The sudden, shocking death of Meet the Press host Tim Russert last Friday has unleashed a powerful torrent of grief from a very wide swath of Americans. I readily admit that I, too, was horrified and saddened greatly by his untimely death.
Although my work most often prevents me from sitting in front of a TV on Sunday mornings, programs like Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and The McLaughlin Group have long been among my favorites. For those of us seeking greater insight into America and its politics, those programs are indispensable, and Tim Russert consistently displayed a remarkable commitment to speaking truth to power that I both admired and respected. I will miss his voice, and his unbridled enthusiasm for his family and his work. He always seemed like a guy you would love to go out for a beer with… or two. And he understood American politics and politicians as well as anyone.
As the days have passed since Russert’s death, I have been intrigued by the degree to which Americans of all stripes have responded with such sadness, and also by those who seem equally stupefied by exactly that response. I read some comments yesterday complaining that the spate of news coverage devoted to the story was another example of the media’s love affair with itself, assuming that we would care so deeply about what is essentially the loss of one of their colleagues. But clearly, Russert’s death, and how he died, is more than that.
I think there are a few dynamics at work here, and each of them is significant in its own way.
The first and most obvious is about death itself, and how we respond to it.
I’ve been around sudden death enough to understand that the powerful sadness and sense of dislocation that we feel when someone dies so unexpectedly is our mind’s way of coping with what is, essentially, a severe blow to our sense of reality and balance. Like sweating helps an overheated body cool down, shock, disbelief, and a terrible feeling of emptiness are the ways our minds gradually absorb a new, painful and unexpected reality. When you factor in that Russert, at age 58, appeared to be excellent health, you add another layer of existential dread, particularly for all of us fifty-something boomers. There’s nothing like staring at your own mortality to unhinge you a bit.
The second issue is television itself, and the nature of the connection we have to people who appear regularly on it.
I know it is true that the internet is changing the way Americans get their news, and the networks’ news divisions are all in crisis. But that reality notwithstanding, we still have powerful if unconscious connections to the people who, to use the old cliché, come into our living rooms and kitchens each day and night. I would wager that, on 9/11, most New Yorkers watched coverage of the events of that day based on which news anchors brought them some sense of solace and predictability. Walter Cronkite was, in his day, more trusted and admired than any American president. And if you watched Meet the Press every Sunday morning, or remember Tim Russert’s “Florida, Florida, Florida” little white chalkboard from the 2000 presidential election, then you came to see him as a trusted member of the family. And losing a trusted member of the family hurts- badly.
Last but not least is Tim Russert himself, and what and whom he appeared to be.
There is a wonderful rabbinic commentary on the ancient ark that was to reside in the desert sanctuary and hold the tablets received by Moses on Sinai. The Torah teaches that the ark was to be coated in pure gold on both the inside and outside, leading the rabbis to see this as a metaphor for the person learned in Torah. He, too, needed to be pure, and beautiful, on both the inside and the outside, not presenting as a gentle person to the public and showing a darker side when “off camera,” so to speak.
Tim Russert was, by all accounts, the same on the inside and the outside. All who knew him attest to the unaffected nature of this very powerful man. What you saw was what you got. He was a genuinely devoted father and husband, a loving son, a religious Catholic for whom faith was an anchor, a loyal friend and wonderful boss, and a celebrity who never forgot his humble roots in Buffalo.
I think we mourn for him not least of all because he was real, despite his fame. So many people in the public eye these days are creations of their handlers and “image people.” Tim Russert didn’t need an image person, because he was an authentically integrated personality, and Americans intuited that. We miss him for who he was both on and off the screen.
To be sure, the world continues to spin on its axis, the sun is shining by day and the moon by night. Life goes on in its petty pace, and the real challenge here is not ours, but the Russert family’s. My heart goes out to them, as it does to all who suffer such a grievous loss. But I, for one, have no trouble understanding why we feel his death so intimately. TV can make you feel like you know a person when you don’t. But I think we actually did know Tim Russert, and like him. And that’s why he’ll be missed.