Skewering Hypocrites and Liars With Civility: In Praise of Tim Russert



The last few days have been filled with tributes to NBC Chief Washington Correspondent  and host of Meet the Press Tim Russert.  


I have one to add.


In the fall of 2005, I left a senior administrative position in which one of my responsibilities was government and political relations. There were some years when politics was really in my blood, especially when there was an issue to be fought or a worthy project to be funded. There also were years when the trek back and forth to our state capital was excruciating. At least, because my “client” was public higher education, I always believed deeply in the inherent value of what I was selling. 


But then I lost it.  


Mostly, I became completely unable to tolerate a parallel universe in which a politician’s words and actions often simultaneously contained 1) an ostensibly noble, yet utterly phony, public rationale and 2) a more authentic, yet venal or self-serving, private rationale. I know. That’s politics. And it is a game. But enough was enough.


It was almost indescribably cathartic in those days to watch Tim Russert who – with infinite civility – would fillet those spinmeisters and phonies right down the middle. He always knew exactly what questions a guest wanted to avoid, issues on which they were vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy or excessive spinning. And he would ask them.


“Senator, why with all your public support and enthusiasm for the health care bill, were you absent on the day the vote took place? Why in two days did you make two speeches that offer completely contradictory views on the Iraq war? Why did you vote so enthusiastically and visibly for the Smith/Jones bill, yet then vote against every appropriation that would have made it a reality?”


And on and on.


No one cut to the chase with more decency.


We live in an age of salivating provocateurs, people like Bill O’Reilly and Michael Savage and Lou Dobbs,  who confuse rants and smarts. Completely unaware of how ridiculous they look, they get so lost in their infantile tantrums that — for all their histrionics – they miss the chance to really cut through to the truth.  They ask incendiary questions and get incendiary answers. They create a lot of heat, generate almost no light, and — while everyone is getting hot and bothered — no one notices that the hard questions, the nuanced questions, have not even been asked. 


Russert, on the other hand, never lost his civility. Yet he still could nail a sleazeball better than any of the loonies in the media shoutocracy. He knew that skewering was best accomplished by preparation, substance and civility, by asking precisely the right questions. The slippery and the ill-informed were unmasked before a national audience without any assault on their essential dignity as human beings. 



After Tim Russert, no journalist will ever be able to persuasively argue that getting to the truth requires that another human being be demeaned or berated. When Tim Russert’s questions led to your humiliation or the end of your political career, you had no one to blame but yourself.

No Escape from Grief: The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández

Yesterday, I saw a film of such shattering emotional impact that it forced me to face just how much I have been missing lately by focusing more on artistic form than visceral emotion. In fact, I found being torn apart and rendered incapable of rational analysis to be nothing short of liberating.

But there I go again with the self-serving language that obscures rather than reveals emotion. I wasn’t “rendered incapable of rational analysis.”

I was crying and I couldn’t stop. On a bus. With people staring at me.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (July 8th, 10 PM, PBS) tells the story of an 18 year-old American citizen – a son, a brother, a student, a friend – who was killed in 1997 near the Mexican border in Redford, Texas by US Marines watching for drug smugglers. While the rules of engagement did not call for deadly force, filmmaker Kieran Fitzgerald painstakingly details the series of events that led a U.S. Marine to shoot and kill Esequiel as he tended his family’s goats with a .22 rifle. Esequiel thus became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on American soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings.

So many of us respond to tragedy by playing an instinctive mental game. Surely, we tell ourselves, a tragic story will have one detail about a victim, one simple fact which will allow us to delude ourselves into thinking that we have found a reason for the unreasonable. Perhaps the victim was someplace he or she shouldn’t have been. Perhaps, even years before, the victim did or said something that even now allows us to temper our grief. It’s stunning how quickly we all, even unconsciously, resort to victim-blaming.

Some times we even say (or just think, if we are smart enough not to give voice to our least humane instincts) that “he got what was coming.” We think those words can provide a psychic antidote to the deeper horror that comes from pain that won’t go away. But that is when we must face the fact that good people like Esequiel Hernández, through no fault of their own, can sometimes die painful and tragic deaths simply by finding themselves in the cross-fire of powerful and violent institutions.

Esequiel dies because of an absolutely pointless and symbolic deployment of Marines as border guards in the “War on Drugs,” a mission for which they are scandalously unprepared. Before you know it — with the maniacal anti-immigrant rantings of media provocateurs like Bill O’Reilly playing in the background – a young man lies dead.

As I watched The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, I kept playing a mental game in a vain attempt to rid myself of pain: At least, I told myself, the evil of the killers will provide a different kind of relief. They can be hated and resented and serve as the vessels in which I will place my rage at a young life lost too soon.

But then “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” deals a second blow. Fitzgerald profiles the four Marines — although the one who actually fired the fatal shot chooses not to be interviewed — with such nuance and emotional depth that it becomes impossible to find the relief and resolution that would come from clearly evil killers.

They are human.

And then all I felt was despair, left with a difficult challenge we all face as we try to make sense of the world. Like it or not, we must accept that some tragedies are destined to remain open sores on our souls, forever unresolved, forever a source of grief.

In the end, though, “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” comes back to a young man and his grieving parents. He didn’t have to die, but he did, and even now — a day later — I can’t figure out a way to move from relentless grief to any thoughtful action. I can’t figure out where to direct my rage.

I can only cry for Esequiel. And his mother and father and brother.