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Grounded Russert

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Washington is mourning the death of Tim Russert, but the loss resonates far beyond the Potomac.

I only met Russert, the moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," once. It was under circumstances that speak well of the man and seem consistent with the moving tributes we've heard in recent days.

Democratic strategist James Carville, a close friend, said that he never disturbed Russert on a Friday because he knew the newsman was "in the zone," prepping for the Sunday show.

Not knowing any better, it was, of course, on a Friday that I walked into Russert's office at NBC News in Washington along with Nancy Nathan, who had been executive producer for "Meet the Press" for several years.

Nathan is now executive producer of "The Chris Matthews Show," on which I was a guest in 2003. After we finished taping, I had asked Nathan if I could meet Russert, and she agreed. We went down the hall and into his office. He was seated at his desk, with his reading glasses on, going over last-minute research for the Sunday show. To Russert's left, on the couch, sat Betsy Fischer, the show's current executive producer.

Nathan apologized for the interruption but told Russert there was someone who wanted to meet him. He put down his glasses, came around the desk, and welcomed me with a handshake and a smile. I was working at the time for a newspaper in Texas. Russert asked for my card.

I had recently given a speech at Russert's alma mater, John Carroll University in Cleveland. While there, I spent an hour visiting with the Rev. Ed Glynn, then the university's president, talking politics, music and Russert. I told Russert that Glynn had mentioned him fondly -- along with St. Thomas Aquinas and Bruce Springsteen. Glynn grew up on the Jersey shore, and he and Russert shared an affinity for Springsteen.

I also told Russert how, as a regular viewer of "Meet the Press," I appreciated him keeping politicians' feet to the fire on a thorny issue that mattered a lot to him and to his former boss, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: reforming Social Security. Moynihan served as co-chair of President George W. Bush's Commission to Strengthen Social Security.

After a few more pleasantries, we said goodbye.

I've heard Russert's friends say that he was "grounded," that he never forgot his roots and never let success go to his head. They say he wasn't just a good journalist but also a good guy.

That sounds like the person I met.

That day in his office, it happened to be a newspaper columnist. But it just as easily could have been a high school class from Syracuse, or a Rotary Club from Tampa, or a Girl Scout troop from Albuquerque. I'm sure Russert would have been just as generous with his time.

That means a lot, especially when Americans are all so busy that many of us feel as if we hardly have a moment to spare for our family and friends -- let alone complete strangers who wander into our office on the busiest day of the week. It's also a fine legacy. It's probably the kind of thing that Russert's father would have expected from his son. In his best-selling book "Big Russ and Me," Russert talks about his upbringing in Buffalo and how his father taught him the value of hard work and personal relationships. In the working-class Irish-Catholic community in which Russert was raised, a fellow would do well not to think he was better than anyone else.

The same was true in the farmland of Central California where I grew up. My father led by example. After struggling in school and later in pursuit of a career, he learned not to look down on anyone. It's a lesson he passed on to his children.

About 15 years ago, when I launched my writing career, my hometown newspaper did a feature in which my dad was quoted as saying that no matter what I accomplished, I never lost concern for -- as he put it -- "the common man." It was the nicest thing he has ever said about me.

Now many people are saying the same sort of thing about Tim Russert.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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