Tag Archives: Tim Russert

Hold the uplift, and make that shower extra hot

9780399161308_custom-4ec8d3a4e862d4dbc42dedad106a97aecb8dda44-s2-c85Earlier this month my wife and I were watching the news when Patrick Leahy came on to talk about something or other — I don’t remember what.

Leahy, 73, has been a Democratic senator from Vermont for nearly four decades. Normally that stirs up feelings that, you know, maybe it’s time for the old man to go back to the dairy farm and watch his grandchildren milk the cows.

But I had been reading Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” And so I felt a tiny measure of admiration for Leahy stirring up inside me. He hadn’t cashed in. (His net worth — somewhere between $49,000 and $210,000 — makes him among the poorer members of the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) He hasn’t become a lobbyist. He apparently intends to die with his boots on.

That amounts to honor of a sort in the vomitrocious Washington that Leibovich describes in revolting detail — a town of sellouts and suckups (“Suckup City” was one of his working titles), a place where the nation’s business isn’t just subordinate to the culture of money and access, but is, at best, an afterthought.

If you plan to review a book, you shouldn’t “read” the audio version. I have no notes, no dog-eared pages to refer to. So consider this not a review so much as a few disjointed impressions of “This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.”

Mark is an old acquaintance. He and I worked together for a couple of years at The Boston Phoenix in the early 1990s before he moved on to the San Jose Mercury News, The Washington Post and, finally, The New York Times. (Other former Phoenicians who’ve reviewed “This Town”: Peter Kadzis in The Providence Phoenix and Marjorie Arons-Barron for her blog.)

There are many good things I could say about Mark and “This Town,” but I’ll start with this: I have never known anyone who worked harder to improve. It was not unusual for me to leave the Phoenix in the evening while Mark was working on an article — and to come back the next morning to find him still at it. The result of all that labor is a finely honed sense of craft that most of us can only aspire to.

As virtually every reviewer has pointed out, “This Town” begins with a masterful description of the funeral service for “Meet the Press” impresario Tim Russert, an ostensibly mournful occasion that provided the media and political classes in Washington with an opportunity to carry out the real business of their community: talking about themselves and checking their place in the pecking order.

There are so many loathsome characters in “This Town” that you’d need an index to keep track of them all. And Leibovich puckishly refused to provide one, though The Washington Post published an unofficial index here. For my money, though, the lowest of the low are former senator Evan Bayh and former congressman Dick Gephardt — Democrats who left office but stayed in Washington to become highly paid lobbyists. Bayh, with his unctuously insincere laments over how broken Washington had become, and Gephardt, who quickly sold out every pro-labor position he had ever held, rise above (or descend below) a common streetwalker like Chris Dodd, who flirted not very convincingly with becoming an entrepreneur before entering the warm embrace of the film industry.

Also: If you have never heard of Tammy Haddad, Leibovich will remove your innocence. You will be sadder but wiser.

Because Mark is such a fine writer, he operates with a scalpel; those of us who have only a baseball bat to work with can only stand back in awe at the way he carves up his subjects. Still, I found myself occasionally wishing he’d grab his bat and do to some of these scum-sucking leeches what David Ortiz did to that dugout phone in Baltimore.

Mike Allen of Politico, for instance, comes off as an oddly sympathetic character despite the damage he and his news organization have done to democracy with their focus on politics as a sport and their elevation of trivia and gossip. (To be sure, Leibovich describes that damage in great detail.) I could be wrong, but it seems to me that that Mark was tougher on Allen in a profile for the Times Magazine a few years ago.

Thus I was immensely pleased to hear Mark (or, rather, narrator Joe Barrett) administer an old-fashioned thrashing to Sidney Blumenthal. It seems that Blumenthal, yet another former Phoenix reporter, had lodged a bogus plagiarism complaint against Mark because Blumenthal had written a play several decades ago called “This Town,” which, inconveniently for Sid Vicious, no one had ever heard of. More, please.

I also found myself wondering what Leibovich makes of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ever-rightward drift into crazyland. The Washington of “This Town” is rather familiar, if rarely so-well described. The corruption is all-pervasive and bipartisan, defined by the unlikely (but not really) partnership of the despicable Republican operative Haley Barbour and the equally despicable Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.

No doubt such relationships remain an important part of Washington. But it seems to me that people like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and their ilk — for instance, the crazies now talking about impeaching President Obama — don’t really fit into that world. And, increasingly, they’re calling the shots, making the sort of Old Guard Republicans Leibovich writes about (Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, for instance) all but irrelevant.

But that’s a quibble, and it would have shifted Mark away from what he does best: writing finely honed character studies of people who have very little character. “This Town” is an excellent book that says much about why we hate Washington — and why we’re right to keep on doing so. Hold the uplift. And make sure the shower you’ll need after reading it is extra hot.

A solid debut by Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour

Not long after Tim Russert’s death, I realized that my aversion to George Stephanopoulos was not nearly as deep-seated as my aversion to David Gregory. So I switched from “Meet the Press” to “This Week” and haven’t looked back. Among other things, “This Week” regular George Will is a great entertainer, and where else other than the New York Times can you get a regular dose of Paul Krugman?

Stephanopoulos, of course, decamped for morning television months ago, never to be seen again — at least not by me. Today, at long last, marked the much-anticipated debut of his permanent replacement, former CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour. I don’t think the occasion warrants a lot of analysis. But surely a little is in order. A few points.

1. I don’t watch “This Week”; rather, I listen to the podcast. So if there were any changes to the set, I wouldn’t know. For what it’s worth, I thought Amanpour, her guests and her panelists all sounded fine.

2. It was a good first week for Amanpour. She had two major gets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. If Amanpour’s questions failed to elicit any major news, neither did she embarrass herself. In any event, with rare exceptions, top government officials are going to say what they’re going to say regardless of what they are asked.

3. Though “This Week” seemed pretty much the same as it always has, Amanpour did shake things up a bit, as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid joined the roundtable from Spain. Over time, I’m hoping that Amanpour turns the entire format upside-down, eschewing political chit-chat for real substance. Perhaps this was one small step in that direction.

4. Jake Tapper deserves kudos for the way he handled “This Week” as a fill-in host the past several months. By taking a few chances (especially by embracing of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s suggestion that he add fact-checking to the show), Tapper demonstrated that there’s still some life left in the old format.

If, for some reason, Amanpour doesn’t work out, or if ABC News decides to use her elsewhere, then Tapper would be a natural — and I think viewers would accept him far more readily than they would have before his stint as a substitute.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Ted Koppel may anchor ABC’s “This Week”

Ted Koppel

My “Beat the Press” colleague Callie Crossley has the best idea for George Stephanopoulos’ replacement on ABC’s “This Week”: Gwen Ifill, who would have been a far better choice to succeed the late Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” than David Gregory — predictably — has proved to be.

But if an Ifill hire isn’t in the works, we might get the next best thing. The Politico’s Mike Allen reports that ABC is negotiating with legendary “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, now in busy semi-retirement, to moderate “This Week” three Sundays a month.

Koppel was one of the finest broadcast journalists of his generation — the successor to Murrow and Cronkite to a far greater extent than any of the folks who have anchored the network evening newscasts in the post-Cronkite era. He’s a tough interviewer and would bring unparalleled gravitas to the job. Ducking a question from Ted Koppel is not the same as ducking a question from Jake Tapper, Terry Moran or anyone else.

I do have one reservation. After Russert’s death in 2008, I thought retired anchor Tom Brokaw was an excellent choice to fill the moderator’s slot on an interim basis. Instead, Brokaw seemed cranky, sour and bored.

The Brokaw lesson is that it would be great to have Koppel back — but only if he’s prepared to bring his “A” game.

Photo (cc) by Tim Brauhn and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

David Gregory to host “Meet the Press”

I could snark away, but I’d prefer to give David Gregory a chance to prove himself as the new host of “Meet the Press.” The announcement should come soon, according to the Huffington Post.

Of the Politico’s list of people who didn’t get the job, I’d have preferred almost any one of them — Gwen Ifill, Chuck Todd, John King, Katie Couric or Ted Koppel, though not Andrea Mitchell. But Gregory always appeared to be the leading contender, so the pending announcement is no surprise.

Gregory’s got the chops. My main problem with him is that he seems as though he’d rather be boiled in oil than be accused of liberal bias, which occasionally leads to his tying himself in knots to avoid acknowledging reality.

The late Tim Russert was not perfect. He was tough on Republicans but tougher on Democrats, and his prosecutorial style of questioning — “You said this in 1987, so why are you saying that now?” — often devolved into self-parody. But his enthusiasm, respect for his guests and engaging personality overcame his shortcomings, and I miss him. It looks like I’m going to keep missing him, though Gregory could grow into the job. If not, there’s always Bob Schieffer. (Sorry, but Media Nation is a Stephanopoulos-free zone.)

So now Tom Brokaw retires once again. I thought he was an ideal placeholder after Russert’s death, someone with the stature to maintain the “Meet the Press” brand while holding the infighting at bay until after the election.

Instead, Brokaw too often projected laziness, lack of interest and — in moderating the second presidential debate — even petulance. Brokaw was a fine anchor and he’s got a record he can be proud of. But he can’t go back to being an elder statesman soon enough.

MSNBC’s news-opinion dilemma

It looks like the political cross-dressing act at MSNBC has reached its limit. According to Brian Stelter of the New York Times, talk-show hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews will not anchor the cable network’s coverage of the upcoming debates or on election night, which should tone down the battle between NBC’s journalists and MSNBC’s opinionators.

I have quibbles about this, but overall I think it was the right move. Barack Obama has no bigger advocates in the mainstream media than Olbermann and Matthews, and it has looked strange all year to have serious journalists like Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell and, before his death, Tim Russert seeming to answer to them. Recently, it all boiled over on the air.

Olbermann and Matthews reportedly will continue to appear as analysts, while David Gregory will serve as the anchor. That’s all fine. My larger concern is that in addition to being moved out of the anchor slots, they will also be expected to tone down their opinions, lest they run afoul of the Republicans’ current war against the media. Olbermann was exactly right in his revulsion at Republican efforts to stamp their brand on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even if it was unseemly for him to do it from the anchor desk.

The problem, of course, is that there are no such scruples about the dividing line between news and opinion at Fox News. Stelter, for instance, does not question the fiction that Bill O’Reilly is not allowed to anchor Fox’s convention coverage, a piece of information that would be a surprise to anyone tuning in between 8 and 9 p.m. the last two weeks. Fox’s signature news personality, Brit Hume, is a good journalist, but he also leans noticeably to the right.

MSNBC this year is experiencing the first semi-success of its benighted existence by loading up on liberal political talk shows. Today Rachel Maddow debuts at 9 p.m., extending that trend. I don’t know how long it can last, since the network is still firmly ensconced in last place. But as long as network executives can find a way to keep the journalists and the talkers from ripping each other’s throats out, MSNBC has become a refreshing alternative to Fox News.

I just hope it’s Williams and Brokaw who are driving the anchor-desk shift — and not Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt.

Mirror, Mirror, not on my wall

I’m in New York, where I attended the Mirror Awards luncheon sponsored by Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. My weekly online column in The Guardian was up for an award in media commentary, but I lost to Joe Nocera of the New York Times.

Editor & Publisher has a thorough rundown on the proceedings here. The theme of the event, as you will see, was the life of Tim Russert, who had been scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award. Brian Williams accepted on his behalf. One discordant note: the set-up video included a brief tribute from Dick Cheney, who infamously lied to Russert in September 2003. I do believe I heard some murmurs, a sign that I wasn’t the only one who thought including Cheney was inappropriate.

The event was held in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, which was pretty cool. Hick that I am, I’d never even heard of the place until I was invited to attend. Good food, amazing view, even on an overcast day like today.

Tim Russert, 1950-2008

Tim Russert’s death does not bode well for the future of television news. Though he was sometimes criticized for being too much of an insider, and for being tougher on liberals than on conservatives, Russert was smart and serious. He had a rare talent for communicating his love and knowledge of politics. And he was, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent human being.

Will NBC executives take advantage of this tragedy to go younger, glitzier and cheaper? That is not the legacy Russert would want or deserves.

Bill Shields of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) interviews several of us from “Beat the Press” here. The actual “Beat the Press” discussion should go up here sometime over the weekend. I’ve also written a column on Russert for the Guardian, which should be available here in a little bit.

Saturday morning update: My Guardian piece is now online.

Photo (cc) by Joseph Hallett and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.