14 June 2008

Tim Russert

Perhaps the only thing about Tim Russert’s death more shocking than its suddenness is the chorus of tributes being sung by one and all. The newspapers are full of hagiography, and so, I gather, is American television at the moment. Even networks other than his own have devoted to their competitor the kind of air time ordinarily reserved for the deaths of heads of state, and the Tim Russert they depict is a paragon, whose like we shall not soon see again.

This generous, uncritical coverage is courteous and quite possibly based in truth. My meetings with Russert never went farther than a handshake, and so for testimonials to his kindness, his professionalism, and his exuberance, you must turn to his former colleagues; for assessments of his influence, look to the critics who are reaching for superlatives, and listen to the teary statements now being released by every politician in America. The most powerful men and women in the country want to stay on Russert’s good side, even in death, and that says something.

But something is missing from all the portraits I’ve seen of Russert, to such a degree that I don’t quite recognize him this morning. And so it falls to me to tell you something of what he was like as a competitor.

Russert came to journalism from politics, and although he may have been born with his competitive streak, he surely broadened and refined it while campaigning. When he arrived in television, he understood that competition among newsrooms was also a race, that in this environment ratings were the same as votes, and that the fight for them could not ever stop. So fight he did. And he was a bare-knuckled, gut-kicking, pipe-wielding street brawler.

Long before Karl Rove got credit for it, Russert perfected the “permanent campaign mode,” and his specialty was spin. Not least because they admired his work on Meet the Press, Russert had the ear of the journalists who report on television. They liked him. They watched his show faithfully, and they enjoyed talking to him. That gave him the opportunity to drop hints, to skew interpretations, to leak or to plant stories, to badmouth the other networks. And this he did, avidly. It got to be that we at CBS News could recognize even blind quotes in an article, because Russert’s language was distinctive. And his themes were persistent: if he saw a vulnerability in a competitor, he’d keep hammering at it for years.

Network anchors were (and may still be) wary of each other. You never knew when the corporate suits were going to replace you with the guy who was bringing in better ratings on another channel. There was always somebody younger, and usually somebody smarter, bearing down on you, even inside your own team. You couldn’t let down your guard. You had to keep looking over your shoulder — even, perhaps especially, when you were in the lead, as Russert was.

And yet most of the big boys used to put on a pretty good show of getting along. Dan Rather and Peter Jennings even got downright friendly during the 1990s, thanks to their publicists, who were themselves friends and who threw the two men together, again and again. Though Dan and Peter probably never forgot their rivalry for a second, they enjoyed each other’s company. That was rare, and yet it wasn’t uncommon for other network stars to drop each other congratulatory notes after a good broadcast, to attend each other’s book parties, to praise each other in print, and to make polite conversation whenever they ran into each other. But so far as I ever knew, Russert wasn’t playing that game. He held a low opinion of other newsrooms, and of the people in them. He didn’t try to hide the fact.

His loyalty to his own team explains in part the reactions from the folks at NBC News to his untimely passing. They make him sound like a great guy, and I’m sorry I never worked with him. But as for his competitive streak — his determination to do anything at all to make his opponents look bad — let’s just say I’m glad I worked with Bob Schieffer instead.