Sunday was Father’s Day, but when I called my father to wish him a happy one, he was bereft. He had just finished watching the special edition of “Meet the Press” that was broadcast to honor its host, Tim Russert, who died Friday.
“I was in tears halfway through,” he said.
I am sure that, heaven forbid, should I die before my father does, he would feel terrible. I’m hoping he would feel almost as bad as he did about Mr. Russert.
“I feel miserable. I feel like I know him, that I really knew him. And now he’s gone, just like that,” he said. A middle-pew Catholic with a deep interest in Democratic politics, my father always suspected that he and Mr. Russert were of a single mind even if Mr. Russert, a former Democratic Senate staff member, did not wear those beliefs in plain view.
A lot of people felt they had something in common with Mr. Russert. His unexpected death at 58, after a heart attack Friday afternoon, prompted thousands of comments on blogs, a flowered memorial in front of his office in Washington, and rare newspaper encomiums here and elsewhere.
The rhetoric and remembrance deployed on his behalf — the flags in his hometown of Buffalo flew at half-staff — brought to mind the death of a beloved religious figure. On the broadcast wake Sunday, during what would have been his weekly hour on “Meet the Press,” Tom Brokaw and others referred to him variously as a priest, a cardinal and even, in the words of his friend Mike Barnicle, a pope.
Which he sort of was, by the way. To many Americans, politics may seem a festering culvert rife with self-dealing and egos, and with very little of real value. But there is a smaller, intense demographic that experienced the political narrative as a kind of civic religion. Those people assign a kind of nobility and greater purpose to the calling. And to those people, Mr. Russert was the high priest, the one above all others, so much so that my dad scheduled his Sunday Mass around the show. (His fan base was pretty diverse. When he was in Rome last week, Mr. Russert was received by the pope.)
Part of the response is a reflex toward very public Kaddish now baked into American culture. When the actor Heath Ledger died, his death took on sudden importance not reflected in his accomplished, but short, career. But this feels different, deeper. Career journalists and politicians have been talking about how hard it will be to carry on, to finish out the election, without him.
Amid all the laurels, they spoke as if he were taking a way of life with him. And he may be. It is a credit to Mr. Russert’s relentlessness that people feel that way. The dynamics of the Democratic primary weren’t driven by the mainstream media — more on that later — but it was Mr. Russert, after all, who got the whole party started by nudging the previously coy Senator Barack Obama to admit that he was interested in running for president. And on May 7, Mr. Russert declared — almost Cronkite-like — that the race for the Democratic nomination was over, that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had lost.
A former aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Russert had a knack for making big-time politicians come to him. He had a face that seemed to be carved out of potatoes, but he worked on television by working harder than your average talking head, making the calls and pulling the levers of power with an alacrity few possessed.
At the same time, he reinforced his lunch-bucket credentials, coming up with a best-selling book about his father, “Big Russ and Me,” that turned a chip on his shoulder about his humble roots and lack of Ivy League pedigree into a franchise.
He was, in a phrase, old school, perhaps not in precisely the way he played on television — everyone on television has a schtick, and his was that as the son of a Buffalo sanitation worker, he didn’t need one. But inside the Beltway, he parsed approbation and legitimacy as he saw fit. (A recent profile of Chris Matthews in The New York Times Magazine spilled a fair amount of ink over Mr. Matthews’s desire for Mr. Russert’s acceptance.)
To have passed through the door from political partisan to major media figure is a remarkable accomplishment, but it does not fully explain why people are beside themselves over Mr. Russert’s death. Perhaps, in their bones, they are worried that if the king is gone, the kingdom will soon follow.
For decades, American national politics has been the province of a meritocracy, a self-nominated, self-important bunch who choose to be part of the media-political apparatus because it is a bloody sport for very high stakes. And it has historically pivoted around a rather tidy triangle defined by the parlors of Georgetown, the lobbyists on K Street and lunches at The Palm. And once a week, hierarchy is assigned and tribute is paid on the Sunday morning shows, with “Meet the Press” long being the more equal of equals.
You won’t hear this on a Sunday morning show — not this week and not any — but this political season suggests politics don’t work that way any more. As media platforms have multiplied and coverage has become ubiquitous, custody of the political narrative has left the Beltway.
Not many people know who Mayhill Fowler is — she’s a citizen journalist on The Huffington Post who works for no money and couldn’t find The Palm without Google Maps — but twice this year she has altered the campaign, first by catching Senator Obama sounding awfully elitist about the working class — “they cling to guns or religion” — and second by catching Bill Clinton coming off as if he had lost his mind.
The Obama insurgency in particular tilted the version of Washington that Mr. Russert knew off its axis. Who are all these people? Where did all this money come from? And when we made those speeches about youth voting, we didn’t expect that they would actually have a role in deciding who the candidate is.
Mr. Russert’s colleagues talked Sunday about his competitiveness — how he measured his success by the ability to drive the news cycle. In this election, he became one more aspect in a burgeoning ecosystem, an environment where consumer interest is constantly deciding what the story is and a new species of blogs, social networks and YouTube clips are there to satisfy that interest.
Mr. Russert’s own death provided an object lesson in how much things have changed. More than an hour before his death was announced by Tom Brokaw on NBC, his Wikipedia page was edited to reflect that he had just died.
The day that Mr. Russert died, I was in a press room for Bonnaroo, a music festival in Tennessee. When I got an alert that Mr. Russert had died, I announced it to the room and for a minute, no one said anything. And then finally, a woman down the table said, “Wasn’t he on TV?”
You could assign the lack of political interest to the context, but Bonnaroo is a very political space, with lots of youth voting organizations and a big Obama campaign presence. About 50,000 people listened rapt as Chris Rock riffed on the campaign and more than that as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam spoke urgently about the need for immediate change. Mr. Russert, a huge music fan — Bruce Springsteen was his second-favorite deity — would have loved the spectacle of it, but Bonnaroo carries with it a reminder that politics is being dispersed and re-democratized.
The people who run campaigns, newspapers and networks will head to the conventions this summer convinced that the future of the country remains in their hands. But there are clear signs that game is changing. My dad may not ever believe it, but Sunday could end up being just another day of the week.
* By DAVID CARR June 16, 2008