competition, journalism, television

Russert

When I heard of the death of Tim Russert yesterday, the grand inquisitor (in a good way) of Washington, I repeatedly thought of Mark Leibovich’s Chris Matthews profile from the NYT Mag in April:

On the morning of the Cleveland debate, Matthews was standing in the lobby of the Ritz when Russert walked through, straight from a workout, wearing a sweat-drenched Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, long shorts and black rubber-soled shoes with tube socks. “Here he is; here he is, the man,” Matthews said to Russert, who smiled and chatted for a few minutes before returning to his room. (An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, tried, after the fact, to declare Russert’s outfit “off the record.”)

I watched Chris Matthews on the MSNBC online stream last night, he was in Paris (as was Bob Schieffer). Matthews demonstrated the remarkable candor that sometimes gets him in trouble; but it was just right here. He came on after Brokaw, and said, you know, I wasn’t as close to Tim as those guys. But he kept talking, and it was clear that Matthews admired him. Leibovich wrote that Matthews seems to crave Russert’s approval. I don’t know if he ever got it or not, but that makes for a particular sense of loss when this happens.

Brokaw repeatedly mentioned Russert’s working class credentials (as well as his own and Mike Barnicle’s). It is a badge of honor, of sorts; one I sometimes try to wear. A quick look around my cohort at the journalism school ought to be enough to settle the question of whether the chattering classes tend to be seeded by the upper (or upper middle) classes. Few of my colleagues had a parent in the military, or one who worked in a factory. See? Hard to resist.

Today Leibovich has an article in the Times about Russert and his place in the Washington firmament. He does a good job of balancing Russert’s working class image with the attractions and convenience he found in his position at the top of the D.C. heap.

Another local cliché: Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. So in a town that’s in fact entirely over-populated with blow-dried preeners, it seemed entirely appropriate that the signature TV star be, if not ugly, aggressively “not pretty.” Indeed, Mr. Russert seemed to intentionally hold his face at crooked angles, like he was sidling up to a Rust Belt dive bar (as opposed to, say, his favorite lunch joint in Washington, the Palm).

Mr. Russert liked to seem sheepishly above-it-all, but was also as acutely status-conscious, befitting the local water. He was always mindful of not appearing too often on MSNBC, NBC’s cable cousin, for fear of diluting his big-league brand. He was known primarily as a TV star to most people, but often identified himself by his more hierarchical title, “Washington bureau chief.” There is no shortage of politicians, beginning with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believed Mr. Russert could be bullying and prone to grandstanding at times, making excessive show of his top-of-the-heap position.

Still, the story that Leibovich seemed to remember the most yesterday was the same one I did:

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?” Done.

Black loafers?

Re-read that excerpt at the top.

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