Tim Russert, Man of Ambition

At 1:30 p.m., the line of mourners on Mount Saint Alban in Washington, D.C., for Tim Russert, NBC Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press, who died so suddenly last week at the age of 58, stretched all the way from the front doors of the St. Albans School Refectory out to Wisconsin Avenue.

Before the hearse arrived bearing Russert’s dark wooden casket, the presidential motorcade had arrived; President George W. Bush and Laura Bush were among the first mourners. Then the hearse arrived to bear Russert’s casket into the refectory, followed by his son, Luke, and his wife, Maureen; then a host of his famous television news friends.

When their wait, of as much as an hour and a half, had ended, the rest of the public—hundreds of people, because the wake was open to the public—walked into the refectory, past a large photograph of a smiling Tim set up on an easel, the family standing there to receive whoever might approach. Mourners were passed palm cards with that same smiling portrait of Russert on one side, and on the other a prayer to St. Francis. The casket itself stood in the middle of the room, on a bier from the National Cathedral on which Ronald Reagan’s coffin was lain, covered in white flowers. They shuffled past it to a door on the other side, and left.

Across the mount, off the school campus, was the National Cathedral, where so many of Washington’s politicians’ caskets stood while mourners filed past to pay their respects; Russert’s coffin sat in the large room with wooden floors where the boys of St. Albans, aged 9 to 18, take their daily meals. It was a sort of state funeral, but also distinctly a Russert affair: The newsman of boyish ambition was being waked at a school for ambitious boys.

For all the endless tributes to Russert this week, the actual mechanics of Russert’s ambition remain shrouded in platitudes. He was a hard worker. He loved politics. He stayed true to his homespun, working-class roots. But the same could all be said of CBS’ Bob Schieffer, a talented broadcaster who took over Face the Nation, in 1991, but who never managed to pull off for CBS what Russert did for NBC. So what did Russert do?

 

‘If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the Press’

When he first took over as moderator of Meet the Press in 1991, the chance that he would give new life to the long-running program was considered a long shot at best.

At the time, This Week With David Brinkley was the dominant force in Sunday morning public affairs programming. The previous year, This Week on ABC averaged roughly 3.6 million viewers, compared to Face the Nation on CBS, which had averaged around three million viewers. Meet the Press was limping along with a meager 2.6 million viewers.

For years, the show had languished. When, at the age of 41, Russert took over for Garrick Utley in 1991, he had never anchored a television show, and his looks did not immediately suggest he should. Yet within several short months of taking over, Russert had dived into the 1992 Democratic primary to coax regular headline-inducing pronouncements from the colorful field of Democratic contenders: Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown.

By May of 1992, Robert Novak and William Safire were lining up with a bunch of Beltway tastemakers to declare Russert the next big thing. Within a year of Russert’s on-air debut, Meet the Press was regularly beating This Week in the ratings in the D.C. market. By 1995, Russert and Co. had racked up a number of weekly wins against This Week in the national ratings. By 1996, Russert had essentially chased Mr. Brinkley into retirement.

It’s the story of a guy who placed his ambition and natural competitiveness in the service of the political elites and the voters, who, after all, need each other.

Russert never published a Machiavellian playbook, explaining the winning strategy underlying his improbable vanquishing of Mr. Brinkley’s empire. If there was one, it probably is only an analogy to the teachings of the nuns and Jesuits that formed him.

He was shrewd enough to make his shrewdness appealing. (“He was a ruthless guy,” one of Russert’s former coworkers told The Observer. “But he did it in a way so that no one considered him ruthless.”)

Tim Russert, Man of Ambition