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Two Cheers for Tim Russert

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The only time I ever shook hands with Tim Russert was, back in 1984, Larry Grossman, then president of NBC News, a former PR man himself, introduced me to Tim as a new NBC hire. I was honestly shocked. In those days, network news departments did not hire political operatives. Russert's whole career had been spent advising and spinning for politicians -- remarkably good politicians in my mind -- Daniel Patrick Moyinhan and Mario Cuomo, but still spinning, bobbing and weaving for his masters -- not the best credentials for a journalist.

Russert did much to dispel my doubts. From the first there seemed to be nothing mean spirited or even partisan about his reporting or opinionating. On Meet the Press he was for the most part gracious, knowledgeable and perhaps best of all for TV, enjoyable. As the product of a previous generation I don't think the show was quite as courteous, informed or informative as it had been when Lawrence Spivak and Bill Monroe sat in the Russert chair. But I'll give Russert one cheer for what he did with the show.

He earns a second cheer for being such a good guy. When I was running the Food Network he participated in "Let's Make Sure Everybody Eats", our national telethon to raise money for the hungry. (As an aside, that's something the Food Network should think of reviving, given the current price of food.) From everything I heard from my friends at NBC Washington, from his appearances on television and from the encomium heaped upon him for three days by the 24 hour cable networks, he seems to have been one of God's great gentlemen. So, two cheers for him.

But, and with me there is always a but, it was Tim Russert who paved the path that has led us down to the sort of political coverage that we have had for a year and a half over this primary season. Coverage featuring Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Joe Scarborough, and the rest of the former political operatives who spend their time playing "inside politics" -- men with more interest in how the game is played than who deserves to win or lose; men who seek out trivial quotes so they may glory in "gotcha", who take every opportunity to vent their spite and spleen on hapless candidates. Russert was the least of the offenders, perhaps not even an offender himself, but he paved the way for other lesser political operatives to turn this year's primaries into a gauntlet from which no candidate could escape unscathed.

So two cheers for Tim, and deep regrets for the programs that have followed in his wake.