Russert to Judgment

I have been trying to deconstruct Tim Russert – who is, people tell me (and I tell others), the most influential journalist in Washington.

I find him a confusing figure. I’m not sure I understand his function, or his point of view – sometimes he’s oily, other times a pit bull – or whom exactly he speaks for. Where does his authority come from?

My father religiously watched Meet the Press, the show Russert now hosts, when I was growing up. The show had a Friends-size audience then. But now it’s not really meant to be watched – or it’s meant to be watched only by other media people and political pros. It’s a pseudo-show. But, oddly, the show that no one watches has made Russert ubiquitous anyway. He gets to retail his views across a wide spectrum of airtime: CNBC, MSNBC, Today, various debates, and a long-lasting Election Night.

I don’t question his importance or prominence (the marker board he used during the disputed election seems destined for the Smithsonian). In my mind, and I think in the minds of most media- and politically minded people, Russert is on his way to being up there with network-news greats like Sevaried or Chancellor. Of course, because his audience is only a fraction of theirs – nobody in television news has a glimmer of their audience – he really isn’t like them in any way. Practically speaking, he’s a relative nonentity to most of the nation. Still, he’s the man, or he fills the position – Meet the Press host, major network voice – even though the position really doesn’t exist anymore. The limb has been amputated, but you still feel it.

To the degree that television-news people are much smaller than they once were, so are politicians – they may have diminished to an even greater degree than their television colleagues. And because what power – what legitimacy, what identity – they have depends on what media time they have, Russert is a giant among them.

What’s more, every year since 1984, when Russert came to NBC, as most others in television have become demonstrably less powerful and influential, Russert himself has become more powerful and influential.

This is, obviously, to his credit. Russert, round-faced, not obviously glamorous or charismatic, has been created as much by himself as by television (of how many people on television could that be said?).

There is no one more plugged-in, better-connected, more knowing in Washington than he.

He is the man behind the curtain as well as in front.

He doesn’t just have on-air power. He has internal, network, corporate, bureaucratic power. He isn’t just an anchor-correspondent-pundit-interviewer; he’s the NBC Washington bureau chief (other Washington correspondents don’t get on-air so easily without Russert’s approval). But he isn’t just the Washington bureau chief, he is the confidant of Bob Wright, the head of NBC, and of Jack Welch, the head of GE, NBC’s parent (Welch is famous for eschewing elite, white-shoe Harvard guys; Russert, from Buffalo, went to John Carroll University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law). When Welch wants to know what’s going on in Washington (GE runs a mighty lobbying effort), he calls Russert, who tells him who’s saying what to whom. Russert is, in other words, not just a senior guy in the NBC news division but a significant GE asset in Washington. That’s big.

But the thing he does on-air is considerable, too – at least it is to the Washington-media set. It’s the fact that he challenges but has managed to go unchallenged. He’s assumed the impartiality of network newsmen while at the same time sitting in considerable judgment. His approval is what people are after (he can be incredibly unctuous – no more so than when he is interviewing or being interviewed by other network newscasters). His disapproval is what people fear (he can be incredibly aggressive; it was the force of his unexpected venom during the New York senatorial debate that made even Hillary seem fragile and sympathetic). Whether or not America is watching him – and, for the most part, it is not – he has stepped forward to represent a disapproving, literalistic, anti-politician populace. He, rather than the people who are elected, forcefully represents the consensus – at least he believes he does.

I try – fairly, it would seem – to hold Russert to the standard he holds others to: People in power should be scrutinized by the media. But his P.R. person, when I call during the campaign, says he doesn’t want to be interviewed – too busy. I say I’ll wait until his schedule is clearer. I get an e-mail from Russert about how his priority is “covering the presidential race and debates and fulfilling my obligations to meet the press … today … msnbc and cnbc …” Plus, he says he has to help his son with his homework. I have three kids I have to help, I tell him. We go back and forth some more. After the election, I renew my request. When I suggest that it seems like he’s ducking, the NBC News communications director, Barbara Levin, contacts the editor of this magazine to express her great umbrage: A “ridiculous hypothesis … Nothing can be further from the truth.” (It’s odd: Would Russert himself be less interested in a story if the subject’s flack called his boss?)

But I understand. As a news person, you want to maintain the illusion that it’s not about you. Russert is, he would like us to think, merely the instrument of the public’s right to know. It is really not that he is ducking the press (after all, he wants publicity; he wants to be a star), so much as he is maintaining the artifice. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain . . .

Esquire, some years ago, did a mostly laudatory profile of him. But it gave you Russert as a tough, behind-the-scenes player too. The mayhem that followed the publication of the piece is still famous in the annals of Esquire. Russert, his wife, the magazine journalist Maureen Orth, a power both socially and professionally in her own right, and other network colleagues besieged the magazine with calls. Such was the onslaught – journalist to journalist, media organization to media organization, chattering class to chattering class – that the magazine issued a quasi-apology. (“Years later, I’m still dumbfounded how he got that to happen,” says one of the editors of the story.)

Of course, it may be relevant that Russert, while the most influential journalist in the country, is not, precisely speaking, a journalist. He leads a trend: Along with Chris Matthews, Jeff Greenfield, George Stephanopoulos, and Dee Dee Myers, he was a political operative before becoming a journalist.

He worked for Moynihan for six years. After that he worked for Cuomo. The story – possibly apocryphal – is that Russert at the 1984 Democratic convention got the union guys to kill the house lights during Cuomo’s famous speech, thereby limiting reaction shots and keeping the cameras focused on Mario.

He left politics to go to work for Larry Grossman, the head of news at NBC. Shortly after, GE bought NBC; Grossman was fired, and Michael Gartner, a Uriah Heep type, became NBC News chief.

It is notable that Russert’s rise in television news coincides with the years of miserable cost-cutting. Indeed, in this land of newsmen, most of them depressives in deep mourning for their lost stature and perquisites, Russert is another-planetary kind of being. He isn’t a journalist so much as a player, a mover and shaker among the Washington set, the media business, and GE, the ultimate seat of power. He’s entrepreneurial. He’s always selling (whether it’s famously getting the pope on the Today show – getting the pope to promo the Today show – or his tone during the election mess, a sort of What we’re going to see today is so amazing you’re not going to be able to get to work).

This sounds bad, and will no doubt prompt Russert and his people to volubly complain (“What do you mean he isn’t a journalist?”), but perhaps it isn’t so bad. Network news was failing. Network-news guys, with their raging entitlements, passive-aggressiveness, pretty faces, were anachronisms. So Russert, with his forceful selling techniques and sandlot-bully approach, prevailed. He understood that GE had to get something out of the news division (that news had a premium audience of two: Jack Welch and Bob Wright), which helped him get a stranglehold. Then, too, he worked all the time – he ran the bureau as well as read the news; he did cable as well as network; he did morning as well as Sunday. He took over. He became, inside of NBC News, Boss Daley of Chicago. Nothing happened without his say-so. When there’s less power, you have to grab more.

Of the many roles he created for himself at NBC, possibly the most novel was “the insider” – the man who knows his way around. That’s a role that would have been too small-time for television in its heyday. Being a star paid off, being loved and respected by America was what television was about; but being an operator wasn’t worth much, being an insider wasn’t the business of television.

Russert’s role almost recalls print more than television. What he offers – the price of his imprimatur, the cost of his anger, the value of his confidence – is more akin to the great columnists of old. He’s Joseph Alsop or Arthur Krock.

Russert, who moves from behind the camera as bureau chief to, unusually, in front of the camera as host of Meet the Press, gets the credit for reviving the show. But he didn’t so much revive it (Meet the Press as my father knew it is gone for good) as reinvent the use of the show. It’s now a kind of figment of television. Media for media. Russert asks a series of questions, and then the videotaped answers are retailed out through the rest of NBC’s News and other media outlets. Who said what on Sunday-morning shows is a staple of Monday-morning papers, the press creating news for itself to jump-start the week. It’s a promotional tool. Meet the Press is arguably more relevant for GE – which, in fact, sponsors Meet the Press – than it is for NBC. If the goal is to make compelling and profitable television, then Meet the Press really doesn’t succeed at all. But if the goal is to have power and influence in Washington, and to make Tim Russert influential and powerful, then it works very well.

Russert has become something like an old-style Hill baron – his power is woven into the fabric of the community; his level of seniority and access is so great that he’s become impregnable, unassailable.

The rap on Russert is that it’s all about him. Not just the narcissistic thing of most talking heads but a larger control and power thing. He doesn’t want people just to look at him – but to need him and fear him too. He’s a Democrat, but in a backflip, he’s toughest on the Democrats – toughest of all on Clinton. He gets a certain sort of credit for selling out his old pals. The conceit he retails is that, knowing what he knows, he understands the depravity, worthlessness, and corruption of politics. At the same time, he can slaver and stroke too. There’s no consistency – or the consistency is that he’s working the angles; if he needs to slaver and stroke, he’ll slaver and stroke. He is, in fact, a politician – in the most hallowed tradition, looking out for No. 1.

He’s satisfied, smug. He has the smile of someone who has eaten his fill, with no guilt about it. He’s so laughingly sure of himself. Sure that he’s in the right place, at the right time, with the right guests.

He’s like a balloon you want to pop.

On the other hand, he’s the only person, it sometimes seems, who’s willing to take on these people. He’s the devil, and his guests are the damned.


Russert to Judgment