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Inroduction by Mark Karlin.
THIS TOWN, deftly chronicled by Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times, was a book I was prepared not to like. After all, how could a long-term New York Times (and before that The Washington Post) reporter write a revealing, critical account of the beat that he still covers. From the first line, however, Leibovich captured the interrelationship of media, power, money and celebrity status that characterizes the bubble of DC. He is an author who establishes his credibility by knowing where to begin: in this case the funeral of Tim Russert, which Leibovich describes in the prologue and first chapter as something akin to the spectacle of a Papal death mass. “Tim Russert is dead. But the room was alive,” Leibovich pronounces in his first two sentences. “You can’t work it too hard at a memorial service, obviously. It’s the kind of thing people notice. But the big-ticket Washington departure rite can be such a great networking opportunity.” The importance of Russert (who died suddenly in 2008) – as a media gatekeeper to a town in which appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows enhances one’s power and one’s salary potential when leaving government – reappears throughout the book like a regal ghost, the master of ceremonies for “the bonfire of the vanities” (per the title of a Tom Wolfe book).
Leibovich reveals what is the heart of THIS TOWN – and why he began his book with the US version of the court at Versailles paying lavish tribute to a political talk show host – when he says of Russert: “Tim lived in the sweet spot of the big, lucrative revolving door between money, media and politics. He also died there.”
The following is an excerpt from THIS TOWN, “Heaven’s Green Room”:
Apparently cholesterol plaque ruptured one of Russert’s arteries. It caused a sudden coronary thrombosis. He was in an audio-tracking booth at NBC’s Washington bureau recording voiceovers for that Sunday’s show when he collapsed. The EMTs defibrillated but could not resuscitate. He was pronounced dead at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Russert had just returned from Italy. He had been celebrating his son Luke’s college graduation and had recently placed his eighty- four-year-old father into an assisted-living home in Buffalo. Tim had struggled with his weight and was looking tired, and his many pals had been worrying about the stress he was under. He had suffered from asymptomatic coronary artery disease, which he treated with medication and exercise. He did well on a stress test seven weeks earlier, on April 29. Tom Brokaw promised him a Chuck Berry album if he lost ten pounds by that summer’s political conventions. “What’s happening?” were Russert’s last words, a greeting to the person on the other end of the audio feed. The autopsy showed an enlarged heart. Flags were ordered at half-staff by the mayor of Buffalo.
“He will be missed as he was loved, greatly,” said Brokaw, announcing the death live on NBC.
Russert—”Tim”—reached the top of the pecking order while shrouding a cutthroat ambition in his slovenly nonchalance. While a focused and surgical ambition is vital to success in D.C., the ability to be appropriately sheepish about it is more so. Russert had a nice, easy populism about him—just a guy out of Buffalo who cherished his country, loved his dad and his son and his Bills and his T-shirts and all that. “Rumpled” is always good for the brand here, and Tim had that nailed.
He was also acutely status-conscious. Known primarily as a TV star, he preferred to identify himself by his more hierarchical title, “Washington bureau chief.” (Russert told a Washington Post reporter in 1991 that he wanted to be president of NBC News.) Brokaw once asked if he ever considered entering the priesthood. Yes, he said.
“Cardinal?” Brokaw asked.
No, Russert said. “Pope.”
That was a joke but Tim had just seen the pope a few days earlier, when in Rome. He sat up front for the weekly prayer service, and then His Holiness (the pope, that is) had to leave.
Tim liked his seat in the corporate boardroom and his large home in Nantucket, “The House That Jack Built,” as the sign out- side identified the Nantucket house—Jack being Jack Welch, the longtime CEO of NBC’s corporate parent, General Electric. Russert and Brokaw attended Ronald Reagan’s funeral as guests, and then walked outside the Washington National Cathedral to anchor the news coverage for NBC.
Tim lived in the sweet spot of the big, lucrative revolving door between money, media, and politics. He also died there. Every wannabe, is, and has-been in Washington was issuing statements. “We will never see his likes again,” “He touched so many lives,” etc. Big distinctions were bestowed—”the preeminent political journalist of his generation,” John McCain said. “One of the finest men I knew,” Obama said. Small kindnesses were recalled. “When my mom died, he sent two dozen roses,” said Ann Klenk, a producer at MSNBC. “I adored him.”
He was indeed adored—in that unmistakable vintage of Washington “adored” that incorporated fear and need and sucking up. You needed to be on Meet the Press to be bestowed with a top-line standing in what Joan Didion called “that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.” You needed to be friends with Tim, the closer the better, as so many people advertised with deft turns of posthumous networking. People on TV jockeyed to outgrieve one another. Network and cable channels paid tribute with their favorite homage: overkill. This was particularly true on NBC, and doubly particularly true on its little cable sister, MSNBC, which Russert—in life—was always wary of spending too much time on, for fear of slumming away his mayoral status in the high-numbered channels.
“He called me ‘Mitch,’ ” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said on MSNBC. Same thing her father called her. “Go get ’em, K.O.,” Tim used to say to MSNBC’s Kelly O’Donnell. Keith Olbermann said Tim had said the exact same thing to him (“Go get ’em, K.O.”).
“‘Pal, go get ’em,'” Matt Lauer said, choking up as he relayed what Tim used to tell him before he conducted big interviews. Lauer went on to assure viewers that Russert was now sitting up in “heaven’s green room.” And really, who would doubt for a second that God’s place of eternal reward did not precisely mimic the layout of a network television studio?
. . .
No one was bigger than Tim within the celebrity-industrial complex that had exploded at the nexus of politics and media in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Russert was a product of both: a star aide to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late senator from New York, and later to former New York governor Mario Cuomo. He went into television and quickly shot to the top there too. There have always been Famous for Washington types, a term that captures both the distinction of being a big deal in the capital and the provincialism that makes Famous for Washington such a lame compliment. Russert was not so much Famous for Washington or even a “talent.” He was a full-on “principal,” the D.C. usage for elected behemoths and cabinet secretaries—the Main Bitch. The Mother Eagle.
Excerpted from THIS TOWN: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich, reprinted with permission from Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin USA LLC. Copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission of the publisher.