How Russert Became Russert

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Alex Wong / Getty

Tim Russert of NBC News died Friday, June 13, 2008, in Washington, D.C.

It's a measure of his success as a journalist that few people remember Tim Russert was once the Democratic Lee Atwater — the smartest, toughest, most instinctive political aide around. In 1984, when Gary Hart was floundering in a bid for the presidency, he famously said, "Get me a Russert," and Tim became a byword for a savvy political adviser who understood both the electorate and the media. Some people are born with a gene for politics. Tim was one of them.

I first met Russert in the early 1980s when I was covering Governor Mario Cuomo and Tim was his chief aide and alter ego. In 1984, I wrote a Rolling Stone profile of Russert called "A Man This Good Is Hard to Find." He spent 25 years ribbing me about the headline of that story, and I didn't even write it. Now I wish I had.

Russert's first exposure to politics was in the wards of Buffalo, but his great teachers were national figures — Senator Pat Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo. It's easy to understand why a man as driven as Tim, who might have easily made a name for himself in his twenties, spent so much of his early professional career in their service. Like Russert, they were from working-class Catholic families and combined an intellectual appreciation of Democratic policies with a visceral understanding of Democratic voters. Moynihan was an intellectual raised in Hell's Kitchen; Cuomo was a gritty minor league baseball player from Queens. Both had the poetry of liberalism in their blood, and were living blueprints for Tim of how to live an honorable life in the service of the greater good.

Tim was not only an expert on policy when he worked for Moynihan and Cuomo, he was also their chief spokesman. As an aide he was famous for getting great press for his bosses and was a favorite among the press corps, which made his transition from partisan staffer to objective journalist — at the time an unheard-of move — appear effortless. In fact, Tim was the pioneer of a new generation of television journalists who got their start in politics. He was the first who crossed to the other side, but he was soon followed by Chris Matthews (who studied at the knee of the great Tip O'Neil) and George Stephanopoulos, who famously toiled for Bill Clinton. All three of them brought something new to American living rooms — an intimate, first-hand understanding of the compromises and agonies of governing and campaigning. All three of them knew what it was like to be in the room when decisions were made; they didn't have to guess.

Having been out on the campaign trail with Tim many times over the years, I often found myself watching him as much as the candidates. Seeing him in the crowd in New Hampshire was like watching a baseball scout at a minor league game; you could follow his eyes to the talent, and immediately you knew who would cut it in the big leagues.

But the light in his eyes had less to do with an affinity for any individual cog than with a passion for the whole American political machine. The truth is, Tim not only loved politics, he believed in it. He believed that politics could change the trajectory of people's lives. He was tough on elected officials in part because he wanted them to do good, to be pure of heart. He believed devoutly in our political system, and in his absence, those who knew and cared for Tim have that belief to carry us forward.