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June 18, 2008

Holes in Our Safety Net

Kevin E. Dayhoff


Tim Russert, “a giant in journalism and in politics” passed away unexpectedly last Friday. It followed by less than a week the death of ABC’s Jim McKay.


He had just returned from a visit to Rome, Italy. His wife, Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth, and their son, a recent Boston College graduate, remained for a few extra days of vacation.


Last Friday he was recording voiceovers for his next edition of Meet the Press, when he suffered a heart attack and efforts at resuscitation failed. He was only 58 years-old.


He is the second nationally prominent journalist to die in the last several weeks. Although neither had a local connection per se, we all felt in some way connected with them. They both had a positive impact on our lives.


For 17 years Mr. Russert has been a guest in our living room every Sunday since he took over Meet the Press December 8, 1991, after having joined NBC News in the Washington bureau in 1984.


The week before Mr. Russert’s passing, on June 7, Jim McKay passed away on his horse farm in Monkton in northern Baltimore County. He was 86.


As with Mr. McKay, Mr. Russert was always very knowledgeable, well spoken, and gentlemanly as compared with much of the television of today, which frequently appears to emphasize frivolous and empty glitz, pizzazz, and mindless, banal banter over depth, talent, and integrity.


To be certain, many remember Messrs. Russert and McKay for different reasons, but, nevertheless, for the same character traits.


Mr. McKay was one of the early pioneers of television who helped set high standards for several generations of journalists. It can certainly be argued that Mr. Russert was a journalist who continued to maintain those high standards in a program that dates back to the earliest days of television.


NBC proudly claims that Meet the Press is currently the longest-running television show in the worldwide history of broadcasting. It first went on the air November 6, 1947.


Many people who are not die-hard sports fans thoroughly enjoyed watching the Wide World of Sports for which Mr. McKay was the first host in 1961. Many will remember his iconoclastic opening for each episode: “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”


Likewise many, even those who are not political junkies, appreciate watching Meet the Press. Mr. Russert began each episode with “Our issues this Sunday…” In an era of political smear, half-truths, and a generation of politicians not used to being held accountable – Meet the Press has been one-stop shopping to get the truth from our political leaders and the issues.


We all looked forward to – and enjoyed it – when Mr. Russert would utter those fateful words: "Before you go...," or “Let’s listen…,” or “Let's watch…” as he was known for being always very well prepared – and always ready to say “Let’s set the record straight.”


Of course, one of the reasons many enjoyed Meet the Press was its civility. In an era when too many journalists wear their condescending disdain for elected officials on their sleeve, Mr. Russert was well known for liking politicians and politics.


It was always refreshing to listen and learn on a political talk show in which folks don’t yell at each other, and whining seemed to be forbidden.


What Mr. Russert did wear on his sleeve were his working class roots and his background as a Jesuit-educated Catholic who was schooled in the tradition of working nuns and priests.


In Mr. Russert, we also enjoyed what presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, called his boyish enthusiasm. It was Ms. Goodwin who recalled what “Eleanor Roosevelt once said about … Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, that the best men still have a lot of the little boy left in them. And that was what Tim had.”


He also wore his faith on his sleeve, as well as his commitment to his family, his loyalty to his friends, his respect for the value and importance of fatherhood, and the flag.


For those who have desperately clung to concepts of civility and respect, we live in an era which history will reflect upon as a time of full-employment for malicious gossips costumed as news reporters.


Journalists with the integrity of Messrs. Russert and McKay are in short supply these days and their presence will be missed.


In the Internet-information age the greatest hoax in life continues to be the hope for personal safety. Our safety net has been left with a huge hole with the passing of Messrs. Russert and McKay.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:



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