Entry from June 17, 2008

Boy, is my face red! I gave up watching Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press” some years ago after listening to his (approximately) umpteenth brow-beating of some hapless Republican senator or administration official over the necessity (as he saw it) to rescind the Bush tax-cuts. Now — too late! — I find out that he was, according to Senator John McCain, “the preeminent political journalist of his generation.” Senator Barack Obama, who said he was “grief-stricken with loss,” thought that “there wasn”t a better interviewer on television, a more thoughtful analyst about politics.” Not only that, but the late Mr Russert was said to have been one of the hundred most influential people in the world — although, admittedly, that was only on the authority of Time magazine. Meanwhile, according to Howard Fineman in Newsweek, “he operated in a way, and on an assumption, that seems all but lost in modern America: the ability to debate, to argue, with a reverence for the frail humanity of all” — and that was, in Howard’s words, “not to canonize him”! Tom Shales in The Washington Post as usual topped them all by writing that

the story of his life always seemed his to write, the tale his to tell, and so it is that his premature departure is almost obscene, certainly absurd, unimaginable. . . Russert transcended his role and job, and became an icon of trust and gusto and fair play to a degree greater than that of many of the politicians he interviewed. . . It”s just not right that he is gone, just not right. It’s an affront, an outrage, an act of cruelty — and something that Russert never was: unfair.

No wonder, then, as Howard Kurtz wrote (also in the Post) “all the cable networks were airing nonstop remembrances of Russert, as if a head of state had died.” People were said to have started leaving flowers and teddy bears and personal notes at the NBC studios in Washington, like the ones left outside Kensington Palace for Princess Diana in 1997.

I feel such a sap.

Yet I wonder if there isn’t something just a tiny bit unseemly about such effusiveness. Why do we wrap the gentleman in our more rawer breath? Not having known Tim Russert personally, I obviously have no reason to dissent from the universally-held opinion that he was a great guy, a perfect son, husband and father, but would he himself have been quite comfortable about it if he could have witnessed his apotheosis as a hero-journalist which has ensued upon his untimely death? “As if a head of state had died?” No, no, Mr Kurtz, you come too short. What head of state today could expect such unqualified tributes from the media as they have lavished on one of their own? Would Tim Russert have quite failed to see the irony in such a redundancy of fawning praise for a man who was said to have earned it by being a relentless and invariably adversarial interrogator of the powerful? After all, Time magazine says he was pretty powerful too.

Partly, of course, this outpouring of love and grief was because he had come into our homes — well, not my home — every week, and so people felt they knew him. His best-selling books about his childhood in Buffalo added to this sense of a compelling personal narrative, which is the hallmark of the celebrity. But the blurring of the distinction between the celebrity and the newsman, as between the politician and the newsman, or between the politician and the celebrity, is always an unfortunate thing, I believe, even though it is one of the distinguishing features of our political culture today. It is part of a larger phenomenon by which properly political questions are turned by the media into moral questions — like global warming, campaign finance, energy independence, gun control, the “health-care crisis” etc. — and therefore part of the same Media Madness to which not even Tim Russert was wholly immune. Perhaps that’s why he could never see that there was any argument for tax cuts.

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