Monday, June 16, 2008

Tim Russert: A Lesson on What Really Matters

It has been four days since we learned of Tim Russert's shocking death. I have watched every minute of every tribute that NBC has aired. I sat stunned as Russert's image loomed large behind Tom Brokaw as he narrated the first broadcast Friday night. When Matt Lauer hosted a special edition of Today on Saturday morning I didn't move from the couch. The funereal image of his empty chair, the somber lighting and the mourners dressed in black on this Sunday's "Meet the Press" made me feel as if I were at a televised wake.

The truth is, I was.

Our collective grief and sense of loss is palpable. Everyone is talking about Tim Russert. Every outlet has offered their own requiem for a man, who despite never having held public office, is being eulogized like an elder statesman. His funeral on Wednesday is being televised with a live pool feed and will almost certainly be picked up by networks other than MSNBC which will air it live.

Surely this bear of a man from Buffalo, New York whose passion for politics was exceded only by his love of family and who, according to one friend, "never made the story about him" would be shocked by his posthumous status as venerated cultural icon.

But looking back now, it all makes sense.

The last time I remember being this grief stricken over the death of a famous person I did not know was when Princess Diana died. But that was lifetime ago. I have written often since that time that there is a dearth of genuine heroes worthy of our admiration. Today, too many media stars are famous for being famous -- or infamous. Everyone has a reality show or wants one. Celebrity is more instantaneous and yet more fleeting than ever.

All the more reason to mourn Tim Russert. He was the real deal. By all accounts, the man most of us never met but thought we knew -- the man who used a simple dry erase board to summarize the unfathomable 2000 presidential election, held politicians' feet to the fire every Sunday morning for 17 years on Meet the Press and wrote a best selling book as a testament to his love for his father and his son, was a fine man. A decent man. A deeply religious man. "What you saw was what you got," one Russert pal told me. "There was no pretense about Tim.

While I am deeply saddened by Russert's death and my heart aches for his wife, his son and his elderly father who just last week left his beloved home to move into an assisted living facility, I am heartened by the reaction his death has elicited. In this era of posers and wannabes, of rampant phoniness and declining morality, the public outpouring of affection for a man so genuinne and resolutely and unapologetically traditional gives me hope.

The values Tim Russert stood for and lived by: honesty, integrity, hard work, love of family, love of God and love of country are not, after all, hopelessly outmoded. In a time where are our politics are more divisive than ever and our voracious appetite for tabloid culture often threatens to swallow us whole, Russert's death and our grief stricken reaction to losing such a national treasure serves to remind us we still care about what really matters.

Russert's legacy is that this is still a country where the Irish Catholic son of a sanitation worker can rise to a position of influence on his own merits where he walked with popes and presidents. As the mother of a three year old daugther, I take comfort knowing that today in 2008 we are living in an era where Russert's 21 year old son can inspire a nation by being a living, breathing example of what the labors of good parenting can still bear. Despite the all too frequent episodes that fill the airwaves, the Internet and the pages of our newspapers to the contrary, there is much to celebrate about America and Americans. Russert instinctively knew this and he wanted us to know it, too.

It is Russert's own words of exultation 'What a country!' that resonate in these sorrowful days.

What a man.

You will never be forgotten.