Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol remembers Tim Russert
HH: I’m joined now by Weekly Standard editor and New York Times columnist Bill Kristol. Bill, you came to Washington, D.C., I think, in 1986. And through your time as the chief of staff to the Vice President, and then of course as the founder of the Weekly Standard, right through the present, you must have run into Russert what, a thousand times?
BK: I did, Hugh, and it’s a sad day. You know, the funny thing is I met Tim in 1976, when I was a grad student at Harvard, and came down in the summer of ’76 to work for Pat Moynihan in his New York Senate race for the Democratic primary. He ran against Bela Abzug, who was then a kind of Scoop Jackson moderate conservative Democrat, and beat Abzug by 9,000 votes out of 2.1 million in the primary.
BK: Tim Russert had, I think, just graduated from law school. He was about three years older than I, and was working in Buffalo for the Democratic boss up there. I think it was a guy named Joe Croddy or something like that. And Tim came down to kind of coordinate the upstate campaign with the city campaign, and it was a pretty chaotic campaign. I was the deputy issues coordinator, there were two of us in the issues shop.
BK: And that’s when I met Tim, actually, so we were both kids, and he, I went back to Harvard and got my degree, and that’s where we met, a couple of years afterwards, I guess, is that right?
BK: And Tim went to Washington to work for Moynihan, and was Moynihan’s, I thin, press secretary and then the chief of staff for pretty much the whole of Moynihan’s first Senate term, then was Cuomo’s chief of staff, helped to coordinate Cuomo’s very successful 1984 convention speech, as I recall, the Democratic Convention, and then came to Washington, I think just before I did in 1985, or maybe he became NBC chief in ’84. I can’t remember, something around that. And so by the time I came to Washington, he was here ahead of me, and we resumed our acquaintance, and he was really a nice man. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of ego and ambition in Washington, and he had a little of both, frankly, but in a nice way. I mean, a very decent person, and a patriot. You know, he was more liberal than I was, than I am, or than you are, but he really cared for the country. The last time I had a long conversation with him, he gave the commencement speech at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007, just about a year ago, the commencement a year ago. Our daughter, one of our daughters graduated from Wash U. in that class, so there we were, and there was Tim Russert giving the commencement speech. So I called him up afterwards and said that was a good speech, Tim, and it was a good speech. And I’ve given one commencement speech and it was bad. It’s hard to give a good commencement speech, in my opinion.
HH: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
BK: It’s hard not just to be, you know, clichéd…and Tim was witty and interesting. And I just talked to our daughter, actually, and who was in that class at Wash U., and she was saddened by Tim’s death, and remembered the speech quite vividly. And so I called him up just to say that it was good work, and you know, we had lunch and a casual conversation. And I remember thinking after the lunch just how, you know, he had remained, thirty years later after I met him, very lively, intellectually curious, interested in people, interested in politics. It hadn’t all gone to his head, it wasn’t all about him.
HH: Well, I loved his book, Big Russ, which I reviewed for your magazine, and I…
BK: Oh, that’s right. I forgot that.
HH: Yeah, I believe the reason he was so effective is he’s an Irish-Catholic, blue collar kid who really is…when he would get animated about Social Security, maybe the only journalist in America who really cares about it, that was the old FDR, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Democrat coming through.
BK: No, that’s right. I think those were very much his views. And I think on the show, you’ve got to give him credit on Meet The Press, a lot of people told him when he took over and started putting up those huge chunks of quotations from politicians, and reading through them, and the screen, you’d see just a lot of print, you know, people would say that’s not really good TV, Tim. You could show video, you know, you could show video of what the guy had said. And Tim said no, look, it’s important to let people read what he said, and then I’m going to say why did you say something different, or why don’t you believe now what you said two years ago, or that was his classic interviewing technique. And he didn’t go for the kind of easier, you might say more TV-friendly approach. He went with a more substantive approach. You know, let’s really look at the words and think about, let the viewer and let the voter really evaluate this guy in what he’s saying. And I think it turned out to be very good TV, and Tim did great as host of Meet The Press, but it was, he deserves credit for being pretty substantive, I think, in the way he approached that job. He had all of NBC News’ resources at his disposal. He could have done a very glitzy show, and he chose to do a pretty substantive show.
HH: Bill Kristol, Rush Limbaugh said today, Russert was the closest thing there was at any of the networks to an objective journalist. I agree with that. Now I still think it showed through. He brought his “B” game for some Democrats, but he always had his “A” game for the Republicans. But nevertheless, as a modern mainstream media journalist, I wished there were lots more of Tim Russerts.
BK: Right, I would say his views were very much sort of centrist to mildly liberally-centrist, Moynihan, Colin Powell, those are the kinds of people he admired. Of the Republicans, he always like McCain, as you would expect, being more centrist on lots of issues. As you say, he was kind of Social Security obsessive, deficit hawk, weren’t exactly my views, probably weren’t your views, but he didn’t disguise them in a kind of coy or silly way.
HH: Agreed, yup.
BK: He was pretty straight-up, and he was respectful of his guests, and didn’t play silly kind of gotcha games with them.
HH: Is he easily, I think, the most influential American journalist until his death today, in terms of making the weather? And I don’t really know that there’s anyone else anymore.
BK: Yeah, look, I’m on Fox News Sunday, obviously, so I like our show, and I think we have a good show. But I’ve got to say, there was no question, I remember talking with someone with the Fred Thompson presidential campaign back in September or so of last year, and one of the main things they were discussing was when does Fred go on Russert? That’s going to be the test. Is he up to it? He’d had a slow start to the campaign. He ended up going on and doing okay, but it didn’t really matter. But I just remember thinking at the time, going on Russert was really the sort of major step you made if you were a candidate, and the decision to go on, and of course with other candidates, the decision to go on if there was some crisis in the campaign, to deal with it by going on Russert and taking the tough questions. You’ve got to give Tim credit for building it up that way. I mean, when he took over Meet The Press, he wasn’t the top show. Brinkley on ABC had been the top show.
BK: And Cokie and Sam had taken it over, Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson, and still actually had the lead. I was on ABC some then. So it wasn’t like Tim was given a frontrunner, you know, the number one rating. I mean, he was at NBC, which was a powerful network, but he really built up the show, he made it the must-go place for the presidential candidates and the serious Senators and Congressmen and governors, and that was really a tribute to him.
HH: And to his professionalism and to his work ethic, and as you say, a genuine family man and nice guy off-camera. Bill Kristol from the Weekly Standard and the New York Times, thank you very much, friend.
End of interview.