Alex Massie

Sometimes Washington Really is a Small Town

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Like anyone else who's spent any time in Washington these past 20 years, I was stunned by the sad news of Tim Russert's death, aged just 58, on Friday. these must be terrible times for his friends and family. Like Matt Yglesias, I've criticised Russert before, but de mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that. For myself, I never thought Russert as "tough" as his legend suggested. "Tougher than Bob Schieffer" isn't quite the same thing.

American journalism - and politics - of course, makes a virtue of having a less cynical, less antagonistic style than that which those of us brought up in Britain are accustomed to enjoying. There are strengths to that approach, of course, but Russert's attitude often seemed designed to cry "gotcha" when politicians were revealed to have broken the unspoken rules and assumptions of the Washington Game.

He was good, and a "Washington institution" and it is still shocking to think that he's dead so young, but... I agree with Marc Cooper that to judge from the tenor and quantity of the press coverage today you could be forgiven for thinking that a head of state, or a pope, had died, not a chap who gave up his Sunday mornings to ask politicians a few questions. Someone has to do that, of course, but does that justify MSNBC's schedule today?

SATURDAY, JUNE 14:

8 AM -- 12 PM ET: Morning Joe -- LIVE Remembering Tim Russert

12 PM ET: Dateline -- "Remembering Tim Russert"

1-6 PM ET -- MSNBC LIVE -- Special Coverage -- Remembering Tim Russert

6 PM ET: Dateline -- Remembering Tim Russert

I wonder too if Russert would have been embarrassed by the encomiums he has received from politicians from both parties. If Russert were really as great as his obituarists have proclaimed you would hope he would have been irritated that so many pols are now calling him their friend. After all, his job was not to be their pal.

And yet, I suspect they're right: Russert always seemed - to me at least - to believe that he was an intermediary, a referee if you like, between politicians and the public. Thus, though he would probe for inconsitencies, his interviews invariably ended, as Noam Scheiber points out, on a clubbable note. It was as though he was acknowledging that, whatever their differences, the politician and the journalist were each players in the same game and that each party understood perfectly well what was, and what was not, permissable within the rules of engagement. At the end of the day, one felt that Russert agreed that his interviewees were good people doing the best they can. And perhaps they are, but the idea that this is so needs to be tested and proved, not presumed to be the case until proved otherwise.

In that respect there was a pantomime quality to "Meet the Press". It was presented as though it were great drama, but the outcome was often predictable: Russert wouldcuff his guest a few times before ending on a clubbable, collegiate note of grace. As I say, he gave the impression that he believed he was refereeing a contest, not actually taking part in it.

There are times when the British approach, as personified by Jeremy Paxman and John Humphreys can seem reductive and wearisome. But it has this to be said for it: you always know where they're coming from. They view, or give the impression of doing so anyway, the politicians as the enemy, working on the perfectly reasonable assumption they have something to hide. Paxman denies that he ever said that his approach is modelled upon the need to find out why "this lying bastard is lying to me" but that line rather sums up the way in which he deals with his interviewees. Paxman's exagerrated disdain, his eye-popping incredulity when a politician is lying to him may irritate some (and, on other occasions, it may also deliver less than a more sober approach might) but it has the great advantage of letting the viewer know, quite clearly, that Paxman is on the voter's side as he chases the political fox.

As I say, a different culture, a different approach. But with Paxo at his best you have the frisson that anything could happen and that the interviewer sees his relationship with the politician as analogous to that between a dog and a lamp-post.

This approach may not illuminate substance as often as some would like; it may also be childish or unduly cynical but it's also at least arguable that it's preferrable to the more convivial American approach. Arguable too, that it's better theatre and greater television.

Then again, in Britain we don't view Prime Ministers as priest-gods; nor, happily, do we venerate journalists. Paxman would, I think, acknowledge that, for all his fame and fortune, he's just a hack. I hope Tim Russert would have said he same about himself, even if the embarrassingly gushing response to his sad, untimely death suggests that there are plenty of people in Washington who think otherwise. 

Russert was better than his rivals and deserves a decent send-off, but the notion that he's irreplaceable or that there was anything especially noteworthy about his love of his family or support for the Buffalo Bills is absurd.

UPDATE: Hitch has a lovely tribute, however, while Isaac Chotiner also has good things to say.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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