Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Russert Rule

Universally acknowledged by Washington's elite to be one of the most important people who ever lived on Earth, if not the most important person, Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert was given a state funeral yesterday that rivaled the send-offs for such beloved and powerful men as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The impact of Russert's death on humanity is only just beginning to be felt, but one of its most immediate and profound effects may be on the U.S. election.

Russert's friends and colleagues were understandably shocked by Russert's premature passing. If an overweight workaholic with diabetes and a history of coronary artery disease can suddenly die without warning, is any one of us safe? Many of the pundits and politicians who spoke at Russert's funeral and during the hours and hours and hours of cable news coverage must have been wondering, for the first time in their lives, Am I, too, mortal? Tom Brokaw has never looked so human.

Russert brought something to television journalism that had never been tried before. Instead of asking questions off the top of his head, he had his staff do research on his interviewees and actually used some of that research in his interviews. Many politicians had never been confronted with their own words before and his unique interview style caught many of them off guard, but it also gave them a chance to look good by showing that they could withstand tough questioning by giving vague, noncommittal answers. Unfortunately, Russert's shoes will be very hard to fill because while many television journalists do have staffs that have access to LEXIS/NEXIS, few of them know what follow-up questions to ask after an interviewee gives his boilerplate answer and will simply go on to another topic. Russert's ability to ask the same question over and over again using different words is one that has sadly died with him. He will be missed.

Doing research and asking follow-up questions were not Russert's only journalistic innovations. Russert invented a new rule of journalism, which should be called the Russert Rule as a tribute to him. As Russert explained when he testified in the Scooter Libby trial, "My personal policy is always off the record when talking to government officials unless specified." For years journalists considered all conversations with public figures to be on the record unless it was made clear before the conversation took place that it was off the record. This made many politicians understandably distrustful and wary of journalists. But Russert, in a flash of brilliance, realized that it would be much easier to cozy up to politicians if he simply reversed this rule making all conversations off the record unless everyone agreed they were on the record beforehand. This reversal of journalistic precedent changed the way journalism is done. Politicians could feel safe confiding in Russert and didn't have to worry that their secrets would get out too soon, or at least that they could be traced back to their source. Scooter Libby felt that he could depend so much on Russert's omerta that he told Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that he first heard that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA from Russert, and it was only because Fitzgerald forced Russert to testify that Russert reluctantly contradicted Libby's alibi. Quoting Greg Mitchell quoting the Associated Press quoting Russert, he testified, "I did not know she worked at the CIA. I did not know any of that until the following Monday when I saw all in (newspaper columnist) Robert Novak's column.... We simply did not know it. I wish we had." (Please don't sue me AP!) If Fitzgerald hadn't forced Russert's hand, you can be sure that Russert would have kept Libby's secret. We will never know how many other secrets died with Russert.

The fact that politicians could trust that Russert would safeguard their secrets instead of releasing them to the public prematurely where they might get distorted made him the go-to guy for administration officials who wanted to get their side of the story out without having to worry about being contradicted or embarrassed while still looking like they were being vetted by Russert's very tough-looking questions. When Dick Cheney wanted to sell the War in Iraq to the American people, his staff immediately called up Russert to book Cheney on NBC's Meet the Press (which Cheney's communications director called "our best format") to say that Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear bomb, citing as evidence a story that appeared in the New York Times that morning, which his assistant Scooter Libby had conveniently leaked to reporter Judith Miller. He knew that citing a Times story he himself planted would be all the evidence he would need and he wouldn't have to worry about Russert asking the kinds of skeptical questions that might throw him off message.

In one of the many moving tributes Russert received, Chris Matthews pointed out that one of the secrets of Russert's success was that he was not smarter or more sophisticated than his audience. "It may be tricky to say this," Matthews said, "and I'll say it, when we went to war with Iraq, he and I had a little discussion about that, and this is where Tim is Everyman, he is Us as a country. I said: 'How can you believe this war is justified?' And he said: 'The nuclear thing. If they have a bomb that they can use, we gotta deal with it. We can't walk away from that.' And that, to me, was the essence of what was wrong with the whole case for the war. They knew that argument would sell with Mr. America, with The Regular Guy, with the True American Patriot. They knew the argument that would sell, that would get us into that war. Tim was right on the nail. He was Us, the American People. . . . That was the thing that sold America, and the guys who wanted the War used that one thing that would sell the Patriot in Tim Russert." What could be more patriotic than a journalist who believes what the government is telling him instead of questioning it like some reporters used to do back in the 1970s before they got columns and wrote best-selling books? And if there is anything members of the Washington elite hate it is someone who seems too elite by looking like they are intelligent and thoughtful and not the salt of the earth. Perhaps there is no greater tribute to Russert than the fact that the Washington elite accepted this humble man from Buffalo as a member of their club and went on television and showed up at his funeral to proclaim in unison, "One of us! One of us!"

Even though Russert was a Democrat and a liberal, he was not one of those radical, un-American liberals. His mentor was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, every conservative's favorite Democrat until Joe Lieberman came along. Moynihan worked in the Nixon administration where he helped develop Nixon's Civil Rights policy of "benign neglect" toward African-Americans where nothing was actually accomplished even though it appeared on the surface that progress was being made. That was the kind of liberalism Russert subscribed to. And unlike many members of the liberal media, Russert bent over backwards to appear to be "fair" by asking liberals harder questions and taking it easy on conservatives, something conservative journalists don't need to do because our views are so rarely aired. Russert inspired a whole generation of liberal journalists who compensated for their partisan views by bashing liberals and praising conservatives whenever they could to demonstrate their objectivity, a legacy that is much appreciated by this conservative. Unfortunately, a new generation of liberal journalists, people like Keith Olberman, David Gregory and Chris Matthews (whom Russert hated), don't believe they have to hide their partisan leanings in order to appear objective and fair. With Russert's passing Fox News may be the last bastion of fair and balanced journalism.

We don't know yet what the impact of Russert's death will be on the upcoming election. Can another journalist take his place and conduct a gotcha interview of Barack Obama or make John McCain seem articulate? That remains to be seen. It was clear that McCain was deeply saddened by the death of his friend and Obama, despite his hypocritical tribute, was greatly relieved. But Russert's death will have far-reaching impact on our planet that will extend beyond this election. For example, Rep. Darrell Issa pointed out yesterday that if Russert were still alive he would have revealed "the truth" about the offshore oil drilling ban if he were still alive and no doubt convinced the American people that ruining the environment is a small price to pay for making sure gas prices are low. This is just one of the ways in which the loss of Russert will be deeply felt. What will future administrations do when they have a war to sell or a political enemy to trash? Will Meet the Press still have the ability to shape the political discourse in a way that is favorable to those in power without Tim Russert at the helm? What will happen to his son, Luke Russert now that he doesn't have his father to plug his work? Will the Buffalo Bills ever have a winning season again now that their fan has died? Only future historians will be able to answer these and other burning questions.

It's hard to imagine what life on Earth will be like without Tim Russert. I'm sure Russert is in Heaven now asking God some tough questions: "In Leviticus You said…." No doubt their conversation is off the record.

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Anonymous said...

Russert's interview with God doesn't have to be off record. By virtue of being in heaven, he's already cozied up to God. Besides, based on how many different religious texts that exist and the number of people whose words are inspired by God, I think God has made it clear he's not shy about having his views disseminated. This may be Russert's chances at a magnum opus!

Ingrid said...

ZING! I have 'lurked' about off and on and thought that mrs. Swift had you retire from wrong was I. I think Fox ought to call you right now and make YOU there new commentator instead of that Larry 'whatshisface'..
brilliant piece Mr. Swift..bravo..and again..ZING!

William K Wolfrum said...

God damn that was good.


Unknown said...

It hadn't hit me at all. I hadn't even heard of the man until he died. But even with all the other elegies and hosannahs filling the atmosphere, I didn't mourn. But now? How sad!

Anonymous said...

"For example, Rep. Darrell Issa pointed out yesterday that if Russert were still alive he would have would have revealed "the truth" about the offshore oil drilling ban if he were still alive and no doubt convinced the American people that ruining the environment is a small price to pay for making sure gas prices are low."

Heh. You're good.

Fearguth said...

Brilliant as usual, Mr. Swift. Dammit!

Hipple, Rev. Paul T. said...

With Russert's passing, what most concerns me is whether Conservatives will be able to develop another way, one as effective, to get their policy messages out to the rest of us in their constituency.

I wonder to what degree his heart attack can be laid at the foot of that Negro feller I've heard rumors about...the one running for President?

Anonymous said...

Indeed, a titan has fallen. As Chris Matthews was so quick to point out -- where will we ever find another paunchy middle-aged white guy who fashions himself a salt-of-the-earth blue collar liberal while consistently leaning towards the right?

No, they certainly don't make them like that anymore.

Anonymous said...

Rev.Hippie: Good Gravy! That's just silly - everyone knows that Russert's death, Kennedy's tumour, Byrd's sudden illness together with Obama's loss or win in November, are absolutely the fault of Hillary Clinton, or Bill Clinton, or Chelsea Clinton, or anyone formerly known as Clinton or anyone who, will in future, be known as Clinton.

SM said...

I laughed out loud through the whole thing. I'm going to hell. But if you're there, Mr. Swift, it's sure to be an enjoyable experience. Beats listening to Russert anyway.

p.s. you've an error midway through the 2nd to last para.

Anonymous said...

I'm stunned after reading this entire post and all the current comments. Has not one of you seen fit to mention that Tim was from Buffalo? He wasn't a DC Beltway insider, he was from Buffalo danggammit. He's probably spinning in his grave about now.

Batocchio said...

Can another journalist take his place and conduct a gotcha interview of Barack Obama or make John McCain seem articulate? That remains to be seen.

I loved it all, but this is the bit that made me laugh the most.

Anonymous said...

Although I never watched The Tim Russert Show, I knew he wrote a book about about his dad, which I never read; he must have loved his dad a lot. Do you know if he and his dad ever got married; I think they lived in California I where same sex marriage is legal.

Anonymous said...

You have captured the essence of what made Tim Russert a great American journalist.

Thankfully, Brian Williams is a guy who understands what Russert brought to the table. If only Russert could have taught Olbermann how the job is supposed to be done!

Anonymous said...

I think that Russert's passing did have at least one unintended benefit. It inspired this piece.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

No doubt about it, Jon...I gotta start farming out what little political content there is on my blog to you.

Brilliant piece.

Hackwhackers said...

As usual, a fitting tribute to our Tim.

I was not able to obtain a limosine this weekend for my social calendar due to Tim's untimely demise. A sign of his everlasting impact!

Hackwhackers said...

I meant, of course, last weekend. I intend to party in memory of our Tim this weekend, limos, my Villager compadres, and all.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Thank you.

Bukko Boomeranger said...

Tell it, Jon! If Americans wanted to hear anyone posing hard questions that would stick it to powerful people, they'd be listening to the Internet. And who the hell does that? Long live Tim Russert!

On second thought, maybe I'm a bit late with that last bit...

Anonymous said...

"Will the Buffalo Bills ever have a winning season again now that their fan has died?"


Well, at least had a fan!

Fran / Blue Gal said...

That, my friend, is a thing of beauty.

Chuck Butcher said...

I heard Sunday on MTP that Russert was still dead

Representative Kimble said...

One thing that Russert cared about very much is the high price of gasoline. This was always one of Russert’s favorite topics to discuss on his show. A couple of days ago, California Republican Representative Darrell Issa eulogized Tim Russert by saying, “We are going to miss Tim Russert when it comes to the people on both sides of the issue of why we have $5 oil — $5 gasoline and $135 oil. I think Tim Russert would have been just the right guy to hold people accountable, who would talk about the 68 million acres that are, quote, inactive, while in fact 41 million are under current lease and use and are producing millions of barrels of oil and natural gas a day.” We owe it to Tim to open up offshore drilling.

OutOfContext said...

By linking Tim Russert and Tod Browning, you are hereby awarded an OutOfContext Outstanding Contextualization Award.
You are the first recipient of the prestigious OOCOCA and your no-prize with its non-monetary honorarium is in the mail.

Matthew said...

Well, I've already done the right thing and sliced my belly open in the honorable tradition of seppuku, to die upon my master's grave.

liquiddaddy said...


I saw Mr. Russert at a Knights of Columbus Veteran's Day celebration in Batavia NY last year, and I gotta tell you he looked awful.

On TV his head looks as big a standard sized pumpkin, but in person it was about the size of an ice chest, or household microwave oven. His face was bright red, and had a tiny trickle of blood out of each ear. He was shouting something while spattering bits of brat grizzle and potato salad.

I knew he was sick.

Ghazala Khan said...

Interview Request

Hello Dear and Respected,
I hope you are fine and carrying on the great work you have been doing for the Internet surfers. I am Ghazala Khan from The Pakistani Spectator (TPS), We at TPS throw a candid look on everything happening in and for Pakistan in the world. We are trying to contribute our humble share in the webosphere. Our aim is to foster peace, progress and harmony with passion.

We at TPS are carrying out a new series of interviews with the notable passionate bloggers, writers, and webmasters. In that regard, we would like to interview you, if you don't mind. Please send us your approval for your interview at my email address "ghazala.khi at", so that I could send you the Interview questions. We would be extremely grateful.


Ghazala Khan
The Pakistani Spectator

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Swift,

Please look past Mr. Ghazala Khan's nerdy need for "peace, progress and harmony"; and comply with his request for an interview. I am very interested to see how your opinions will fare in Pakistan. Who knows, perhaps they will agree with you 100%.

Also, forgive me for not pleading with you during your absence to set your life aside and complete mine. Frankly, I feared that all the attention might swell your head to the size of a microwave oven; and I now learn from liquiddaddy that this was a real possibilty. Whew!

Anonymous said...

Another of your outstandingly petty pieces Jon.

That'll teach men like Russert to laugh at you in the locker room.

Anonymous said...

Great post and even greater blog! I'll definitely be checking back, thanks for good content.


Carl said...

Matthews HAD to cozy up to politicians in order to break all those big stories he had over the years! How else would anyone expect him to become the fine hard-nosed investigative journalist he was if he hadn;t polished said nose in the arse of thousands of politicos????

Carl said...

Errr, Russert. Matthews is the one who knows it all already. Mea culpa.

Carl said...

I am very interested to see how your opinions will fare in Pakistan. Who knows, perhaps they will agree with you 100%.

Apparently you have never seen "Searching For Comedy In The Muslim World" by Albert Brooks.

Mr Swift, you will be a smash!

Micgar said...

Uh oh! It's happening again! Jon has left the building. I am starting to miss him already!

Anonymous said...

Hey Bro, we LINKED to your coolness. Great piece on that blowhardy windbag Tim Russert.


We'Thinks the term "I don't give a rats' ass" may have been solely coined to show love for the man with The Gotcha Plan.

We read you like a religion. Now um... with us being Atheists n'all, that isn't saying much...But seriously folk... Mr. Jon, we dig your style. Your intelligence and wit is refreshing and remind us (& we often need reminding) that the world is NOT full of losers and rat bastards.

We "Gotcha" linked!!
Cheers from CTK & Sir Jeffers
of 1 Headed Dog

Anonymous said...

Dog, my question is "Do you give a rat bastard's ass?"

I'm glad to see that in honor of Independence Day, the Rev. Dr. Swift has decided to take an extra-long holiday from posting. What could be more conservative than that? Remember, work is for the little people, not the conservatives who employ them.

Anonymous said...

Let's go a few extra months this time before we organize a search party, eh?

Anonymous said...

batocchio said...
"Can another journalist take his place and conduct a gotcha interview of Barack Obama or make John McCain seem articulate? That remains to be seen."

I loved it all, but this is the bit that made me laugh the most.

Indeed, battochio, I'm sure that this passage is nothing more than snark from Mr. Swift. As he well knows, there are no shortage of acolytes who are more than willing to take up Mr. Russert's baton.

Thankfully, Brian Williams is a guy who understands what Russert brought to the table.

Exactly, Jolly Roger, and if Mr. Williams should falter, Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Harry Smith, John Roberts and many more will be standing by to continue TIm Russert's tradition of asking tough questions of liberals while lobbing softballs at conservatives.

Anonymous said...

'm stunned after reading this entire post and all the current comments. Has not one of you seen fit to mention that Tim was from Buffalo? He wasn't a DC Beltway insider, he was from Buffalo danggammit. He's probably spinning in his grave about now.

Mr. Anonymous, I'm confused. I thought Russert lived in "Northwest Washington," D.C. and "Nantucket, Mass., where the family had a home."

Are you saying that the New York Times was inaccurate?

And by all means, Jon, I hope you take (or have taken - it seems that this article was posted to the internet some time ago ) Mr. Ghazala Khan's interview request seriously. It may be a rare opportunity to bridge the east-west communications gap. Godspeed!

Anonymous said...

Uh oh! It's happening again! Jon has left the building. I am starting to miss him already!

Jon is no doubt meditating on just how much satire it will take to convert these peace-loving Pakistani terrorists into civilized, war-loving capitalists.

This is a delicate decision. Why, one mistake and we could spend the next hundred years recruiting our fine, young satirists to take up the pen and do battle.

Freedom is at stake, and a shortage of local amusement is a small price to pay. Take your time, Jon; and soldier on!

Anonymous said...

russert rule is very good

Anonymous said...

Another great American passed away recently. Sadly, the Fourth Ammendment is no longer with us. It passed quietly, no state funneral and no hours and hours of news coverage. But I think in the end it may be missed even more than Tim Russert.

Anonymous said...

R.I.P. Jon Swift. I already miss you.

Anonymous said...

[[[Question for 1HeadedDog said...

Dog, my question is "Do you give a rat bastard's ass?"]]

Firstly let me commend you on your name, "Question For 1HeadedDog said" was actually our first choice for band title but had been taken.

Secondly any reference to a "rat bastard's ass" would be a step-up and much too high falutin for that bloated hack Tim Russert!

May he rest in peace.
He's probably "digging up dirt" on the worms as we speak, ready to shame them on another half baked gotcha-or-anotha regarding illicit dealings with some shady maggots or what-have-ya.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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