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Posted by on Jun 18, 2008 in Media | 1 comment

Losing a pal

Could anyone be a Tim Russert? 

I think so, but it wouldn’t be easy. Whoever tried it would have to forfeit possession of all personal time. All available time, 24/7, would be allocated to three relationships: work, family, and friends. Then, you would have to acquire several hundred associates and friends, call them all “pal,” and really mean it. 

Such a commitment to people, I think, can arise from one of only two places. One, Russert felt the commitment instinctively, in his heart and soul. Or, it came from a conscious decision made in his mind. Either way, the active word is commitment. Anyone who has had to become a caregiver knows what that commitment feels like. Before making the commitment, we may feel resentment at being cast into a caregiver role, and our lives become conflicted by it. But as soon as we make the commitment, step over the line into acceptance of the role, the resentment disappears, and our lives become easier, and more filled with love. 

I wasn’t aware of Tim Russert’s acceptance of that commitment until I watched the steady coverage of his death. I have not seen mourning of this intensity for a public figure since the assassination of John Kennedy. 

My immediate shock and loss was of the journalist I had come to accept as the key figure in the coverage of the 2008 presidential election. Russert, in 2008, had become another kind of television news “anchor.” Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and Charles Gibson held down the traditional anchor positions, entrusted with delivering balance and objectivity in their reports. Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly were entertainers with news as their act. Russert was a bridge between the two. 

It was troubling to see hard-news journalists like Tom Brokaw, Andrea Mitchell, Howard Fineman, Eugene Robinson and others appear on MSNBC shows like “Hardball” and “Countdown,” which were shows, and not newscasts. They were commentaries, and based in opinion, as commentaries always are. As long as everyone understood that, it was okay for hard-news types to appear and offer their opinions, but the line was always in danger of being blurred. 

Except with Russert. I have read that Russert kept his MSNBC appearances to a minimum. If he lost the trust of the people to be objective, he lost everything. He recounted talking to Lawrence Spivak, the moderator of “Meet the Press” before Russert got the job. Russert asked Spivak: what is “Meet the Press”? Spivak told Russert always to learn everything he could about the guest’s politics and conventions, and then to take the other side. 

Russert was so believable in his dedication to balance – the “other side” – that he could operate on either side of the news/entertainment line without losing credibility. There is not another journalist like him. His loss is going to change the debate between now and November. That is troubling, given the magnitude of this election, and that is what I thought about as I watched the conversations about his loss. 

Then I started to hear a theme. Russert’s loss was not a single event, but a multitude of individual events, between this or that colleague, relative, or friend, and Russert, taken one at a time, and adding up to the whole. Feeling this, I remembered that I was once a pal, among hundreds of pals, of a Tim Russert prototype. His name was Otto Bos. 

Otto’s direction was the reverse of Russert’s. He began as a journalist and became a pol. Otto was covering city hall for The San Diego Union when I started work there as an intern in 1972. He didn’t treat me so much as an intern as he did an equal who got a late start. We were both about the same age, 27 or so, so young, but Otto was already building a special reputation. Pete Wilson was San Diego mayor at the time, and one council meeting was dragging far into the night. About 8:30, up in the pressroom overlooking the chamber, Otto got a handkerchief, attached it to a ruler, and waved a white flag at the council down below. 

Otto was tall, black hair, extremely handsome, Dutch, all-American soccer player but curiously accident-prone. He was committed to work, family and friends. Warmth came out of him like heat from an early-morning sun. Pete Wilson recognized this depth. When he moved on to the United States Senate, and later California governor, he took Otto with him as press secretary. I didn’t see Otto very often after that, but when I did, it was always as if he had just left the room and now was walking back in. 

In June, 1991, Otto was playing soccer on a Sunday afternoon when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 47. There were several hundred people at his memorial service, held in San Diego’s Balboa Park, and the speakers, led by Pete Wilson, all told of a life more filled by love than most. There were many stories told, and this week the Russert stories have sounded like echoes. I think my favorite Russert story was one told by Mark Liebovich in The New York Times: 

“I hardly knew Tim Russert personally, and I hesitate to even relay this for fear of appearing to. We probably had about a half-dozen conversations over the years, invariably on politics, his beloved Buffalo Bills or the Boston College sports teams (his son went to school there). My last encounter with Mr. Russert was at a Democratic debate in Cleveland, which he was moderating. I was with his colleague Mr. Matthews — I was writing about Mr. Matthews for the New York Times Magazine — and we ran into Mr. Russert in the lobby of the Cleveland Ritz Carlton. He had just worked out and was wearing a sweaty Bills sweatshirt and long shorts and black loafers with tube socks. An MSNBC spokesman who was with us tried to declare Mr. Russert’s attire “off the record,” which I found hilarious, and which I was of course compelled to include in the story. When I called Mr. Russert to tell him this, and he laughed so hard, I had to move the phone away from my ear. 

“ ‘Just do me one favor,’ Mr. Russert said. ” ‘Say they were rubber-soled shoes, will you?’ ” 

That was so like Otto, who taught me the secret of dealing with officialdom: “Never let the bastions get you down.” Now Russert has stepped out of the room, but it is easy, as it has been with Otto all these years, to think about him coming back. At the end of it all, I feel like a fan, sitting in the stands, watching this magnificent election with my pal Russert. But now his seat is empty. The biggest fan of the 2008 presidential election is not going to get to see who won. That is so sad.