Goodbye to a Standup Brother

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

Here is something important you need to know about Tim Russert: On the night Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, even a casual viewer could tell Tim was beside himself with the joy of watching history unfold before his eyes. In that slightly over the top, nearly hokey way that characterized his love of election nights, he simply could not get enough.


I was watching at home, enough of a political junkie myself to know I had to hang in there to see the history being made, but fighting off sleep all the same. And then my friend Tim said something on the air that made me wish I'd said it first.

"I was thinking: What would I like to do tomorrow?" he said to the camera, his face shiny with excitement. "No more primaries to cover! One, I'd like to be in that meeting between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But absent that, I would LOVE to teach American history in an inner-city American school tomorrow morning. How GREAT would that be? Just to look in those faces and listen to those kids—what they witnessed and saw tonight."

I knew he meant every word.

Tim loved a lot of things, a lot of people. And we loved him right back. He hired me at NBC in 1994 on a dare, luring me from my comfy perch at the New York Times with a promise to teach me TV. His reasoning was simple; it was a better bet to teach a good reporter about television than to try to teach a TV-ready talking head about how to be a journalist. His own example was his guide. He took over Meet the Press in 1991 without a lick of television experience, but with a wealth of political knowledge.

He never had to say it, but I also know Tim considered it a bonus that, by hiring me, he was going to be able to add an African-American voice to his Washington bureau—someone who could keep up with him on politics but also tell him stuff he didn't know. He was keenly aware that, as proud as he was of his Irish Catholic, blue-collar roots, other people had different roots that they were equally proud of and that understanding those varied views of the world was important.

I was working for him at NBC during the 1995 Million Man March. As hundreds of thousands of men streamed onto the National Mall, he knew this was a big deal, and he knew there was something he could learn if he would just dig deeply enough. So he assembled a roundtable for that week's Meet the Press unlike anything Sunday morning had ever seen: all black men, including liberal Jesse Jackson and conservative Robert Woodson, Tim and me. It was no stunt. Tim really wanted to understand the significance of the event.


That kind of sincere interest is rare. Many powerful white men limit their curiosity to confirming what they already believe they know to be true. When Tim did not know something, he found someone who did. Over the years, he found me, and NPR's Michele Norris, and the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson and CNN's Suzanne Malveaux and Joe Johns and other voices who could clue him in to how black folk thought, talked, acted—and to help him understand why there was no monolithic answer. When the National Urban League scolded him and other Sunday morning shows about lack of diversity on their roundtables, he showed up at the meeting himself to talk to them about how to address the problem.

I made my last appearance with him on Meet the Press a few weeks ago. We were talking about race in the context of this year's presidential contest and another panelist, Jon Meacham of Newsweek, remarked that race was a subject that made white folks queasy. I countered that black folks only get queasy talking about race when they are in conversation with white folks who get queasy talking about it. Tim's eyes twinkled when he looked at me. He absolutely loved that I was telling him something he had not thought of before.


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.