When somebody dies, we tell his story and try to define and isolate what was special about it—what it was he brought to the party, how he enhanced life by showing up. In this way we educate ourselves about what really matters. Or, often, re-educate ourselves, for “man needs more to be reminded than instructed.”
I understand why some think that the media coverage surrounding Tim Russert’s death was excessive—truly, it was unprecedented—but it doesn’t seem to me a persuasive indictment, if only because what was said was so valuable.
The beautiful thing about the coverage was that it offered extremely important information to those age 15 or 25 or 30 who may not have been told how to operate in the world beyond “Go succeed.” I’m not sure we tell the young as much as we ought, as clearly as we ought, what it is the world admires, and what it is they want to emulate.
In a way, the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn’t. It says it adores fame and celebrity, but it doesn’t, not really. The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that, brought into the world, make it better. That’s what it really admires. That’s what we talk about in eulogies, because that’s what’s important. We don’t say, “The thing about Joe was he was rich.” We say, if we can, “The thing about Joe was he took care of people.”
The young are told, “Be true to yourself.” But so many of them have no idea, really, what that means. If they don’t know who they are, what are they being true to? They’re told, “The key is to hold firm to your ideals.” But what if no one bothered, really, to teach them ideals?
After Tim’s death, the entire television media for four days told you the keys to a life well lived, the things you actually need to live life well, and without which it won’t be good. Among them: taking care of those you love and letting them know they’re loved, which involves self-sacrifice; holding firm to God, to your religious faith, no matter how high you rise or low you fall. This involves guts, and self-discipline, and active attention to developing and refining a conscience to whose promptings you can respond. Honoring your calling or profession by trying to do within it honorable work, which takes hard effort, and a willingness to master the ethics of your field. And enjoying life. This can be hard in America, where sometimes people are rather grim in their determination to get and to have. “Enjoy life, it’s ungrateful not to,” said Ronald Reagan.
Tim had these virtues. They were great to see. By defining them and celebrating them the past few days, the media encouraged them. This was a public service, and also what you might call Tim’s parting gift.
I’d add it’s not only the young, but the older and the old, who were given a few things to think about. When Tim’s friends started to come forward last Friday to speak on the air of his excellence, they were honestly grieving. They felt loss. So did people who’d never met him. Question: When you die, are people in your profession going to feel like this? Why not? What can you do better? When you leave, are your customers—in Tim’s case it was five million every Sunday morning, in your case it may be the people who come into the shop, or into your office—going to react like this? Why not?
* * *
One of the greatest statements, the most piercing, was something Chuck Todd said when he talked on a panel on MSNBC. He was asked more or less why Tim stuck out from the pack, and he said, “He was normal!” In a city, Washington, in which many powerful people are deep down weird, or don’t have a deep down, only a surface, Tim was normal. Like a normal man he cared about his family and his profession and his faith. Pat Buchanan later said they’re not making them now like they used to, Tim’s normality is becoming the exception. The world of Russert—stability, Catholic school, loving parents, TV shows that attempted only to entertain you and not to create a new moral universe in your head—that’s over, that world is gone. He had a point, though it’s not gone entirely of course, just not as big, or present, as it used to be.
Which got me thinking about one way in which Tim was lauded that, after a few days, was grating. And what’s a column without a gripe? Tim, as all now know, was a working-class boy from upstate New York. But the amazement with which some of his colleagues talked of his background made them sound like Margaret Mead among the indigenous people of Borneo. An amazing rags-to-riches story—he was found among an amazing Celtic tribe that dragged its clubs across the tangled jungle floors of a land called “Buffalo,” where they eat “wings” and worship a warrior caste known as “the Bills.” Here he is, years later, in a suit. This reflected a certain cultural insularity in our media, did it not? Tim came from a loving home, grew up in a house, in a suburb. He went to private Catholic schools. His father was a garbageman, which when I was growing up was known as a good municipal union job. Tim’s life was as good as or better than 90% of his countrymen in his time. His background wasn’t strange or surprising—it was normal.
Something not fully appreciated is the sense of particular sadness among conservatives, who felt Russert gave their views and philosophy equal time, an equality of approach. When Kate O’Beirne had a book out on the excesses of feminism a few years ago the only network show on which she was asked to give the antiabortion argument was “Meet the Press.” When I was on the book tour in 2000 for “The Case Against Hillary Clinton,” Tim’s was the only show that asked me to state my case at length, balancing it with an appearance of the same length by a Hillary supporter. I’m not sure network producers understand how grateful—embarrassing word, but true—conservatives are to be given time to say not only what they think but why they think it. Russert was big on why. He knew it was the heart of any political debate.
* * *
On the train coming back from his memorial on Wednesday, I talked to Tom Kean, a former governor of New Jersey and chairman of the 9/11 Commission. He told me of how a few years ago Tim, concerned about nuclear proliferation, invited Mr. Kean and Sam Nunn on “Meet the Press” to talk about it at length. No particular hook, he just wanted to gin up concern in Washington on an issue he knew was crucial. Mr. Kean said he had listened closely to all the journalists the past few days talking about how Tim prepared rigorously, was open-minded, civic minded, serious. He hoped they were listening to themselves, hoped they were reflecting on what they said. Emulation would be good there, too.