area Code 202, but it's a tradition on MTP, where 13 people have appeared as both guest and questioner. In D.C, after candidates' wins and losses, speechwriters and aides morph into pundits and commentators, still bearing the imprint of former bosses. Ever since Woodrow Wilson begat Walter Lippmann, the punditocracy has been a cacophony of competing voices. In the 1960s, op ed pages featured Clayton Fritchey, sired by Adlai Stevenson; William S. White, an adviser to Lyndon Johnson; and Joseph Kraft, who worked for John Kennedy. Prominent alumni of the Nixon White House, William Safire and Patrick Buchanan, are joined by William Kristol, former chief of staff to Dan Quayle; Chris Matthews, who worked for Jimmy Carter; and George Stephanopoulos, former aide to Bill Clinton.

Cable channels haven't had much luck at television's haircut hiring hall and the newspaper industry is painfully contracting, so political experience is newly prominent in curricula vitae. Russert was unique, rapidly becoming the top analyst rather than an everyday pundit precisely because of his political experience. Moynihan's interests were broad and deep. His staffers needed to know less about polls and spin and more about housing, welfare, transportation, taxes and foreign policy. That knowledge provided fodder for MTP between elections.

Moynihan and Cuomo shared theatrical skills and pizzazz. Both entered politics in middle age and neither was poll-driven. It's no accident that Russert's successor as Moynihan's helmsman was Lawrence O' Donnell, who later helped write The West Wing as well as NBC's lamentably short-lived (nine episodes) "Mister Sterling" about a senator played by Josh Brolin.

For more than 30 years, my friendship with Tim was rooted in a shared Irish heritage and similar education. Nuns and Jesuits trained us both, with minimal emphasis on self-expression and more on what Tom Brokaw calls "accountability." Whatever that word means, it's probably the opposite of "snarkiness," a modern media hallmark.

At meals or at the ballgame, Tim constantly asked questions about journalism, still hesitant in 1990 about going on-air. You can't be accused of trading on your looks, I told him, and journalism is neither a science nor an occult priesthood. You don't have to re-live The Front Page. He learned quickly and well.

In the early 1980s, I felt as befuddled as a double-talking guest on MTP. The first was when he inquired about Maureen Orth, whose accomplishment matched her beauty. When she worked for Newsweek, sometimes in Washington, she visited the newsies' favorite bar, The Class Reunion, near the White House. She was a multi-talented "good scout," but Tim wanted to know more. This delicate question evoked an ancient Irish caution against even telling Samson about Delilah. But the truth here was easy, the clincher being that Maureen was not only what she seemed, but a Catholic as well.

The next Russert inquisition came when Luke was finishing high school. What about Boston College? Even though it was eons since I got my degree there magna cum difficultate, I assured him that young folk considered BC "a brand-name school."

Tim owed much to Luke and Maureen, to Big Russ and Buffalo. Working for Pat and Mario prepared him for the role that no one on today's sad horizon can fill. Moynihan was fun to work for and his enthusiasm was infectious. Enthusiasm, the opposite of affected cynicism, defined Tim Russert. Enthusiasm, as the Jesuits probably taught him, comes from the Greek word for divine inspiration.