Mike Kilian: Russert leaves lasting legacy

Mike Kilian

When I was 16, I emerged from a week-long Boy Scout camp in northern Maine to learn from a newspaper bought at a gas station that New York Yankees catcher and captain Thurman Munson had died when he crashed his own plane. I still recall my initial reaction.

No, he didn’t. He couldn’t have.

Munson had just led the Yankees to two consecutive World Series championships. He was heart and soul of the team. There was so much more baseball for him to play. He had a family.

That death has stayed with me all these years, a reminder of how cruel fate can wrench from us individuals who are giving so much and still have so much more left to give. I’ve never thought it a coincidence that the Yankees wouldn’t win another World Series for 17 years. There were still Yankees on the field all those years, but they weren’t Munson’s Yankees.

This weekend, anyone who cares about politics, journalism or civic discourse in our country is having similar thoughts. Tim Russert, the longtime host of “Meet the Press” and an Election Night fixture on NBC, died Friday of a heart attack suffered while preparing for this morning’s show.

No, he didn’t. He couldn’t have.

Russert was in the midst of covering one of the most exciting presidential elections of all time. He was the heart and soul of NBC News. There is so much more campaigning left for him to cover. He had a family.

For all the many hundreds of political journalists and bloggers out there, Russert towered above them all. Only he had the courage and sense the night of May 6’s Indiana and North Carolina primaries to cut through the continually evolving spin from the sagging Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign and declare the obvious: “Now we know who the Democratic nominee’s going to be and no one’s going to dispute it.”

Only he could take the incredibly confusing events of Election Night 2000 and boil them down to three words written with a marker on a whiteboard: “Florida. Florida. Florida.”

And only he worked at such a high level of preparation that he could figuratively undress our nation’s most powerful leaders on “Meet the Press.” Maybe you saw the clip replayed this weekend in which John McCain disputed a quote Russert attributed to him, only to be confronted with a tape of McCain’s own words. McCain, a very smart man, was reduced to saying, “OK, let me tell you what I was trying to say and what I meant.”

Russert was an Upstate New York boy who never forgot his roots.

He believed in straight talk. He never lost sight of his dad back in Buffalo, the “Big Russ” from Russert’s 2004 book, asking himself before each show: What would dad want to know?

Above all, he stayed true to the values he lived growing up as an Irish Catholic – hard work, family, friendship and a healthy dollop of laughter. Maybe for that reason, I always felt like he was explaining national events to me personally.

Some observers questioned if Russert was too tough, if he went out of his way to make leaders squirm on camera. Heck, no. He simply was the very best at his craft, ceaselessly working to hold accountable the men and women who have the immense power to tax us, to send our children to war and to shape the destiny of our country and our communities.

That was his job in Washington with presidents, congressmen and world leaders. That’s our job with local mayors and town and county leaders. And we’ll keep at it. Sadder, perhaps, but forever fueled by Russert’s spirit and example.

Mike Kilian is the Observer-Dispatch’s managing editor. E-mail him at