Tim Russert, 1950–2008: Making of a Joyful Warrior

"Hello, brother," the baritone rumbled on the other end of the phone. "I've got a great deal for you." It was Tim Russert, and there was a twinkle in his tone—the kind of twinkle that suggested what was in the offing was anything but a good deal. "Have you read Hitch yet?" My stomach tightened: Christopher Hitchens, the terrific provocateur, had just published a sulfurous attack on religious faith, and I feared what was coming. "You gotta come down and defend the faith, Brother," Russert said. Hitchens was slated to come on Russert's weekend cable show, and Russert wanted a countervailing voice on the program. A devout Catholic, Russert knew I was an Episcopalian, but I had an old rule that I would never debate Hitchens about anything—he is one of the great intellects and wits of the age—since there was no chance I would ever win. I tried to demur, but Russert closed in as though he were cornering a politician on a Sunday morning. "It's the faith, Brother," he said. "I can't do it—I'm the moderator. But it'll be great."

It ' s the faith, Brother: there, in a phrase from the early summer of 2006, was, in a way, the essence of Timothy John Russert Jr., who died of a heart attack last Friday afternoon. In that brief chat the many sides of Russert were on display: he was cajoling and charming, playing it straight, pushing others to be braver and bolder, all in the service of creating an interesting conversation about the things that matter most. I said yes, of course, because if you are in my line of work you always said yes to Russert. (For the record, it was not great, at least for me. Hitchens was kind, but, as I expected, he had the better of the conversation. Russert grinned through the whole damn thing.)

In a capital that can seem soulless and even godless, Russert was a man of faith, cheerfully professing the civic virtues of post-World War II America. He loved his neighbor, honored his parents and cherished his country. The son of working-class south Buffalo, N.Y., Russert moved among popes and presidents with an easy grace, and he was sweetly grateful for, and a little amazed at, his success. He was devoted to his wife, the writer Maureen Orth, and to his son, Luke, who just graduated from Boston College.

It is not sentimental to say that Russert's rise and reign can be best understood in the context of his religion, for his religion was not just a part of his life but his whole life, and his story is a common one for ethnic Roman Catholics of his generation.

To be a certain kind of Catholic in America in the years between, say, the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the election of Richard Nixon (to date it in a way Russert would have liked) was to be immersed not only in a faith but in a consuming culture. Protestants talked about "going to church." Catholics spoke of "the Church." Life revolved around sacraments and the schools, priests and nuns. One Christmas season I asked Russert how much of his childhood had resembled the movie "Going My Way." "Just about all of it," he replied.

Growing up on Kirkwood Drive in Buffalo, "Timmy" Russert attended mass at St. Bonaventure's, where he also went to school. "In the altar-boy world, he was the No. 1 server," recalled Patrick J. Griffin, a neighbor. "They always gave Timmy the prime mass. He got the 10 o'clock mass on a Sunday; we got the 6 o'clock mass on a Sunday. He was a cute little fellow, blond hair and blue eyes, and everybody liked him."

There were crosses above the Russert kids' beds, a portrait of Jesus and his Sacred Heart on the wall and a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the backyard; in May, the month of Mary, the family lit a candle every day. There was no meat on Fridays, and if someone lost something, Mrs. Russert prayed to St. Anthony of Padua, the patron of lost things. On Good Friday they re-enacted the Stations of the Cross. ("I remember, in seventh grade, kneeling in church from noon to three as a form of sacrifice," Russert recalled in his memoir, "Big Russ & Me." "It wasn't easy.") In second grade came first communion and the perils of the confessional. The priest's face was hidden by a screen, and Russert did his homework even then. "We always prepared for confession by thinking of various sins we might have committed," he recalled, "such as being mean to your sister or the always available wildcard sin of 'impure thoughts'." The rhythms and rituals of the church—communion, confession, absolution, catechism—were not exotic to Russert; they were givens, part of the air he breathed.

A nun introduced him to journalism. At St. Bonaventure, he had been a class cutup—boisterous would be the kind description—until one day Sister Mary Lucille, a Sister of Mercy, crooked her finger at him and summoned him to the front of the classroom. "We have to channel that energy, Timothy," she said, and soon she appointed him editor of the school newspaper. At the time there was no school newspaper, so it would take all the more energy to start one up, which he did. (He would still manage to spend a lot of time in detention, which the Catholics called "the jug," from the Latin for "yoke.")

For him, faith and journalism and politics were bound up with one another. Russert's first experience of foreign policy came at the end of Sunday masses during the cold war, when the priest would raise his arms before the congregation and say, "Savior of the world—" to the response from all: "Save Russia." In south Buffalo in 1960, Russert used a paper route to campaign for John F. Kennedy. "I remember him putting Kennedy leaflets in the paper as he delivered them," his older sister Betty said. Part of JFK's appeal was tribal: Russert idolized him, Betty recalled, because "he was young and full of energy and … Catholic." In October 1962, when Kennedy traveled to Buffalo for Pulaski Day, Russert's dad took his son to a strategic spot along the motorcade route and—Russert remembered the time, 3:05 p.m.—Tim, then 12, brushed the president's hand. "I touched him! I touched him!" Russert cried with joy.

The making of the Tim Russert we knew from television began in a brutal ending: Dallas, 1963. When the news came, Russert remembered, the press referred to it as an assassination. In the world he inhabited, they used a different term: martyrdom. The school newspaper produced a special edition and sent copies to President Johnson, Mrs. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. "Some months later we received personal responses from all of them, which changed our lives," he recalled. The thrill of recognition was transformative. On the paper, he had learned "how to report, how to communicate, how to write; and then, on top of all that, people we watched on television, people who were so far removed from our ordinary lives, suddenly acknowledged not only our existence, but our work. From that day forward I was determined that I would have a career in journalism/public service." There, in a distant autumn of tragedy, was everything that would dominate Russert's life: the church, great events, storytelling, a love of life in the arena.

Sister Lucille helped him go to the more competitive Canisius High School, where he worked afternoons manning the St. Michael's rectory switchboard. He answered the phone, emptied the poor box, greeted visitors. In class he learned two things: how to argue and how to be tough. The Jesuits, said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, "do their best to teach their students to think on their feet and defend the truth." A Jesuit ethos was perfect, too, for a Catholic who was to live and try to thrive in a secular world. "Every Catholic order has its own spirit, and the Jesuits have long been known for a restlessness of mind that tends to make them less dogmatic than other groups," Russert wrote.

There was an element of steeliness, too, in the Jesuit world. Father John Sturm, who held the title of prefect of discipline at Canisius, once told him: "Russert, mercy is for God. I deliver justice." He also encountered another perennial element of life for an Irish Catholic of his generation at Canisius: class anxiety. The son of a garbageman who fought in World War II and worked two jobs to provide for his family, Russert was nervous about going to the high school, which he described as "a fancy-pants boys' school on the other side of town." But he won his way in. Early on, he wore clip-on ties to fulfill the dress code, only to be humiliated by a history teacher who ripped the tie from his collar and "held it at arm's length like a dead skunk." Clip-ons, Russert learned in that horrible, sinking moment—a moment he could vividly recall four decades later—did not cut it. He slunk home, and Big Russ taught him how to tie a real Windsor knot, which he used for the rest of his life.

Many people in Washington and New York spend a lot of time, and even more psychic effort, trying to escape their origins, firmly closing the door on where they came from. (A bishop I knew used to say that such insecurity was horribly debilitating, and had a simple commandment for survival: "Remember who you are." When I told Russert that story once, he pumped his fist and shouted, "Amen!") Rather than try to reinvent himself as he grew up and went from worldly triumph to worldly triumph, Russert never lost his sense of place, or his love of tribe.

At John Carroll University in Cleveland, Russert "stayed with the faith, and the rest of us kind of drifted away," said Patrick Griffin. "Even in college he still went to church—and the rest of us were still sleeping." He moved on to work for two of the great Catholic American politicians of the age: New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, before going to NBC News in 1984. His first big get: John Paul II said a private mass that NBC filmed for Holy Week.

He did quiet charity work at St. Ann's home for orphans in Washington, among other causes. "He was a great reporter," said McCarrick, "but he never stopped being a great human being." (It is true that the two can be mutually exclusive.) "As cardinal, I was always having to ask favors of him—could we use his name for this charity, or would he be willing to attend this affair or that affair—and he always tried to be as helpful as he could be."

In a way, Russert was the secular pastor of a circle of Catholic politicians and journalists in the capital. When the priest-sexual-abuse scandal broke a few years ago, McCarrick convened a private meeting of Catholic opinion makers. "It was Russert, James Carville, Cokie Roberts, the late Mary McGrory, Bob Novak, Kate O'Beirne and me," recalled the political commentator Mark Shields. "What a group." But it was Russert's group, and he loved it, and everyone in it. To get a sense of that world, imagine if Allen Drury had written "The Last Hurrah."

Russert was one of the least self-important important people in the capital. Susan Gibbs, the director of communications for the archdiocese of Washington, remembers introducing him to a nun at a Catholic event. The nun had never heard of him, but was intrigued that he worked in television. "You have video cameras?" the nun asked Russert. Yes, he said, he did. "I might need to use them sometime," she said. "How do I reach you if I want to borrow them?" "Call Susan," Russert replied. "She'll know how to reach me."

Because he had to work on Sundays, he liked to go to what he jokingly called the brief "drive-by mass" at Georgetown University Medical Center on Saturday afternoons. On Sunday mornings, there were often visiting priests and nuns watching the broadcast in the studio at NBC News in Washington, and, his work done for the morning, Russert would cheerily pose for photographs and swap stories. (He never quite got over the fact that meatless Fridays had turned out to be a human, not a divine, invention.)

He prepared for broadcasts the way he had prepared for mass back in his altar-boy days. "Part of your responsibility was to be punctual," he wrote. Sometimes he had to go wake the assistant pastor, who liked his sleep; if Russert did not do what he was supposed to do, the service would not happen. "It all seemed so natural then, but when I look back on it, I'm struck by how much responsibility we had," he wrote. "We weren't even in high school yet, but age-old traditions with great meaning depended on our showing up on time and doing the job exactly right."

His imagination was never far from those days, or from the martyred president. Years after he left Buffalo, Russert lunched with Sister Lucille and Dave Powers, JFK's longtime friend and aide. Later, Powers sent Russert a quotation that Kennedy had had inscribed on a silver mug for Powers's birthday: "There are three things which are real: God, Human Folly, and Laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third." Russert loved it.

Just before he collapsed in the NBC News bureau in northwest Washington—he was taken to the hospital by his longtime executive producer, Betsy Fischer—he had sent Sen. Edward Kennedy, who is recuperating from surgery for brain cancer, a set of rosary beads blessed by Benedict XVI. The Hail Mary Russert recited so often ends this way: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death."