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Transcript: “Tim Russert, the Political Process, and the Common Ground for the Catholic Church”

Friday, June 28, 2008
Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.;


Thank you, Sister — thank you all.  And I’m actually very, very happy to be here tonight.  I have to point out the Monsignor’s use of words earlier — I had to write it down.  My friends and family will get an enormous kick out of describing the act of a college dropout leaving Catholic University as “choosing to share my gifts elsewhere.”  (Laughter)  People who know and love me — and it’s a finite group — (laughter) — are going to love that turn of phrase.  I’ve become quite expert at euphemisms in my life. 

My résumé reads that I attended a number of colleges.  (Laughter)  CUA was just — it was the second of three.  And I’ll just start there.  I want to say–  Where’s the row of Sisters of Mercy here tonight?  There you all are.  Okay.  We had a huge contingent of Sisters of Mercy from Buffalo, New York, come down to St. Albans — of course, for all the wrong reasons — two weeks ago.  Led by Sister Lucille, of course.  And I met with all of them. 

The most remarkable scene backstage at The Kennedy Center.  We were eight very sad eulogists, gathering in this green room, and Sister Lucille sat next to Mario Cuomo.  Greeted the former governor in Italian, and never spoke a word of English after that.  (Laughter)  They just went at each other, in using words and phrases completely foreign to me.  But seemed to be having a great old time together. 

It is great to be back home.  I was a community-college transfer student when I came here.  I grew up in Elmira, New York — or, as Tim called it, a town south of Buffalo — (laughter) — and then Middletown, New Jersey, on the New Jersey shore, where I will be tomorrow morning.  And I still have–  My Dad still lives there. 

So I arrived here what I loosely define as sophomore year in college.  And I never did anything quite well back then — and some would argue a lesson I never quite learned.  And I arrive here, and there’s no dorm room — it’s all gone.  And where did they put me?  Across the street, at Trinity College.  (Laughter)  Where the ratio of women to men was 600 to 8.  (Laughter)  Eight brave young male souls — the few, the proud, the brav[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_preview”,”fid”:”128″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”style”:”float: right;”,”title”:””,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”wysiwyg”:”1″}}]]e. 

We lived — and I just–  Full confession here.  I just asked the gentleman who drove me from NBC up here to drive in the driveway of Trinity.  I hadn’t been back.  And I looked up at Alumni Hall — the administration building — where they had outfitted the third floor for residences.  And I will never forget.  I had a Dodge Dart, and three cardboard boxes, and I moved in late in the summer.  And I’m getting used to this notion.  I’m looking out at the girls, just saying:  No, don’t think impure thoughts.  Six hundred of them — 600 of them — wandering around campus. 

And I am putting my things away —  I hear music from down the hall.  And I walked down to follow the music, and I see a young man in a white T-shirt.  And I said:  I’m Brian.  And he says:  I’m Eddie.  Are you from Jersey?  I’m from Jersey.  And I said:  Yes, Eddie, I’m from Middletown.  Where are you from?  And he announced he was from South Jersey — the son of a grocer, I believe.  And Eddie and I became running mates.  Of course, eight of us stayed pretty close.  And Eddie went on to become Edward Gillespie, counselor to the President of the United States. 

Eddie and I have today what is referred to in diplomacy as a policy of mutually assured destruction.  (Laughter)  Regarding our past; our secrets; our dorm life; what we were like back then.  So I’m not going to break that policy here today — certainly not in the District of Columbia.  He knows everything there is to know about me, and I him. 

I was here.  I was a work-study student.  I worked for a year in the public-affairs office, and I think I wrote every outgoing press release for that year, on the letterhead of Catholic University.  And I was here for the visit of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.  And so when I hear that my friend Tim was struck dumb by the presence of the Holy Father, I find it completely understandable.  I met him on the front steps of the shrine, and it was just an incredible, incredible moment. 

I came back here.  It was such a great honor to receive the invitation to receive an honorary degree.  This past year, I received one from Ohio State — my ninth.  My father is 91, and, for the life of him, can’t figure out why, if we cashed them all in, they wouldn’t be worth a bachelor’s degree.  (Laughter)  Maybe we could talk. 

Okay.  (Laughter)  Fast-forward to present day.  Two weeks ago tonight, I was in a Blackhawk helicopter hangar at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.  “Nightly News” airs at 3:30 in the morning when we’re on the road, as we try to be often.  We do the broadcast live, and we’d been up for over two days.  We were out with a Special Forces group. 

We were coming to the end of our trip — we had one more broadcast to do.  And it was about somewhere between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, New York time, and I received an urgent computer message to call New York.  I did, and I was told that Tim had fainted.  He had passed out.  And that, of course, was followed by a number of messages of increasing urgency — and then a great, great sadness. 

Two weeks ago tonight.  And then we knew we were, at minimum, two days from home.  We flew back through Dubai and just couldn’t get here any faster.  And all I wanted to do was be with my friends and my co-workers.  And even if it just meant feeling sad with them — as I did again today in our Washington bureau.

Tim Russert was a lot of things.  He was chiefly a Catholic, and he lived a Catholic life.  And we’ve had many discussions in our workplace about our friend since his death.  It was said beautifully here tonight:  He loved family, and faith and the truth. 

Given how he made his living, that’s when the conversation starts to get interesting.  I credit his Jesuit teaching — his upbringing in Buffalo, New York — who he is … his DNA — with the fact that my friend, and our colleague, had truly a beautiful mind.  Look at what happened in this country when Tim lost his life. 

I called home on my way home to the United States, and my wife said:  Honey, it’s as if a former President has died.  And my theory as to that paroxysm of grief that none of us saw coming:  I don’t think — as I said to Tim’s widow, Maureen, two nights ago — I don’t think we celebrated him enough in life.  He became a utility; he became like power and water.  We turned it on, knowing — assuming — thinking it would always be there.  He always was — he brought his best game every day. 

He was my partner.  He was my partner on the road.  I was so excited about–  I’ve had my current job — which we at NBC refer to almost like a seat on the Supreme Court.  I’m still in Tom’s seat.  I’ve held the seat for three years.  This was to be our first general election as exclusive partners, and I am full of envy that Tom had him to play with for so many years.  Their friendship is the stuff of legend.  And, as I say, I envy Tom that.

Tim wore his Catholicism proudly.  He talked about it all the time.  It wasn’t, with him, an elephant in the room — it was the room.  It was the room he was raised in.  It was one of his great charms, as was how he dealt with it in life, in our public discourse.  One of the premier theologians of this gathering asked the following question leading up to my remarks tonight:  Was his relentless search for the truth a result of his Catholic upbringing?  And I’d have to answer that by saying:  It was an overwhelming influence, in my view.

Tim was, in my view, respectful dialogue personified.  Do we all get overheated in the public square?  Do we all get overheated in our line of work at times?  Of course.  Tim admitted to one incident when questioning David Duke on “Meet the Press.”  In Big Russ and Me he talks about it.  And he believes, in retrospect, he crossed the line, though I know no jury that would convict him.

It was, as I say, an overwhelming influence on Tim.  I think the way to see him was as the people’s advocate:  He was where he was from; he was the people who gave him life.  By dint of his upbringing, Tim didn’t have a sense of entitlement, as we so often see these days.  It was a sense of empowering the little guy — the little guy and woman — from South Buffalo, New York. 

It was as if he knew time was short — not his time, but our time to discuss these great issues.  He certainly understood the stakes were high.  He knew it better than most of us.  He knew the civility of our dialogue was under attack; he knew that diversity in the public square takes work every day; and he knew that our standards of journalism were being attacked.

I saw a headline in The New York Daily News, meant as a towering tribute to Tim.  It said:  Journalism is dead.  And I respectfully disagree — as I have publicly; as I did at The Kennedy Center.  I don’t think that with the death of the king so goes the kingdom in this case.  Thankfully, it’s because so many of us carry his DNA.  As I said to a meeting of our newsroom the Monday after his death:  Remember — you inhaled what he exhaled in this room.  You worked around him; you lived with him, in some cases; you grew up around Tim Russert.  That means something.  That’s the chain of life that we carry on.

He understood what it meant to be called to be Catholic … and I think that’s very important.  He took the call.  Catholicism was his base — it was never his bias.  That’s absolutely crucial, and I’ll debate anyone who contends to the contrary.  He knew when events called for distance; he knew when events called for great perspective.  He was angered, and he said so, at the Church’s crisis.  He saw it as a test of his Catholicism — he saw it as the job of a journalist.

Before I take my seat, and we have time tonight to take your questions — and microphone’s in the center of the room — a word of respect for this audience.  And I’ll say this confident my friend Tim would have said the same thing looking out on this crowd.  And I’d say this if it was a room full of imams or rabbis — even if this were a gathering of members of the Church of England.  Mmm.  (Laughter)  Thank you for belonging and for believing; for being passionate enough about something to do it, and believe in it — some of you — at the expense of all else in life … in a very materialistic society. 

It’s a world, I’m afraid, full of humble mutts like myself.  We are generalists.  We, the work-study students, who had a chance to answer a call — did not, and went on to do something else.  We went another way.  Many of us lived a way that we hoped that, through another avenue in our lives — of trying to do well, quite honestly — we’ll also find a way, along the way, to do good.

And I’m gonna close with the words of a colleague, ’cause they’re better than mine.  One of the many discussions that broke out at NBC News after we lost Tim took place when I pulled a chair up next to a co-worker.  She’s a producer in New York, and I know her as a very religious Catholic — as a very thoughtful person, and as a friend of close to 20 years.

And she said something in conversation.  We were talking about Tim’s Catholicism.  She said something that was so lovely and crystalline that I asked her, minutes later, upon reflection — knowing I was going to be with you all tonight — to write it down for me, as best she could synopsize what she had just said in a newsroom conversation.  And so here it is:

I have long marvelled at the way in which faith, for those who truly live it, is a gift, not a given — like having an ear for music, or a talent to draw.  I often liken it, at the risk of sounding disrespectful, to a dog whistle:  Some people hear nothing at all; some hear static; still others hear it unmistakably clearly. 

Tim Russert heard it.  He heard a joyful noise that informed his entire life, unfettered by doubts; rationalizations; relativism; or even leftover baggage from childhood.  That is the static I am always trying to cut through, so I can hear that dog whistle, too.  I’m not there yet, but I’m hopeful. 

Well, so am I.  Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.