Goodbye to a Standup Brother

Tim Russert was a rarity in Washington; when he said he wanted to understand other people, he meant it.

Gwen Ifill with Tim Russert on the set of 'Meet The Press' in February.

I never minded talking about race with Tim because he was never queasy talking about it with me.

There is quite a line of people who, at various times, have taken credit for my career. I usually let them do it, even if I remember events quite differently. But Tim deserves the credit. He not only talked me into switching to TV against my first instincts, but—five years later—he engineered a way for me to leave NBC when I was offered the chance to become the first African American to host a weekly public affairs program, Washington Week, over on PBS. He not only talked NBC executives into getting me out of my contract, but he also looked me in the eye and told me this was something I absolutely, positively had to do.

Tim remained a friend to the end. Even when we disagreed—as happened during the infamous Don Imus episode last year—he never stopped wanting to hear what I thought. Imus was his friend, and he had appeared on the radio show many, many times. So when Meet the Press producer Betsy Fischer called to invite me to participate in a Sunday roundtable focused on the controversy, I at first refused.

I felt compelled to call Tim and explain. If I come on your show, I told him, I will be forced to criticize the journalists who had enabled Imus over the years, leading up to his stunning insult of the Rutgers basketball team. Tim knew—and I knew—that Imus had insulted me too, years before. When I told Tim I didn’t feel I could come to his house and insult him, he quickly assured me that he wanted me to come and say what I had to say. People needed to hear it, he told me.

So I went, and I told him to his face that I found his defense of Imus disappointing. I got a lot of kudos for speaking truth to power that day, but the real news was that Tim allowed me to say what I had to say, knowing it would not make him look good. That does not happen a lot—in life or politics.

I am stunned and grief-stricken by Tim’s death. In a world where many of us realize we are the only black friends our white friends have, I remember Tim as a guy who considered it a thrill to drop by my house, grab the first baby who wandered by in a house full of mostly black people, and work the room like he never wanted to leave.

Now that, right there, was my brother.

Gwen Ifill is host of ”Washington Week” on PBS.