We needed Tim Russert this election
© Getty Images

The debates are done. Only a few days remain before the leader of the free world is confirmed by the Electoral College.

As the 2016 presidential campaign devolves to depths heretofore unseen, America's democracy occupies the global center stage. For all the big-time sporting events, award shows, movie premieres and star-studded concerts, the world is tuned in to the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonComey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony Clinton among VIPS attending pre-wedding celebrations for daughter of India’s richest man Comey’s confession: dossier not verified before, or after, FISA warrant MORE-Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be 'in court right now' if he weren't the president or 'privileged' Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE political theater. It is must-see TV.

ADVERTISEMENT

While sardonically entertaining, the drama is as vulgar and declasse as any reality show. On their own, the cache of criminal charges and ribald revelations can fill an entire season of R-rated documentary specials.

Not since the Hatfield–McCoy feud has America witnessed such public vitriol.

On top of it all, we have been inundated with an incessant hum of advocacy and analysis from the chattering class. The shameless promotion of "expert insights" by 24-hour cable networks appears to know no bounds, as almost every other broadcast is dubbed a "special report."

A former Wall Street Journal reporter noted that "CNN is not so much a news network as an incubator for political operatives without official campaign roles."

And yet, for all their blather, none of today's journalists or talking heads have come close to the genius that was Tim Russert (save perhaps Chris Wallace).

No disrespect to the current lineup of television regulars, but by every measure, Russert was the best at what he did. In 2008, TIME magazine named him one of the world's "100 Most Influential People," and he carried that mantle with honor and humility.

Through preparation, pressure and perspicacity, Russert was a tour de force. He was an evenhanded interrogator, admired and feared by both the "Dees" and the "Reeps," as he used to call them.

He could push and prod many of his A-list guests to admit to incontrovertible facts, even though they just denied them on camera. Although he never said it, the twinkle in his eyes often smirked "gotcha."

I especially admired his lawyerly preparation, journalistic integrity and his blue-collar, chubby-guy glee at the magnitude and moment of what he was blessed to do for a living.

Unlike most of today's TV journalists, Russert knew firsthand the well-worn roads his guests had traveled.

As a Washington insider, he understood Capitol Hill. He knew the executive branch. He could deflect the spin from the political handlers, lobbyists and operatives, because at some point in his career, he had walked in their shoes.

Although a well-known Dem, no one could have accused Russert of partisanship — except when it came to his beloved Buffalo Bills and anything Catholic. He mastered the art of preserving political egos, even as he tore down the walls that enshrined them.

Even so, he was gracious enough to allow a crestfallen politician to leave the set with a semblance of dignity.

This moment would not be lost on Russert, who is credited for first using the monikers "red state" and "blue state" to describe the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

And who could forget his use of a low-tech, white eraser board on election night 2000 to remind us that it would be "Florida, Florida, Florida" that would determine the outcome of the closest election in modern times.

How prescient was he?

Tim must be musing with glee from the great beyond over what our democracy has wrought with Clinton and Trump as party standard-bearers — for decidedly different reasons, of course.

I wonder what Russert would say to Trump in the face of detail-dripping allegations of sexual predation, or how he would put Clinton's plausible deniability to the test of public doubt.

What a treat it would be to have a Russert-moderated debate, replete with "substance, substance, substance," unyielding to the pull of tabloid fodder.

And who would not have tuned in to a Sunday "Meet the Press" featuring Russert one-on-one with Donald and Clinton for the full hour?

On the verge of a history-making election, it is a cruel fact, indeed, that the maestro of the Magic Marker and scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad will be watching from afar.

But as sure as Nov. 8 will make American political history, Tim is in heaven handicapping the red-state and blue-state results for archangels Gabriel and Michael and talking congressional demographics with St. Peter at the pearly gates.

Because in heaven, it's Sunday every day, and when it's Sunday ...

I don't know about you, but I miss Tim Russert.

Hoffman is chairman of Business in the Public Interest and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He served in senior legal positions in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.