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My Friend and My Source

A Commentary by Robert D. Novak

Friday, June 20, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A 26-year-old political operative from Buffalo on Daniel Patrick Moynihan's staff in 1977 was overshadowed by the all-star cast accompanying the newly elected senator to Washington. Not for the last time, Timothy J. Russert surpassed famous contemporaries. His first noteworthy feat was saving Moynihan from sure defeat for re-election, enabling an illustrious 24-year Senate career.

Moynihan was in the Senate on a fluke, because multiple competitors divided New York's prevailing liberal vote in the 1976 Democratic primary. His Senate staff was dominated by glittering neo-conservatives, but young Russert deftly convinced Moynihan he must move left to survive. The neocons all departed Moynihan and the Democratic Party, but Russert stayed and became his principal adviser.

Russert from the start also was an extraordinary source for me. The careful preparation that became his journalistic trademark was obvious in our conversations, when he always had something for my column -- most of it about Moynihan's adversaries. He was superb in "oppo" -- research about the opposition. That skill propelled him to the top of television interviewers.

Early in 1982, over drinks in a Manhattan restaurant, Tim pulled from his briefcase accurate derogatory information about Republican Rep. Bruce Caputo, who was planning to run against Moynihan. That finished Caputo.

Russert left Moynihan for Gov. Mario Cuomo in hopes of making him president, a goal much clearer to him than it was to the governor. The peculiar pro-Cuomo slant of this column could be attributed to Russert. He arranged a secret dinner at an obscure waterfront steakhouse for me with Andrew Cuomo, now attorney general of New York, but then his father's reclusive, enormously influential young adviser.

Russert went to NBC as a New York-based executive, but soon got back to Washington as the network's bureau chief. He was concerned, he told me, by the decline of "Meet the Press" under distinguished TV journalists following Lawrence Spivak's retirement as moderator in 1975, and requested my ideas in writing. Whittaker Chambers in 1952 said the program was "fun for the boys but death for the frogs," and I wrote Russert saying that softer questioning had become too much fun for the frogs. He agreed.

When he first took a seat on the "Meet the Press" panel with no on-camera experience, Russert asked me whether there was anything improper about that. There wasn't. He became moderator and gradually eliminated the questioning panel. It was a master stroke, soon copied by the other Sunday interview shows.

Russert sought advice from "Meet the Press" founder Spivak, who had been responsible for the program's previous pre-eminence. Spivak told him to question all guests as his adversaries, no matter what their political and ideological orientation. Russert could not abandon his liberal Democratic mindset 41 years in the making, but he could -- and did -- keep it hidden on Sunday mornings.

Because of Russert's preparation, appearing on "Meet the Press" was like a visit to the dentist. Prominent politicians, such as John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, thought they could avoid this ordeal. But none did. I know this because I talked with Russert on the telephone two or three times a month.

Tim and I disagreed on tax policy and other issues, but we never debated over the phone. Instead, we exchanged political information, and I usually was the recipient. He supplied for use in my column news tidbits he could not use. During my half century of journalism, he was the only colleague who was a source.

Russert and I were both uncomfortable about being witnesses, for different reasons, in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case, but we never discussed it. He always supported me, despite demands that he throw me overboard. When my memoir was published last year, Russert was generous in granting me abundant time on "Meet the Press" and his own MSNBC program.

So, I lost a friend. But in Illinois last weekend to attend a banquet of the American College of Surgeons in Chicago and my 60th high school reunion in Joliet, I was moved by grief of people who had never met Tim Russert but felt a personal sense of loss. That made him unique among journalists and indeed today's Washington personages.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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See Other Commentaries by Robert D. Novak

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