The Task of Following Russert

The date was Oct. 24, 1999, and at the campaign headquarters for Senate Republicans, we were just getting word that Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) had died.

Within an hour of the news being confirmed, reporters were calling me — as the spokesman for the campaign committee responsible for electing Republicans to the U.S. Senate — to get information on what his death meant with respect to a special election in Rhode Island or the possible appointment of Chafee’s son to the Senate. Then, on July 18, 2000, history repeated itself as Sen. Paul Coverdell (R–Ga.) — one of the hardest-working people in the Senate and well-liked in both parties — died. We were stunned by the news. And again the media calls poured in to me and we scrambled to find and explain what the special election or appointment procedures were in Georgia. It seemed so cruel, but the political machine churned. As time has gone on, I’ve found this it is not a sign of disrespect to the person but an acknowledgment of the business and passion they chose to pursue.

Last Friday, politics, the media and the country lost an icon in NBC’s Tim Russert. I’ve often worked with the “Meet the Press” producers — maybe the best in the business — but did not know Tim personally. However, from prepping a few different elected officials for their “Meet” interviews, and watching the show regularly, I came to know his style well.

Russert was surgical in his methodology. He would generally ask a question to his high-profile guest through a straightforward, front-door approach. If the guest hedged, Russert would try a side door. Once the guest balked again, unlike many other interviewers, Russert would back around to another question. But it was always obvious to the audience that the guest refused to answer. Subtly, Russert got the point across when the guests were not straightforward. And his guests knew this. It was one of the keys to his success.

Now that Russert is gone, there has to be a “Meet the Press” succession plan. It may be uncomfortable to discuss at first, but just like the lightning speed with which the media took the stories of a political death from a tribute to the “what’s next?” phase, it is not a slight to Russert but an acknowledgment of his place on top of the political/media pecking order.

With a tip of the hat to Jonathan Grella, who worked with me to compile this list, let’s meet the possible successors:

* John Roberts — Was formerly the White House correspondent for CBS. Currently the host of “American Morning” for CNN. Savvy, well-respected and was once rumored to be in the running for the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News. Maybe he should have gotten the job after the ratings disaster with Katie Couric. No one would question his integrity, knowledge or evenhandedness. Would NBC be able to take him from CNN?

* Keith Olbermann — No doubt he’s smart, but also like drinking acid from a fire hose. His acerbic nature shows through to viewers and he has trouble keeping his cool. “Meet” will require an even temperament and even treatment of guests. Not Olbermann’s strong suit.

* Chuck Todd — Already at the Peacock as the top election analyst, and often referred to as the official scorekeeper of the election. (Russert was noted by The New York Times’s Mark Leibovich as the chief scorekeeper.) Todd has been a fixture of the political class for years as the editor in chief of The Hotline and is often seen on television breaking down election results. Smart, high-integrity, youthful and trusted in political circles. Never tested as a TV host, much less for the premier political show on television, so it would be a leap of faith by NBC.

* Gwen Ifill — Formerly a serious and well-respected part of NBC. Now with PBS but does sometimes appear on “Meet” as a panelist. She could be an excellent host, but is her style more suited for a PBS audience?

* Chris Matthews — Funny, smart, even off-the-wall at times. But his troubles at MSNBC would indicate that he won’t be heading to “Meet” anytime soon.

* David Gregory — Americans have seen him in action in the White House briefing room. But if that is all you’ve seen of him, it is an incomplete picture. He’s been seen losing his cool with Scott McClellan, but he’s actually a versatile television personality. His appearances on “The Today Show” and other programs show a smart, quick and sometimes funny person. Already at NBC, he could be seen in the host chair. But he’ll have to leave the dancing behind.

* Joe Scarborough — The former Republican congressman and current host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. He has grown in ability and popularity as he went from nighttime television to a key morning slot. He’s made a great transition but probably has a while to go before being ready for such a big jump. Could succeed Matthews, but probably not yet time for him on “Meet.”

* Brit Hume — The host of Fox News’s “Special Report” has the perfect personality and evenhandedness for the “Meet the Press” job but currently has a total fiefdom at Fox. Why would he want to trade an hour a night at Fox to an hour once a week at NBC? Hume may well be the one whom NBC should take the most serious run at but will probably not.

* Chris Wallace — Currently the host of Fox News Sunday. Despite some misgivings by some in the Washington chattering class (me included), Wallace has done a remarkable job in that position. He would be good at “Meet” but probably isn’t leaving Fox either.

* Tom Brokaw — as respected as they come and will probably fill in as transitional figure for Russert. But he’s not destined to be the long-term successor.

* Katie Couric — Interestingly, she may well have been at the top of the list for this job if it were not for her jump to the CBS Evening News and the rating decline there. Not gonna happen.

* Brian Williams — Holds the anchor chair for NBC Nightly News. Widely respected and has done an outstanding job taking over upon Brokaw’s retirement. But is the status of “Meet” worth moving the nightly anchor? It would be hard to see.

* Jake Tapper — Currently at ABC. He’s smart enough but probably disqualified by his defense of doorknob-licking.

There are other capable potential candidates, such as NBC’s Lester Holt, ABC’s Charles Gibson and a host of young up-and-comers. But no matter who gets the job — to paraphrase the old Jerry Lee Lewis song — they may walk in his footsteps but they’ll never fill his shoes.