You're not supposed to speak ill of the dead, especially when they have just departed.
But Tim Russert defined a horrible era in journalism, the era of my life, an era I was given scant chance to participate in, perhaps the worst era in the profession's history.
To Russert journalists were referees, access was all, and he was the star. This is the opposite of how I was taught. Journalists are witnesses, sources are to be used, and we're all anonymous. Russert's role was a burlesque of the character Burt Lancaster played in 1957's The Sweet Smell of Success. Process was everything, inside baseball took the place of policy, the the public's interest in the crimes of his time was lost.
The "hard questions" Russert asked were mainly "gotcha" questions, false premises piled on phony sanctimony, which he got from his guests' political opponents. He never asked the really hard questions, never challenged the run-up to the Iraq War, never really challenged the war. As a result neither did anyone else.
It was because of Russert's Rule:
This turns the rules of journalism on its head. Instead of being an independent soul ferreting out the truth, you become their Falstaff. And if you're the leader of the pack acting in this way, then no truly independent voice has a chance -- the sources all clam up and you've got nothing because they can always leak their unadulterated spin into a friendly ear. Into Tim Russert's friendly ear. And he won't say boo unless they tell him to, when it's in their interest for him to say boo.
Or have we already forgotten his role in the Scooter Libby case?
Tim Russert was an unindicted co-conspirator in every crime of the Bush Administration, not just because of his own behavior but because he was NBC's Washington bureau chief, and such a leader within the Washington press corps that anyone with ambition had to follow his example.
Tim Russert was to journalism what Eva Peron was to Argentina. Everyone loved him in life and ignored the destruction of institutions he was bringing about. History's verdict will be different than today's.
A friend called just now and noted how similar Russert's death was to that of our mutual friend, Russell Shaw. Both men were workaholics who died with their proverbial boots on. But both ignored the warning signs of their heart attacks, both were overweight and sedentary, and Russert demanded so much of the camera's time that NBC is left with no bench, no one who can replace him.
They should not try. Take what he was making and parse it out among a half-dozen young, hungry reporters, who won't play by Russert's Rules and will actually get the story. He'd consider that a suitable legacy.
Compare the Bob Woodward of All the President's Men with the Bob Woodward whose stenography so heavily flavored the Bush years. That's Russert's real legacy, that degradation of the profession he claimed to love.
Now if you want to respond by hating on me, by saying I don't deserve to have sucked at his shoelaces," go ahead. The era of lies is ending. The Error of Russert is now behind us.