Back when he was just starting in television and ever since, but particularly back then Tim Russert was astounded by the joys of the job. Early on, he helped arrange an interview with the Pope for the Today Show and Tim did it up right: He brought along red NBC News baseball caps for the Cardinals and a white one for the Holy Father. "He put it on!" Tim told me when he came home. "We have pictures!" Then he said, more quietly, "But, you know, it was really something being in his presence. You felt something holy. It was almost as if the air was different." And that was Tim exuberant, irreverent, brilliant and devout, a thrilling jolt of humanity. We were friends for 30 years. We closed a few bars together in the early years, before Maureen shaped him up; we talked politics incessantly; we shared summer rentals; we watched our kids, especially Luke and Sophie, who were born a few months apart, grow up, go to Jesuit colleges (Tim got a kick out of the fact that Sophie, a Jewsuit, aced New Testament at Fordham) and, a final happiness for Tim, we saw them graduate.
Tim did me a lifetime favor by introducing me to his boss, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in 1978. Moynihan became a mentor and inspiration to me, and gave me a graduate education in all things New York. Tim's favorite Moynihan story was about the time he had to pick up Pat at the Pierre Hotel in New York to take him to a dinner. Tim arrived at the hotel and heard the distinctive laugh, "Ah-ah-ah-ah-AH!" from inside the room. "Ah-ah-ah-ah-AH!" Just peals of laughter. Russert paused a minute, uncertain about bothering the boss. "Ah-ah-ah-Ah-AHH!" Finally, he knocked. "Moyns came to the door in his underwear," Tim recalled. "He'd been watching The Honeymooners."
It was appropriate that Russert found his way to Moynihan who, in his classic work with Nathan Glazer, Beyond the Melting Pot, offered the theory that ethnicity, more than class, had been the key social organizing principle in American cities. Tim was proudly, indelibly Irish not only in his early beer-drinking years, but also in his more Jesuitical incarnation as the host of Meet the Press, when he refused to socialize on Saturday nights. "He's become a monk," Maureen would say. And yet, even at the top of his profession, he never lost track of his roots in part, because he never lost track of his dad, Big Russ, a Buffalo sanitation worker who survives him. Tim would review his Sunday questions with Big Russ in mind, always asking himself, "What would Dad want to know?" About ten years ago, he decided to buy his father a car. "Buy anything you want, Dad," Tim offered. Big Russ picked a Ford. "So I said, to him, 'Dad, you can get a Mercedes anything you want,'" Tim told me later. "But he says, 'No Timmy, I want a Crown Vic. That's what the cops drive.'"
Every four years, through the '80s and '90s, Tim and I would go out and watch the politicians work on the weekend before the New Hampshire primary. Our most memorable excursion was in 1992, when we saw Paul Tsongas selling his chilly fiscal discipline and then watched Bill Clinton work a nursing home. A woman started to ask Clinton about the high price of prescription drugs, then dissolved in tears, unable to finish. Clinton immediately went to the woman, dropped to his knees and hugged her; he held her tight for what seemed a long time. It was a reflexive reaction, and fairly shocking neither of us were yet aware of Clinton's rampaging empathy and very moving. Tim and I looked at each other, and we both had tears in our eyes. "I don't think we'll ever see Tsongas do that," he said.
Tim was boggled by Clinton, impressed and appalled by him. The only real differences we had in 30 years of friendship were over his treatment of both Clintons, which I thought was occasionally too sharp and had its roots, I believed, in the strict lessons about sex and probity he'd learned from the nuns (which he often joked about). Our last conversation, sadly, was an argument over that.
The last time I saw Tim on television was the night that Barack Obama secured the nomination and he was, appropriately, telling a Big Russ story, about his dad nailing a John F. Kennedy sign on the side of the house in 1960. Tim asked, "'Why are we for Kennedy?' And my dad said, 'Because he's one of us.' And that's the big question Barack Obama is facing," he concluded, "Will Americans accept him as 'One of us.'" I remember thinking, "Ahh, Tim. We're getting old. Maybe Big Russ and my parents and you and I wonder if someone named Barack Obama is 'one of us,' but not our kids." I figured I'd mention it to him next time we talked. Now there won't be a next time. I can't get my head around that yet, except it's so, so sad. He was loving this election, as much as any we'd covered. I just can't believe he won't be around to find out how it ends. My love to Maureen and Luke, Big Russ and Tim's sisters. And Tim, if they're pouring up there, save a stool for me.