He was a fixture in Washington, one of the most influential people in a city where power is the only currency that matters. From Capitol Hill to K Street to the suburban boxes of Alexandria, Va., Tim Russert was a man to be courted, flattered and envied. He was the best politician never to run for office.
But for all the glory and all the power that came with his job, Tim Russert never really stopped being a kid from Buffalo, an unapologetic political junkie who loved the spectacle of campaigns and elections and who never lost his curiosity about the people who would lead us.
Mr. Russert died on Friday at the age of 58 in the midst of a presidential election unlike any other in his lifetime. He lived for this stuff, and his enthusiasm and knowledge could not help but inspire his viewers to put aside their cynicism, for a moment anyway, to revel in the untidy but lovely business of democracy.
Mr. Russert learned the art of politics in New York as an aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a man he regarded as a second father. It was in New York, in service to Senator Moynihan and later to Governor Mario Cuomo, that Mr. Russert picked up the stories he loved to tell when he became an off-camera executive at NBC in 1984.
Mr. Russert’s sheer delight in the political process was infectious, leading network executives to conclude that he might be able to charm television audiences as he did his colleagues. He was named moderator of Meet the Press in 1991 even though he had no on-camera television experience. He didn’t need any—all he needed was his passion, his intellectual toughness and his curiosity.
Mr. Russert was ubiquitous during campaign seasons, never more so than during this remarkable year. But while he certainly reveled in his status as a newsmaker, he never misunderstood his role as a mediator between the powerful and the public. Yes, he wanted his show to make news—that was his job, and there was nobody better at it. But he also understood that ultimately the show was not about him, but about the American political system and those who either ran it or wished to run it. If somebody made news by answering one of Mr. Russert’s probing questions, Mr. Russert got credit for asking the question. But it was the answer that mattered; the interviewee, not the moderator.
Even as he traveled in the company of Washington’s most powerful politicians and journalists, Tim Russert never forgot his roots in western New York. He rooted for the Buffalo Bills and touted his hometown whenever he could. His enthusiasm for baseball and for the working-class ballads of Bruce Springsteen was as authentic as his passion for politics. Likewise, his love for his family, for the dad who inspired a book about duty and sacrifice, the dad who survives him.
Tim Russert, New Yorker, went to Washington and made everybody love him. What a rare achievement. What a rare human being.