Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Father's Greatest Legacy

I rarely, if ever, watched Meet the Press, but I admired and respected Tim Russert. I enjoyed watching him do political analysis on all of the NBC news shows, particularly during the 2000 election, when Tom Brokaw couldn't tell whether Bush or Gore captured Florida. All of the other networks had fancy graphics, computers, and charts to display their statistics, but Russert captured the essence of what was going on with a simple white board and dry erase marker. Technology wasn't for him. He was the type of guy who could grill politicians and pundits by day, yet at night, you could picture going to a football game with him and be comfortable. He was that rare combination of esteemed journalist and regular guy--a rare combination indeed.

This, and many other wonderful memories of Tim Russert, were shared yesterday at his memorial service, broadcast live on MSNBC. Tom Brokaw opened up the proceedings with a wonderful blend of humor and tenderness: "This is a celebration, and we're gonna do it Irish style. There will be some tears, some laughs, and the occasional truth. And as Tim would look out on this gathering, he would say, 'It's wild! It's wild! My family, my closest friends from near and far, the powerful, the ordinary, and the largest contingent of all in this room, those who think they should be his successor on Meet the Press."

That last sentence really got a belly laugh from the crowd, and set the tone for a touching, funny, and warm tribute to a man who was taken from this Earth all too soon. Maria Shriver spoke of a man who became another brother to her: "I lost my heart to Timmy Russert the day I met him. And the entire time I knew him, he took care of it. He protected my heart when it needed protection, he nurtured it when it needed care, and he helped it grow. And he never, ever broke it--a rare man, indeed."

Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News: "We dared to think that he would live to comb grey hair. He had every gift but length of years. This brings us to a perfect note to end on, at least for me. Let's talk about Tim's hair. Tim spent a fortune on his hair...he went to a very fashionable salon...for years...his only attempt at vanity. And on the day when he got it done, he looked outstanding for 60 to 90 minutes afterwards. And then, gradually, as he went on the course of his day, something happened...he just went back to being Tim."

All of the speeches were touching, funny, and paid tribute to a great man. Yet there was one other person mentioned in each of those speeches: Russert's 22 year old son, Luke. The camera panned to Luke whenever he was mentioned, and the camera viewed a young man, with his mother's dark eyes and his father's facial expressions, laughing along at the memories shared in that room at the Kennedy Center. Luke, a freshly minted college graduate, who was suddenly thrust into manhood upon the death of his father. Luke, whom everyone had to think, "How is he dealing with all of this?"

We soon got our answer.

He was the last to speak.

He approached the microphone with a confidence well beyond his years. "Good afternoon," he greeted, "I'm Luke Russert, proud son of Tim and Maureen. Before I begin, my mother and I would like to extend our deepest thanks for the tremendous outpouring of love and support from all of you and everyone all over the country.

"Earlier today, I delivered my father's eulogy, and I'd like to share a few excerpts. I'm sorry to break the news to every charity group, university, and club that he spoke to, but he had the same speech for all of you; he'd just tinker it a little bit, depending on who exactly he was talking to. So I would like to do the same thing, and do what I said earlier."

What refreshing candor and honesty! This got a huge laugh, and lots of applause from the crowd.

He continued on, quoting his own dad, from chapter 20 of his dad's book, Big Russ and Me, titled "Loss": "It's about Michael Gardner, my dad's friend who lost his 17 year old son to acute juvenile diabetes some years ago. After his passing, my dad phoned Michael and he said to him, 'Michael, think of it this way: What if God had come to you and said, "I'm gonna make you an offer: I'm gonna give you a beautiful, wonderful, happy and loveable son for 17 years, but then it will be time for him to come home." You'd make that deal in a second, right?' Well, I had my dad for 22 years, but I, too, would make that deal in a heartbeat.

"Later on in that chapter my dad goes on to say, 'The importance of faith and of accepting and celebrating death was something I continued to believe as a Catholic and a Christian. To accept faith we have to resign ourselves as mortals to the fact that we are a small part of a grand design.' Well my dad may have been a small part of God's grand design, though, but he was such a big presence on this Earth."

This kid is just 22 years old. And yet I felt his father ooze out of every word he said, as if his father was standing right beside him, almost as if he were using Luke as a mouthpiece for what he needed to say about death. And yet the funniest moment of his eulogy was just coming up:

"He had a great time living, and is no doubt having the time of his life in Heaven. So I ask you, this Sunday, in your hearts and in your minds, to imagine a Meet the Press: Special Edition, live from inside St. Peter's gate. Maybe Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr will be on for the full hour, debating. Perhaps JFK and Barry Goldwater will give their two cents about the 2008 election. You could even have Teddy Roosevelt for the full hour talking about the need for a third party."

This got a laugh from the entire crowd. And then, at the end, this young man brought the crowd to its feet.

Tim Russert was very proud of his son, and you could see why. This young man is a hero to many of us right now. He is handling his father's death with grace, aplomb, and a maturity well beyond his years. Of course, this is Luke Russert's public face; he may mourn his father's death in a different fashion away from the press.

But on that June day, at the Kennedy Center, we witnessed Tim Russert's greatest legacy, and it wasn't Meet the Press.

It was his son--and Luke Russert gave everyone reasons to be proud of him. I know that he has a great future in front of him.

Let's hope that he has the gift of more than the 58 years that his father had.

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