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Washington diary: Russert remembered

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

The monsoons have come to the Midwest, gas and food prices continue to soar, Afghanistan is falling apart and Barack Obama and John McCain are trading blows over who is better able to fix the tanking economy and an unpopular war.

Tim Russert (File Picture)
American Dream - Mr Russert rose from working-class roots
And yet the two presidential candidates took time off from the campaign to spend a few silent minutes together in Washington this week.

They sat side by side, apparently alone, in front of a coffin containing a man who had given them both a hard time in front of millions of voters.

The sudden death last week from a heart attack of Tim Russert, America's most famous political broadcaster, has managed to unite the two presidential rivals in grief.

Which journalist in Britain could do that for Gordon Brown and David Cameron?

The mourning for this one journalist tells you a lot about him and about his country.

Loved and admired

Mr Russert was respected by politicians for his tough but fair questioning.

He was admired by all his colleagues and loved by many, which is a rare accolade in one of the more poisonous professions.

Americans celebrate an illustrious passing like no other nation I know

The public saw in this grandee of the political circuit a down-to-earth kinda guy who struggled with his weight, adored baseball and communicated his passion for politics with infectious good cheer.

He was the quintessential citizen journalist, who explained the Byzantine thickets of Washington politics with the enthusiasm of a connoisseur but no hint of haughtiness or cynicism.

America is as weary of "the media" as the rest of the planet but this country likes a good yarn and here they still appreciate good journalists as master story tellers.

Some of the veteran correspondents on the current affairs show 60 Minutes are treated like the superstar druids of the flickering screen.

Diane Rehm - one of the most respected talk show hosts and the grande dame of radio - is 71 and going strong.

In a culture that supposedly worships youth, age is not seen as an impediment in my profession - long may that last!

And when a great broadcaster who was supposed to grow old on television dies too young at his desk, it comes as a shock.

Doleful bugle

MSNBC, the sister network of Mr Russert's broadcasting home NBC, broadcast his memorial service at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC with the hushed reverence and obsequies of a state funeral.

Barack Obama at the funeral of Tim Russert, 19 June 2008
Mr Obama and his Republican rival John McCain both attended the funeral
The programme kicked off with a doleful bugle.

The presenters wore black.

The first guest was Doris Kearns Goodwin, the eminent historian normally prevailed upon to comment on the passing of Presidents and the legacies they leave behind.

At one stage the anchorman Keith Olbermann wondered out loud whether the media was overdoing the death of one its own.

Richard Wolff, the British-born commentator by his side, looked a little uncomfortable - or should I say British - when asked to comment.

Tim Russert's affable personality is only part of the story.

Americans celebrate an illustrious passing like no other nation I know.

They are extraordinarily generous in the afterlife.

When the late President Gerald Ford died in 2006, he was celebrated as the embodiment of homespun, honest, salt of the earth Heartland America.

It was almost rude to mention that he lost re-election because he was perceived to be both ineffectual and grossly misguided for pardoning his predecessor and former boss Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal.

Poet laureate

The broadcaster's untimely death could not have happened at a more poignant time.

In 2008 much of America has been swept away by an infatuation with politics.

If this is a love affair, Tim Russert was perhaps its poet laureate.

The public and many of his colleagues turned to him for answers.

Ultimately, Russert embodied a familiar American story.

He was yet another version of the American dream: the Catholic kid who grew up in Buffalo, upstate New York, whose father - Big Russ - worked two jobs and who never lost touch with his roots.

Watching the memorial service on TV, I was struck by the military parade of the colours, President Clinton in the audience, the assembled congregation of power and celebrity.

But what came across most was that those who spoke really liked the man they had come to remember.

As Tom Brokaw, the former NBC news anchor, reminded the audience in his booming voice:

"We're gonna celebrate Tim Irish style. With some laughter, some tears and the occasional truth!"

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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MATT FREI'S WASHINGTON DIARY

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