If it’s Sunday . . . it’s “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert.
Starting when they were very young, I began to teach my three children this phrase. (Sure, it doesn’t have the clever ring of your standard nursery rhyme, but this is what happens when your mom’s a politics and news junkie.)
I’d enthusiastically point to the TV – featuring the mug of the man who had a thousand, detailed and well researched questions ready to pose to politicians and policy makers – and tell my kids that NBC’s Tim Russert was a really smart guy whose words about politics they should heed.
After years and years of my repeating the, “If it’s Sunday” line, it finally stuck. “Hey guys,” I’d say in an annoying, sing-song voice on a Sunday morning as I flipped on the TV, “’If it’s Sunday . . .” Then I’d wait, silently, expectantly, for the kids to fill in the rest.
“(*Audible groans, silent shaking of heads*) It’s ‘Meet the Press’ with Tim Russert,” they’d finally grumble in a monotone. They knew if they didn’t respond, I’d just keep asking until they did.
When my father, a fellow news junkie, called to tell me that that Russert had died on Friday afternoon, I was heart broken. Russert, the host of the gold standard in Sunday political talk shows, was a role model, an Edward R. Murrow to my generation of journalists. I sat on my sofa, transfixed by the cable TV coverage and thought about what had been lost in that afternoon.
As my children wandered through the room at different times and told me they were sorry that Russert had died, I thought about what his abrupt absence from the world of political journalism would mean.
Without Russert on the air on Sunday mornings, future and upcoming journalists have been robbed of the lessons they could’ve learned from him. While teaching journalism students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst , I had used Russert -- who had worked for Democratic politicians in his pre-journalism life -- as an example of how one can be a fair, exquisitely prepared and smart interviewer. “Watch him interview someone and try to discern if he has a bias,” I’d challenge them. Then I’d put on a video of Russert, have them watch the man in action and afterwards we’d discuss at length the art of an expertly researched question.
Without Russert, as a voter I have lost an important gauge that I used to measure national politicians for whom I considered voting. He was akin to a one-man vetting machine. If a politician could make it through a Russert interview without looking like a double-talking blowhard trying to slime out of questions, then I could consider that individual as potentially worthy of my vote. I cannot imagine what it’s now going to be like to watch the coverage of this exciting presidential race without him, without his insight, without his no-frills white board explaining in plain English what’s going on and what’s at stake.
Without Russert, the profession of journalism has lost someone who did NOT get a thrill in the kill, in taking down someone’s career or in making sport of the powerful as part of some game of gotcha as we oftentimes see today. Instead, Russert seemed to be genuinely excited about getting at the truth and breaking through prepared talking points to discover authenticity, to get at the root of what everyday Americans wanted to know.
Without Russert, the world of American politics has lost a rare place where the institutions of government, the promise of democracy and the virtue of public service were held in high esteem. The reason Russert’s questions were so sharp and rooted in research was because so much was at stake, much more than mere ratings (though hosting the top-rated Sunday show was an achievement of which he was proud). The decisions of voters and the choices made by policy makers were influenced by what happened at that round table, and Russert knew that. Serious discussion about serious things mattered on “Meet the Press.” No bloviating, talking head, shallow ratings hound was he.
Without Russert, my children won’t grow into the age of reason and learn about the glorious world of politics taking lessons and cues from The Professor on Sunday mornings as I’d always hoped they would. They likely will forget all about his style of interviewing when they’re finally old enough to cast a vote. They may not remember the lengthy quotes and facts he frequently had put up on the screen in order to put his questions into context.
But hopefully, they’ll always remember the rest of this phrase, “If it’s Sunday . . .” and smile, knowing that there was something about that Russert guy that was pretty special.
Meredith O’Brien is a freelance writer and taught journalism at the