The Moment of Truth — June 12, 2008

Tim Russert’s Eyes Were Nothing Like the Sun

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the gavel of the jolly drunk judge on the knuckles of the white-collar cutthroat.

I come not to praise Tim Russert, nor to bury him, nor even to insult him. He was an intelligent man, though he employed his intelligence in moderation. He was not an evil man, neither was he a saint or a hero. If one had to describe him in a single word, that word would be “chumbly-bumbly.”

He was not a trendsetter, but neither was he an iconoclast. When the time came for journalists to write cloyingly sentimental books about their fathers, he wrote one. After 9-11, when the anti-democratic forces of the Far Right were ascendant, he carefully avoided offending them. When Dick Cheney wanted to come on Meet the Press in order to lie in an interview-type setting without having the interviewer challenge him on the factual content of his statements, Tim Russert was there to accommodate him—not as a tool of the White House, but as a chumbly-bumbly talking Teddy Bear of a journalist, with his ubiquitous pleasant smile and button eyes and fair-mindedness.

Tim Russert was fair-minded to the point of utterly lacking any active moral sense whatsoever. This is not to say he was an immoral or even an amoral man. His primary ethical goal seemed to be, not to expose the lies of others, but rather to avoid lying himself. And of course to avoid offending. When the nation turned against President Bush, Russert again made sure not to offend, this time not to say anything that might hurt the feelings of those who despised the President.

He had modest ambitions to be in important positions. And he got into those important positions by working hard and working his modesty.

Of the moral imperative, Russert did not imbibe. His case was not the imperative case, his case was the moral passive. He drank case after case. He was not drunk with power. He had power, but he must have been saving it in his cellar, or maybe whoever gave it to him told him to cellar it, and he forgot about it, not realizing what it was worth. He was not drunk with power, he was drunk with moral passivity. The cheap stuff.

He did not take a stand. It was enough for him to be “an American.” As if we all aren’t Americans, even those of us who don’t choose to publish cloyingly sentimental memoirs. It was enough for him to be “a man.” As if the disgruntled, the alienated, the incarcerated, and the screwed are some kind of Dr. Moreau human-animal hybrids who can’t even tie a half-Windsor.

And yet he meant no malice by it. He was honorable in the way he was taught honor. He was a samurai of moral passivity and a scholar of verbal complacency.

But there is one thing Tim Russert did that no other living journalist has yet done: he died.

To die is no small feat. I am not here to mock Tim Russert’s dying. He died a sudden cardiac death. He died at the age of fifty-eight, which is quite young. Why? R. Kelly gets acquitted and the simply, chumbly-bumbly Tim Russert dies at fifty-eight? Right after visiting the Pope? In what universe is that not a kind of tragedy? Truly Friday the 13th has earned its reputation this time around. Russert had a good career going, and he was dedicated to it, and not at the expense of his loved ones, not at the direct physical expense of anyone, by all accounts, and indirectly connected to the distress of only a few hundred thousand combatants and civilians, in the tenuous manner of so many of us, those perhaps less tenuously than most. He did not live a life of quiet desperation, but a life of verbal complacency. Was there not something heroic in his unheroic, inoffensive public life? Was there not something heroic in his merely being a dedicated adequate professional with a quotidian attitude and a happy family?

And then to die. I tell you I do not mock him here. As he died his cardiac death, Tim Russert was himself as no one of us has ever been his or her self. Then and there, Tim Russert himself was the very locus of creation and destruction. Tim Russert’s consciousness was the center of the universe. All that his life had meant to him, all that everyone he’d ever met had been to him, all that every sight he’d ever seen had ever said to him, was there, it enrobed him, this radiant cloak of all that he was. And at that moment he remembered all at once all that he was, and knew that he had never been all that he was until that very moment. And he knew all that he could ever have known, all at once. And what he was and what he knew bore him up into the Empyrean. And, in luminous knowledge and being, he passed out of what we know as The World, and behind him was drawn an indigo curtain of eternal mystery.

There have been many things said about him by his colleagues and other public figures, about his greatness, his top-notchness. Yet, by heaven, I think Tim Russert more rare than any he belied with false compare, as Shakespeare said so honestly about his all-too-human mistress.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!