Friday, June 13, 2008

R.I.P. Tim Russert

For as long as I can remember, I've watched NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sundays and MSNBC's (and formerly CNBC's) "Tim Russert" interview program on Saturdays.

I've hung on his every word during campaign 2008 coverage on MSNBC and NBC News.

My dad and I shared laughs about Russert's books about his own father and working-class upbringing in Buffalo.

And now he's -- unbelievably -- dead at age 58.

In the mid 1990s, I worked in entertainment publicity at NBC in Burbank, Calif. One year, the network's affiliate convention was being held in Los Angeles, and so our entire department was assigned to serve as "talent wranglers" at an evening cocktail party. Essentially, this means you show up, attach yourself to one of the network's television stars, and introduce them to station general managers, promotion directors and other assorted personnel, and persuade them to pose for pictures, engage in small talk, etc.

Most of the time, these events are insufferable, and this one wasn't much different. Between dealing with the performer you're assigned to cover (meaning, dealing with the performer and their agent and manager and publicist and assistant and everyone else who has an opinion) and trying to navigate through a sea of station personnel all convinced they are the most important market in the U.S., you're in for a headache. And, since these things normally occur in May or June, there's a pretty good chance that you're missing an NBA playoff game to be there.

Not being all that starstruck, the presence of the stars of "Friends," "Law & Order," "ER," "Just Shoot Me!," and other shows on the network didn't faze me.

But then, out of the blue ... there he was: NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of "Meet the Press," Tim Russert. Arriving to the door of the party in a completely unassuming manner and wearing that cherubic grin that almost always seemed plastered to his face on television (except for when he was furrowing his brow to dig in to some bloviating politician), Russert bounded in, sans flak, aide-de-camp or other hanger-on, etc.

Memory of which actor I was "covering" at the time now escapes me, but all I know is that I immediately left him/her and bolted (OK, shuffled -- I don't "bolt" anywhere) across the room to introduce myself to Russert as a representative of his network, shake his hand and welcome him to the party.

All Russert did was thank me, smile broadly and clap me heartily across the shoulder as he was immediately swarmed by higher-ups from the news division who clearly had to be wondering who the hell this interloping punk was from the entertainment division. But the memory of the encounter is still bright today, for some reason.

Maybe, as my friend Stu noted in his heartfelt commentary earlier today at Variety's On the Air blog, it's because we have a different relationship to people we "invite" into our homes when we watch them on TV all the time.

Whatever the case, his loss is immense for journalism, for thoughtful people, and for America.

R.I.P., Mr. Russert.

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