Greencastle, Ind. – For 10 years I was the national political correspondent for NBC News. It was a job that took me all over the country and I loved it, but there was a downside. Tim Russert was the Washington bureau chief, and it was to Tim that I handed my resignation. I explained that I found myself trying to help raise my two daughters from over 100 airports a year. I owed back dues to my family, and I didn’t want to miss my one chance to be a father. We sat in his office and talked about it for an hour. Tim had one son, Luke, and while his NBC job involved far less travel, it was equally demanding in other ways.
I left for DePauw University, and over the years every time we talked it was about families first.
Before crossing over to journalism, Russert worked in politics — for New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan and then New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. The years spent in the political trenches made him a more perceptive reporter. He had an instinct for politics, one of those guys who seemed to have an extra gene for the job. Russert worked for Democrats, but no one who watched him on “Meet the Press” ever doubted that he was an equal-opportunity interrogator.
Russert had an enormous appetite for work. He managed NBC’s most important bureau, itself a full-time job for everyone who held it before him. He took over “Meet the Press” and built it into the top-rated Sunday morning interview program, and also hosted a weekly show on MSNBC, interviewing politicians, authors and journalists. In every election year, he was in great demand to moderate debates in presidential, Senate and governor’s races all over the country. But what he liked best was being out on the campaign trail, reporting.
Despite his responsibilities, Russert found time to pitch in and help with important civic projects. For example, the curators of the new Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill., wanted to give its visitors a true sense of the drama behind the election that produced Abraham Lincoln. They asked Tim to re-create a modern election night, reporting from an NBC anchor desk, complete with maps, projections and commentary on the voting of 1860. I observed squads of schoolchildren who were transfixed by this exhibit. An important part of understanding Lincoln’s presidency is learning how he won the job.
Russert takes museum visitors back in history, reviews the candidates, describes the issue of slavery, shows how the states voted and why. Using modern television techniques, history unfolds just as if it were happening today. Visit the Lincoln Museum and see for yourself.
This year, Russert found himself reporting the most interesting and important presidential election of his lifetime. In the middle of the primaries, he took a break to drive to Boston and pick up his son Luke, who had finished his degree at Boston College. I’m sure that wherever he is now, he is saying to himself, “I just needed five more months.”
Tim Russert was plucked away much too early. But he certainly left at the top of his game.
Ken Bode is Pulliam Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.