Saturday, June 14, 2008


On the same weekend in March 1999, Stanley Kubrick and Joe DiMaggio died. I remember feeling saddened about the departure of the Yankee Clipper, but devastated by the loss of my favorite filmmaker. Yes, I was a big baseball fan, with two Harmon Killebrew-autographed baseballs and a dog named Kirby Puckett Spiro. But as you should be able to tell from my last sentence, I wasn’t a Yankee fan. And I knew that however hurt I was by the death of a Bronx Bomber, there would be millions of others – older fans, more rabid fans, and yes, Yankee fans – who would feel the loss of Joe D much more acutely than I would. Somehow, though, that didn’t seem to be the case with Kubrick. I had watched some of his movies countless times. I had playfully declared his twisted comedy/horror/social commentary, A Clockwork Orange, to be my favorite movie of all time. I had practically begged people to give 2001: A Space Oddysey a second chance … or a third, recognizing that most people are probably incapable of ever appreciating a film that moves so slowly and has so little dialogue. And I had been pining for the release of Eyes Wide Shut, which I would go on to watch on several occasions, even though many critics and fans thought it was crap.

Yes, there are some celebrities that each of us viscerally appreciate more than others. And yet there are other celebrities who are extremely popular, but we don’t see why. (In my case, Princess Di and JKJ Jr. come immediately to mind.)

Prior to yesterday, if you had mentioned the name Tim Russert, I would have thought that I was among a relatively small group who considered themselves big fans. I figured that, to most people, he was but one of a legion of TV newsmen who were much less compelling than the celebrities they covered. And if someone were to tell me that he would suddenly pass away, I would have assumed that his passing would garner no more notoriety than the untimely death of a relatively well known actor or athlete.

Apparently … and, may I say, thankfully … I would have been wrong.

The universal reaction to Tim Russert’s death has been nearly as moving to me as the tragic news itself. Quietly, unobtrusively, this overweight every-man from Buffalo had for years been warming his way into our hearts and minds. You really didn’t have to be addicted to politics to find him on the dial. He was a fixture on Sunday mornings, to be sure, but he was also ubiquitous on election night coverage and a frequent guest on such cable news shows as Morning Joe. So yes, the politics addicts could watch him almost daily, but everyone else could watch him too – including on some of the most important nights of our nation’s recent history. (“Florida, Florida, Florida.”)

It hardly seems necessary now to verbalize why so many of us are mourning today. But since Russert was a verbal guy, I’ll do him the honor of spelling it out.

To begin, Russert was a celebrity of uncommon intellect and drive, and yet equally uncommon humility. No matter what walk of life you’re talking about, that’s not a bad little foundation to create.

Secondly, Russert was that rare newsman who came across as being agenda-less but not robotic. Rarely did you see him as a “liberal” or a “conservative.” And yet he never seemed content merely to “objectively report” the news. You could detect in Russert an almost childlike enthusiasm in being a witness to one fascinating news story after another. In that sense, his emotion was much more authentic and powerful than the talking heads who bloviate nightly from “the left” or “the right.” Russert’s passion was wholesome; their’s is simply obnoxious.

Thirdly, at a time in history when “image is everything,” Russert was all about substance over style. His preparation for interviews was impeccable. He not only asked brilliant questions, but brilliant follow-ups. Equally impressive, though, was the fact that he could grill his prey without treating them with disrespect. He never, in other words, turned the knife, the way a Chris Matthews likes to do when he is obviously “winning” a debate. Russert, you see, unlike so many public figures, didn’t have the ego of a child. He wasn’t about “defeating” the politicians he interviewed. He was simply enchanted by the process of allowing events and ideas come into our collective consciousness. He was like the guy in the ballpark who turns on the lights during a twi-night doubleheader. Only in his case, he didn’t work in a ballpark. His playing field was the marketplace of public ideas. That’s what he enlightened on a regular basis.

Fourthly, Russert was the rare bird who celebrated the “everyman” without condescending toward the “elites.’ Quite clearly, this was a man who enjoyed hob-nobbing with the barons of Washington and who respected them way too much to suggest that they were somehow less than other Americans. And yet Russert was not of official Washington – he never saw the reason to leave Buffalo in spirit. No matter who you were, you couldn’t help but relate to Russert. Indeed, you could probably relate to him in multiple ways. I could relate to the man, in part, because I went to Harvard Law School and have met a number of the kind of high-powered professionals whom Russert dealt with on a daily basis. But I can also relate to him because I am a Minnesota Vikings fanatic who knows what it feels like to love a team that has been to the Super Bowl four times and never once won. Russert had the same experience as a diehard fan of the Buffalo Bills, the only other 0-4 team in Super Bowl history (there had been a third, but that was before John Elway won his two rings in Denver). I didn’t have to read his post-mortems to know that Russert loved his Bills. Or his Boston College Eagles. Or his Washington Nationals. The guy obviously worked a zillion hours a week, and yet he always seemed to have time to watch sports. That’s my kind of guy.

Finally, Russert was a man who practiced religious and family values to such an extent that he didn’t have to preach them directly. I’ve already mentioned his humility, his unwillingness to embarrass others, and his preference for hard work over flash. These are at the hub of what it means to be religious. In light of the above, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to read this weekend about how devout he was as a Catholic or how devoted he was to his wife, son, and father. (They never talk about Russert’s mother; maybe we’ll hear more about her in upcoming days.)

The Yiddish word for people like Russert is “mensch.” He honors his parents, his church, his country, and yes … all people … by practicing traditional ethics so thoroughly and profoundly.

So, you might be wondering, is this guy really as perfect as I’m making him out to be? Quite obviously, he is not. As I have learned in the last 24 hours, Russert’s death was not as shocking to those who’ve seen him in person as it was to me. To quote one of my co-workers who recently saw him on a plane, “Russert was a whole lot bigger in real life than he looked on television. He was nearly obese.” If you’re 58, you’re seriously overweight, you work like a dog, and you always feel the need to be on top of your game (whether that game involves your vocation, your avocations, or your family life) … you’re a heart attack waiting to happen.

When you think about it, though, Russert was such a teacher that even his death was instructive. It will serve as a warning to all of us to take care of our health, and not just our happiness. Russert, for all his workaholism, was clearly as happy as a clam. Work truly set him free. And yes, that was an inspiring vision for all of us who have enjoyed watching him over the years. But if we want to be around to worship God as devoutly as did, spend more than “quality” time with our families, or live to see the Minnesota Vikings or Buffalo Bills win a friggen Super Bowl … it’s time to take things a little slower, a little easier.

This morning, just like the morning after I learned of Kubrick’s death, I feel cheated. I wanted Kubrick around to make some more movies. And I wanted Russert around for a few more election cycles. I wanted that presence who seemed both more passionate and more objective than the other commentators. And perhaps if he had taken a few more vacations and put aside some “real food for real men,” we might still have that presence.

Well, it’s gone. But that doesn’t mean his memories are gone. And with those memories come the opportunity to learn and to hope. Here’s an example. My hope is that as many of these big mouthed idiots as possible on TV start to ask themselves what it was about Tim Russert that made him so universally beloved. And once they come up with the answers, I hope they can begin the process of trying to emulate him. They can pick and choose from any number of the characteristics that I mentioned before – his humility, his sincere religiosity, his every-man quality, his respectfulness, his diligence, his integrity, his authenticity … I’m being redundant, because in truly great people, character traits all seem to run together as part of a beautiful, unified fabric.

I’d even be willing if the talking heads emulated Russert’s workaholism and eating habits, if that’s what it takes for them to mind-meld with the guy. Yes, 58 years is too short a time to spend on this planet, but those 58 years have done more for this democracy than other newsmen and women have given us in 68 or 78. So whatever it takes to clone this man’s good qualities, I’m in favor it. And no time too soon.

That’s my hope for the journalists out there. What about the rest of us? I guess I’d hope that we can enjoy this potentially historic political campaign with the kind of joy and civility that Russert brought to the adventure. The civility part isn’t always easy for a blogger like me, but I’ll try.

Oh yeah. There is one more thing. To those of you who share my passion for football, show the man some real respect. Next season, take in an extra Bills game in his honor. It’s the least we all can do.


Mary Lois said...

For my take on the loss of Tim Russert, check out my blogpost.

Daniel Spiro said...

I posted a response on your blog, mary lois. Isn't it cool how universally beloved that guy is?