Russert was the genuine article

JEAN MARBELLA

June 17, 2008

A political candidate I was interviewing last year turned the tables on me and asked me why I got into journalism. I said that from the earliest I could remember, I just liked telling people stuff - an answer that drew much merriment from the candidate's aide, imagining my 5-year-old self quoting sources in the kitchen on what was for dinner that night.

Well, yeah. Who doesn't want to be the first to not just know but also tell?

I'm going to miss that glint in Tim Russert's eye. On countless election nights, the anchor would "toss" to him, as the TV guys say, the camera would swivel to his side of the desk, and there would be Russert, fairly thrumming with what he was about to tell. His brow would glisten - he had that faintly sweaty quality of all good street reporters - his chipmunk cheeks looked as if he was chewing on a particularly delicious tidbit of news and, most of all, his feral eyes would be dancing with pure joy.

When it comes to politics and journalism, the intertwined worlds of which Russert was an undisputed master, joy is so rare. Cynicism? Sure. Disdain, scorn? Check, and check. But joy - simple, unalloyed delight in the process of running for office and the coverage of its every twist and turn? How naive!

And yet of course, he was anything but.

I can't help but think that much of the outpouring of emotion that followed Russert's sudden death on Friday, the genuine, heartfelt sadness felt by so many, comes from a sense of losing a singularly joyful voice in a sea of snark. At a time when much of what passes for political commentary is all sound and fury, too many opinions and not enough insight, Russert was uniquely both tough and enlightening.

The flowers and mementos left at the NBC bureau in Washington that he headed, the thousands of comments left on media and tribute Web sites, the wall-to-wall coverage that promises to continue this week with his funeral and memorial services - it's all been quite an amazing reaction, to anyone's death, but particularly someone who represents a world that so many profess to loathe.

These are times, after all, when "mainstream media" is an epithet in many circles and "inside the Beltway" is a metaphor for out-of-touch. But it's hard to think of anyone who was more MSM or more Beltway-defined than Russert was - and yet, he was both beloved and respected.

Russert's great gift, I think, was his utter authenticity. Maybe you can fake that, but if so, he was one of the great impostors of all time. I'd like to think the opposite, that he was exactly what he seemed: a blue-collar kid who rose to great establishment success, a guy who didn't have all the answers but knew the right questions to ask, someone entirely at ease in the upper echelons of the journo-politico complex and yet still possessed of a sense of the wonder of it all.

I'm amazed at how many conversations I've had since Friday that either started with or wound back around to Russert. It's hard to imagine the rest of this year's campaign without him, his go-to Sunday morning wrap-ups, his spot-on election-night analyses.

It is such an interesting campaign this year, and surely Russert, the one-time political operative turned TV journalist, was totally in his element, totally reveling in it. Every primary Tuesday seemed to warrant the kind of coverage that you usually don't get until the night of the general election, with exit polls and projections and punditry galore.

Much of the media have stepped up their games for this extraordinary campaign, with iPhone-like touch screens and up-to-the-moment blogging and all sorts of interactive maps and charts and links to ever more information. And yet, I think I'll still miss the guy with the white board, simply and joyfully telling us stuff.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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