Everybody in Washington has a million stories about Tim Russert. Here is one of mine.
I was in Florida for a primary-season debate not long ago and wandered into a restaurant near the site the night before the event and there was Russert. We hailed each other and sat down for a bite.
No sooner had he taken a seat than his cell phone rang. It was a family friend from his hometown of Buffalo, where he had been born and where his aging father still lived. "I gotta take this," he said, interrupting what had, for me, already been an enlightening few minutes of purposeful chat about the Democratic presidential race.
Turns out, as Tim explained to me a few minutes later when he sat down again, that he had essentially rigged, from long distance, a system for taking care of his father that allowed his dad to stay in the home he had lived in for decades, and in which Tim had been reared. "Big Russ" had lost a wife and was lonely and in failing health, but the last thing he wanted to do was leave his family surroundings in South Buffalo.
So Tim had put his organizational and political skills to work and, largely over the phone, had arranged for (and in some cases paid) eight caregiving friends to "drop in" on his dad on a rotating basis—every day. They would vary the order and their tasks to make it all seem casual and unrehearsed, as they used to say on TV. Tim visited whenever he could, but supplemented his attention via cell phone.
The caller had been one of the team, who told Tim that he couldn't make it over to his dad's house that night. So Tim was on the phone arranging for someone else to pull the shift. This was all in advance of a big NBC News strategy meeting and other duties.
Tim smiled and laughed as he sat back down. "My dad thinks all of these people just drop in by chance!" he said with a chuckle. "Dad says, 'these people are so nice.' Well, they are. They are incredibly kind and dedicated. All I had to do was ask."
I tell this story to give an example of Russert's essential, unaffected decency. Sure he was ambitious, but he was grounded in his faith, his family and his roots so securely, that he was capable of being something most ambitious people in Washington cannot: utterly at ease with himself and therefore capable of treating everyone with respect.
And I tell this story to ask a question: After Russert, the deluge? Not to canonize him, but he operated in a way, and on an assumption, that seems all but lost in modern America: the ability to debate, to argue, with a reverence for the frail humanity of all.
We live—and we in journalism are truly immersed—in an accusatory culture that often denies the essential personhood of those we question or attack. I wrote a book in defense of the idea of argument, but without the Russerts of the world—seeking facts, demanding real answers and not rhetoric, but demanding in a respectful way—the American experiment in argument will not continue to work.
Russert's death is a blessing only in this one sense: we all need to stop and think of what he was aiming for and what he believed in, which was a country capable of governing itself through the practice of intelligent discussion and debate.
Here's a suggestion for Barack Obama and John McCain. In memory of Tim, why don't you agree to a series of genuine debates—pick whatever Russert-like moderator you can find—and have at it.
One of these candidates is going to seize the Russert spirit of persons of goodwill agreeing to disagree and yet with an eye to the common good and the national interest.
Whoever best captures that spirit will win the election.
At least that's what I think Tim would say. And that is the maddening thing about his death: he is the only person who could have put this story into its proper context.
If it's Sunday…