The Canonization of St. Tim

The Canonization of St. Tim

It’s hard to explain the media delirium over a newsman who gave the powerful a pass on Iraq.


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The delirium in the press at Tim Russert’s passing has been strange. As a broadcaster he was not much better than average, which is saying very little. He could be a sharp questioner, but not when it really counted and when courage was required. He was tough with George Bush in a February 2004 interview. He taxed him with faking the reasons to attack Iraq. But in the years before the 2003 attack, I used to hear Russert being merciless to those questioning whether Saddam Hussein had the nukes and bioweapons alleged by the Bush Administration and its co-conspirators in the press, prominent among them Russert himself.

Russert and his staff ignored efforts by watchdogs like Sam Husseini and others to get him to stop telling lies to the effect that it was Saddam who threw out the UNSCOM weapons inspectors, whereas it was Richard Butler, the head of UNSCOM, who pulled out the inspectors, apparently at the instigation of the United States. As Husseini correctly writes, "This lie, echoed through much of the political-media system around the time Russert told it, helped set the stage for the invasion after 9/11."

If Russert had rocked the boat in any serious way he’d have had more enemies. The right-wingers didn’t care for Walter Cronkite, but they had no problem with Russert. Rush Limbaugh nuzzled him respectfully on the air, and so did Don Imus. Russert was always there with his watering can to fertilize myths useful to the system. On Russert’s memorial show Ronald Reagan glowed in memory, up there with FDR as the twentieth century’s best-loved and most popular American President. Not true at all, as Russert–trained to read polls by years of working for Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan–could have found out in five minutes if he’d wanted to. Reagan had a scrawny 52 percent average approval rating for his presidency, worse than JFK, Eisenhower, Roosevelt and Johnson. His supposed "likability" was also hugely exaggerated. But the invention of RR as the toast of the ordinary folk was necessary to validate the disgusting pigout for the very rich he inaugurated, which continues to this day.

Similarly necessary has been the notion that if it means winning the "war on terror," ordinary Americans are OK with the President (along with the US Congress) making a bonfire of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Russert helped spread that lie too, even though polls dissected in numerous accounts by press watchdogs like FAIR have shown that a narrow majority of Americans hold contrary views on the matter.

Russert spent many years working for Moynihan, who played the greasiest cards in the political deck, whoring for the Israel lobby, race-baiting for Nixon. Few were more zealous than Russert in shredding anyone with the temerity to criticize Israel. Obama, now shuffling Moynihan’s greasy deck with his Father’s Day sermon about black responsibility, got a dose of Russert’s own race-baiting earlier this year, with a ridiculous volley of questions about Farrakhan and Wright in the February 26 debate. Any white telly pundit can make hay with Farrakhan, but when it came to high gasoline prices Russert was meek as a shoeshine boy on his show, lining up the oil execs and tugging his forelock.

After Russert’s death the TV played over and over the clip of his interview with Dick Cheney, where the latter said US troops will be greeted as liberators. Russert didn’t say, "What do you mean, Mr. VP? People historically despise occupying armies. Bombing historically does not win people to your side." It was a softball moment for Cheney. Russert was part of the amen chorus.

Now, after his death, in congratulating Russert, his eulogists in the press get to congratulate themselves. On Hardball, Chris Matthews decided to have a show much like the one he always has, stacked with Irish Catholic men. This time it was more self-conscious, but the self-consciousness of it only underscored the incredible skewed reality that the show presents day in and day out.

Matthews began with a prayer. "Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. [Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.]" Then he introduced guys who are on his show all the time, Mike Barnicle and Pat Buchanan. And the three of them had a kind of Irish wake on the air, laughing, remembering, talking about the importance of parochial school and the values imbued in Tim and all of them by the nuns. On and on they went, about Catholicism and the Irish, and the special quality of Irish Catholics as "truth tellers," as people who "get the bad guys"–prosecutors, G-men and journalists. Russert was put right up there in the pantheon of FBI agents, without irony, people who delve for the truth, for the light, for the greater good against the "bad guys." Matthews used that phrase, "bad guys," over and over. Then he closed the segment with the other half of the prayer: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."

Russert, they said, was the guy who always did it better. So it was as if the closing prayer put Tim right there by the side of Mary, an interlocutor to God for the lesser lights, the Chrises and Pats and Mikes, the "sinners" who only strive to be like him.

The TV carried live shots of Russert lying in state, and the mourners could pass by and merely touch the edge of his coffin for a cure, or hope for a cure. This after seven years of craven, culpable journalism across the mainstream board. No one at this point is remembering the reporters at Knight Ridder, who were among the few in the mainstream pre-war to hammer away at the WMD argument. Russert’s colleague-survivors need him as a saint.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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