Father's Day Remembering Tim Russert

By Jim Wallis 6-17-2008

Father's Day was especially poignant this year with the shocking weekend news of the death of Tim Russert, the long-time and extraordinary host of Meet The Press. I knew Tim a little, mostly from the times I have been on the show or at Washington events that we both attended. Watching Meet The Press is a Sunday ritual for me; one of the very few things on television that I always tape. Tim Russert's unexpected passing broke the heart of official Washington and the outpouring of emotional remembrances was highly unusual for this cynical city. Listening to so many of the heartfelt tributes to Tim Russert made it painfully clear how much the people in this city and around the country knew him well and loved him dearly. The outpouring of praise from his colleagues spoke of Russert's brilliance as the best--always tough but fair--interviewer on television. They spoke of his consistent and daunting preparation before each show, and how much the leading politicians of our time knew they had to really be prepared for an interview with Tim Russert.

We often hear the words, "speaking truth to power," but in watching Tim Russert each week you got a ringside seat to that "prophetic" vocation. And unlike so many of the television talk show hosts of this era, his show was never mostly about him, but rather about holding politicians' feet to the fire of accountability to their own words and positions, and giving the American people the opportunity to evaluate what they say and what it really means. Russert's work ethic came right from his working class roots in Buffalo, which he never forgot, and helped make him much more likeable and accessible to ordinary people in America than the media elite who often act as if they are celebrities, not journalists who are supposed to ask the hard questions of important people. His producer reported that, after every Sunday show, Tim would call his dad back in Buffalo, "Big Russ," a retired sanitation worker, to get his opinion of that week's Meet The Press which, Russert said, was the cheapest and best focus group a journalist ever had.

Tim Russert was also a man of deep personal faith, a Catholic whose religion meant much more to him, again, than it often does for many of his media colleagues. He regularly had faith leaders as guests on Meet the Press and treated the subject of relgion and public life with both knowledge and respect. I remember one show that I was on, along with Jerry Falwell, Al Sharpton, and Richard Land. Russert kept probing deeper and deeper, often with good insight, trying to avoid the religious food fight that often breaks out in politics. We sometimes discussed how the perspective of faith could help get us beyond the narrow confines of the "right" and "left" political categories and maybe even help the nation to find some common ground on the crucial moral issues like poverty. Russert himself was known for generous involvement in many causes that served the poor.

Many of the tributes went even deeper than the numerous accolades for his many gifts and skills. Tim Russert was not only the premier political journalist in America, as everyone agreed, but was also a real "father figure" to many people, from the whole family at NBC News to the extended community of journalists in this city--even to many of his rivals. And so many of Russert's colleagues and friends spoke of his interest in their children, and how much he meant in the lives of their own families. Story after story recounted how often he would inquire after how someone's children were doing, and how Tim was often "there for you" in times of personal and family crisis. I recall him asking me about my kids, and us smiling when we realized that we both had sons named "Luke."

Tim Russert and I were about the same age when he died so unexpectedly last weekend, a fact that was not lost on my own son Luke. On Father's Day, it was his role as a faithful father to his own son and very attentive "godfather" to so many other people's sons and daughters which most broke through to me. Later on this Father's Day, our Little League baseball team, the Astros, had its last game of the season and a celebration pool party. One of the greatest blessings of my life has been to coach my nine-year-old Luke's team for the last several years, and now also help with five-year-old Jack's as well. Before we passed out the medals to each kid and talked about our season together, I remembered Tim Russert with a few words on Father's Day for the boys and their parents by saying that the premier American journalist of our time would have thought this--kids, baseball, parents, family, community, and celebration--to be the most important thing of all. And in being faithful to that priority himself, in the midst of an enormously busy and significant public life, Tim Russert is a role model for every dad and mom; every uncle, aunt, godparent, teacher, and coach; and every adult who realizes how much kids need people to love and teach them the important things of life. Thanks Tim, we won't forget you.

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