It seemed as if Tim Russert was always leaning. Leaning in for that nugget of information he was doggedly digging out of an interview subject. Leaning forward to be closer to the person he was talking to, because he had a good story to tell, or something to show on the dry-erase board he had covered with numbers and other markings.
And, unless you were the subject of one of Russert's grillings, it was tempting to lean right back toward him. He promised friendship and openness as well as information.
We weren't friends, but I interviewed him several times over the years, and I remember them as enjoyable. A bit about the latest news might be followed by an anecdote about Big Russ, his father. Or he might reminisce about his days in Northeast Ohio as a student at John Carroll University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. There was always something to talk about.
It wasn't that Russert was always right. In 1995, he came to Cleveland for a long-scheduled speech. It proved to be a short trip, because it was the day after the Oklahoma City bombing, and he had to get back to work. At that point he was working the terrorism angle, lining up a Middle East expert for that Sunday's “Meet the Press.” As we now know, something very different had been behind the bombing.
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But it wasn't for a lack of work that Russert might get something wrong. He worked the phones, he worked his sources, spent three or four days preparing for a big interview on “Meet the Press.”
For all his appearances across the NBC universe, he called “Meet the Press” “the highlight of my week.”
“I just ask questions,” he once said to me. But he did so while thinking he carried a public trust.
“If you compare it to a newspaper, ‘Meet the Press' is the front page and the editorial page,” he said. “I've never done a program on JonBenet Ramsey or O.J. Simpson.
“When Princess Diana died, I did a show on the two most recognizable women in the world and gave Mother Teresa equal time to Princess Diana. I will proudly take that to my grave, and maybe even earn my salvation for it.”
A Democratic politician before he turned to TV news, he was proof that you didn't have to take your old beliefs with you to the new job. He grilled people from both sides of the aisle, and independents to boot.
Yes, there were times when he could be overzealous in pursuit of the answer he wanted, especially after it was clear he would not get it.
But you knew that Russert wanted, more than anything else, to get the best news – and to deliver it to you just the way you might hear it from the person in the next cubicle at your office.
Russert was this great, vital personality. Even sitting, he conveyed energy and excitement. His face would light up, the smile would spread. “Look at this,” he implied.
I did look, Tim. And I wish I had a chance to look with you again.