Williams: Russert ‘took the call’

We are into the second wave of media coverage of the death of NBC’s Tim Russert, featuring stories that are one step away from the actual memorial service and the mainstream press memorials. Some of these events are going to be linked to more complex, personal aspects of Russert’s career — such as his faith.

Before his death, I had already noted that Russert was scheduled to give a June 27 lecture for the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, to be held at the Catholic University of America. The announced topic sounded a bit on the lofty, perhaps even pretentious side of things: “Learnings from the Political Process for Common Ground in the Catholic Church.” That certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of blunt, direct language that Russert favored. I immediately made plans to go or to get a copy of the talk.

After Russert’s death, NBC anchorman Brian Williams — a Catholic who briefly attended CUA — agreed to step in and speak in place of his colleague. The emphasis for the event changed, as you would expect.

I am not sure that this was a “news event,” per se. But Williams certainly took on a question of interest to GetReligion readers, which is the degree to which Russert’s faith had an impact on his work in politics and then journalism. Did it help shape some of those infamous questions that he aimed at politicians, questions that often touched on the intersection of religion and politics and the events and trends that result when they are mixed?

Since I was out of town when the event was held, I ended up writing a Scripps Howard News Service column off an audio recording (hat tip to my Washington Journalism Center co-worker Greg Perreault). Now, you can watch the Williams talk online, as well. Click here to go to the National Pastoral Life Center site to view that. I have not found an embed code for this yet, so if it hits YouTube let me know.

In the column, I opened with that infamous exchange between Russert and Vice President Al Gore about abortion and the question of when life begins. This leads into the big questions that lots of people — usually those on the religious and political left — used to ask about Russert from time. That’s an interesting comment in and of itself, considering his years of work in the offices of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Anyway, here is the top half of the column. Click here for the version that is up at Scripps:

The politico facing Tim Russert was Vice Present Al Gore and their testy dialogue was one of the memorable moments during the 2000 White House race.

RUSSERT: When do you think life begins?

GORE: I favor the Roe vs. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did —

RUSSERT: Which is what? When does life begin?

GORE: Let me just say, I did change my position on the issue of federal funding and I changed it because I came to understand more from women — women think about this differently than men.

RUSSERT: But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don’t believe life begins at conception. I’m just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?

GORE: Well, look, the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question —

RUSSERT: Which is?

Liberal critics said this line of questioning veered out of journalism into hostile territory, especially when Russert probed Gore on laws banning the execution of any pregnant woman on death row, somewhere, someday. Gore defenders defended his stunned, befuddled silence — what one called a “pregnant pause.”

But the Gore showdown raised other questions. Was the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” asking this question because of his own Catholic beliefs? Or was Russert pressing hard because he knew that, as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, Gore had an 84 percent positive National Right to Life voting record and he wanted to hear the candidate describe his change of heart?

“Tim wore his Catholicism proudly. He talked about it all the time,” noted NBC anchor Brian Williams, who stepped in, after Russert’s death, as the featured speaker at a recent Catholic Common Ground Initiative forum in Washington, D.C.

In fact, Russert’s faith was not “an elephant in the room. It was the room. It was the room he was raised in. It was one of his great charms, as was how he dealt with it in life and in our public discourse. … Catholicism was his base. It was never his bias. I think that’s absolutely crucial and I will debate anyone who contends to the contrary.”

RussertWilliams said that the key question for the night could be stated this way: Was Russert’s relentless search for the truth a result of his Catholic upbringing?

In a moment that could have produced an entire forum, event or book, Williams briefly discussed Russert’s internal struggle during the waves of clergy sex-abuse scandals that rocked his church. Trying to handle that horrific reality — as a Catholic parent and as a journalist — was a test of Russert’s faith. But, Williams said, he also knew that he needed to do the “job of a journalist.”

The column ends with this quote from Williams:

Russert always “understood that the stakes were high. He knew that better than most of us,” added Williams. “He knew that the civility of our dialogue was under attack. He knew that diversity in the public square takes work every day. And he knew that our standards of journalism were being attacked. …

“He understood what it meant to be ‘called’ to be Catholic, and I think that’s very important. He took the call.”

And some of the people said, “Amen.” There are those who would disagree, which is totally understandable in light of the topics that Russert tried to cover as a Catholic and a journalist, Sunday after Sunday.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://chaseafterwind.com Amy

    I do not know what motivated Tim Russert when he pressed Al Gore for a straightforward answer, but in my opinion that was truly brilliant journalism. I can hardly stand to listen to politicians being interviewed most of the time. It is so frustrating when politicians fail to answer simple questions, and instead reply with some general comments on a subject they are comfortable with that doesn’t really answer the original question at all. What makes me even madder is that most journalists just allow them to get away with it. Pat answers are not at all informative, and information is the whole point of journalism. I for one would like to hear more interviews like Russert and Gore’s.

  • Laura

    Every time I read about something on Mr. Russert, I just get sad all over again. He was an absolutely brilliant journalist and I loved his questioning of Gore, he never let up on hat question. He didn’t let him squeak by… This has probably been said before, indeed I said it the moment I’d heard he died but it deserves to be repeated. “Eternal rest grant unto him oh Lord, and may purpetual light shine upon him. May the soul of Timothy Russert, as well as all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.”

  • Peggy

    tmatt:

    I was surprised in your post to learn that Williams is Catholic also. While I am aware that the intent of his speech was to focus on Russert’s faith, which has been much discussed, did Williams offer any of his own experience as a journalist who is Catholic? Or did he remain the disinterested observer?

  • Claude

    It sounds like Russert was a partisan of Bush et al. I wonder if he ever pressed Bush on his view of the Vatican’s opposition to the death penalty and the Iraq war. I suspect not.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CLAUDE:

    Say WHAT? Russert was a very loyal Democrat, but also a very balanced and tough journalist. What in the world made you think he was a Bush partisan?

  • Claude

    The media representation–and all the jubilant celebration of his sandbagging Gore–makes it sound like he was pro-Bush. I just want to know if he did the same thing to Bush, asking him, for example, how he could play up his close relationship to the Vatican, especially after he announced his plans for a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage, when the Vatican is against the death penalty and the Iraq War. I could imagine a very interesting discussion over these issues, but somehow I don’t remember this “loyal Democrat” ever actually confronting Bush with anything like the ferocity with which he confronted Gore.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CLAUDE:

    HIs showdown with Dick Cheney is the one everyone remembers, which was tough as nails.

    I watched that Bush interview when it was aired. Frankly, Bush was on top of his game that day and did much better than Gore had. Russert went after him on a number of issues, but I think W had an advantage because the Gore interview was first. W’s team had a long hard look at what was coming and was ready.

    Also, Gore has a history of having trouble one on one. W is TERRIBLE speaking to groups, but is effective one on one.

    Has anyone seen clips from that Russert-Cheney showdown anywhere?

  • FW Ken

    I was actually surprised to see this posting, since the initial wave of remembrance stressed his even-handedness, despite being a devout Democrat.

    That “which Catholic vote” question is always worth a review, given the history of Catholics and the Democratic Party.

  • Dave

    Claude:

    I wasn’t much of a follower of Russert, but the obit coverage has emphasized that one of his major pragmata was to unearth old quotes from the interviewee that did not comport with the latter’s current stance, ask him or her about it, and not give up or allow himself to get side-tracked. The Gore interview was a classic example, but it wasn’t pro-Bush. It was Russert being Russert.