NBC’s Tom Brokaw began Wednesday’s tribute to Tim Russert by telling the elite crowd of friends, media colleagues and politicians from the outset, “This is a celebration.”
Determined to mark Russert’s passing “Irish-style,” Brokaw promised “some laughs, some tears and the occasional truth.”
And he was good to his word. Ten of Russert’s closest friends and colleagues assembled on stage at the Kennedy Center and spoke in front of 16 large photographs depicting his life. Throughout the tribute, words of praise mixed with humorous anecdotes about the influential host of “Meet the Press” and Washington bureau chief for NBC, who died of a heart attack last week at the age of 58.
The capping homage to Russert’s working-class roots and persona came from his musical idol, Bruce Springsteen, who appeared via remote from Europe, performing a haunting version of his song “Thunder Road.” Russert, he said, exemplified a belief in the honesty of service that was important to journalists, politicians and rock musicians.
Russert’s wife, Maureen Orth, and son, Luke, were on hand, along with the thousands paying their respects at the invitation-only tribute. As has been the case since official Washington was shocked by Russert’s sudden death, the mourners included the city’s — and the nation’s — most famous visages, including former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Brokaw addressed the crowd as “the powerful, the ordinary and the largest contingent of all this afternoon: those who think they should be his successor on ‘Meet the Press.’” At that, MSNBC, which broadcast the memorial, playfully shifted to a shot of NBC News President Steve Capus.
After talking about Russert’s dual roles as “Meet the Press” host and doting father, Brokaw concluded by bringing out an American Legion mug given to him by Big Russ, Russert’s father. Brokaw promised to drink a bottle of Rolling Rock, which he admittedly “pilfered from Tim’s cooler,” as a tribute on Election Night.
And the retired NBC anchor repeated his favorite Russert saying, the same one that choked him up on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” tribute: “What a country.”
The tone from the other speakers was similar: a mix of wistful elegy and an attempt to capture Russert’s rapacious joy for journalism, particularly in the concrete jungle of Washington.
“Meet the Press” Executive Producer Betsy Fischer said that, in 17 years of working with Russert, he “never once steered me wrong.”
Sister Lucille Socciarelli, the teacher Russert credited with guiding him into journalism, talked about how he channeled his energy into and developed his leadership skills by producing “the best elementary school newspaper in the diocese of Buffalo.”
Bloomberg News’ Al Hunt, a longtime friend, said that Russert was likely watching from heaven “with a little awe, a lot of pleasure and some wry amusement.”
Hunt talked about how “smitten” Russert was when he started seeing Orth, and how, two days after Luke’s birth, he went to see the father and the “most memorable baby in almost 2,000 years.”
Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, telling a story he’d never told publicly about his former aide, said Russert once told him that “he believed politics could be a noble profession, even a saintly one.”
And Russert, Cuomo added, “regarded a day spent without real enthusiasm as a sadly lost opportunity.”
“What’s happening” were Russert’s last words, according to “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, who told the audience that it was fitting, since Russert was always in the mix of everything happening at NBC
In closing, Williams paraphrased Robert F. Kennedy paraphrasing William Butler Yeats after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
“We dared to think he would live to comb gray hair,” Williams said. “He had every gift but length of years.”
Lastly, Luke Russert came to the podium and, after beginning to read from his eulogy, walked over to pick up a bottle and a glass.
“When I hold this up, some of you see a glass half empty, and some of you see a glass half full,” the younger Russert said. “For Tim Russert, his glass was always half full.”
“I ask you, this Sunday, in your hearts and in your minds: Imagine a ‘Meet the Press’ special edition, live from inside St. Peter’s gate,” Luke Russert said, adding that Alexander Hamilton could debate Aaron Burr, or Teddy Roosevelt could be on for a full hour, talking about the need for a third party.
And the son ended with a famous Russertism: “Go get ’em.”
The Kennedy Center tribute — along with a special episode of “Nightly News” broadcast from the same location — capped five days of extensive coverage on NBC and MSNBC, beginning the moment that Brokaw broke the grim news of Russert’s death Friday afternoon on the cable network.
A private funeral service was held for Russert at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown earlier in the day. The presumptive presidential nominees, Barack Obama and John McCain, attended and sat next to each other at the service, which was filled with prominent political figures including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Honorary pallbearers included “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, “Today” show host Matt Lauer and journalist Bryant Gumbel, the former “Today” host.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Washington’s archbishop emeritus, said in his homily that “it is not easy to preach a homily for Tim and to communicate the feelings we all share concerning this remarkable man, for he was truly one of the great communicators in American society.”