When William F. Buckley, Jr. died this year on February 27, I was touched by the on-air tribute given him by Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball. I don’t always agree with Mr. Matthews, and I don’t always appreciate his style, but on that particular evening, he said something important.
What struck me was not what Matthews said about William Buckley – his writing, his publications, his sailing, his extraordinarily privileged life – but what he said about himself. As Matthews put it, “To start out as a young conservative is not–let’s look at the facts–to end up there. But you have to start somewhere. You have to care before you can think, think before you can change your mind… I owe that start to the man who died today at his desk…”
Those words came again to mind when I heard Tim Russert had died. Like Buckley, Russert was a caring and thoughtful man, an extraordinary interviewer, and a bridge between worlds. While Russert made the world of “inside the Beltway” politics more accessible to ordinary Americans, Buckley brought intellect and wit to television and helped make erudite conversation the newest parlor game in town. When I listed “good conversation” as my favorite sport on my Wordpress “About Me” page, it’s at least in part a testament to the influence of Buckley’s Firing Line in my life. On the other hand, when I settle in with a cup of coffee and a printed newspaper or one of the blogs I follow, it’s partly because of a passion for political process that Tim Russert helped engender.
Certainly there were differences between the men: in background, temperament and style.
The aristocratic and patrician Buckley could be – and often was – insufferable, pompous, or unutterably obnoxious. He just as often was brilliant, despite his acerbic tongue and impenetrable vocabulary. Buckley was all privilege, old money, and connections forged over generations. Born in New York, he lived in Mexico and Connecticut before beginning first grade in Paris and being further schooled in London. An accomplished harpsichordist who wanted Bach played at his funeral, he attended Yale and graduated into a life that became the stuff of legends.
Tim Russert, on the other hand, was working class Buffalo, a “just-folks” sort of fellow full of homespun wisdom, compassion and a kindness toward others – even perfect strangers – that was legendary. As E.J. Dione of the Brookings Institute put it, “Tim Russert knew it was as easy to be kind as to be cruel.” No harpsichordist, he: it was The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, who played Thunder Road at his memorial service. Not given to the linguistic flourishes of a Buckley, he was intelligent and insightful, if just a bit uncertain of himself in the beginning. When he first came to work for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Moynihan recognized his insecurity and gave him a classic piece of advice, saying, “What they know you can learn. What you know, they never can learn.”
As these things happen, each man became associated with his own remarkable television phenomenon.
Buckley’s Firing Line was must-see tv for years. After he died, Eric Konigsberg, writing in the February 29 New York Times rehearsed a bit of the history of the show, an hour-long PBS production. Over the years guests included Louis S. Auchincloss, Alistair Cooke, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William Simon. Politicians weren’t the only ones who showed up. Malcolm Muggeridge was there, as was Mortimer Adler and Jorge Luis Borges, Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg.
During Allen Ginsberg‘s appearance, the poet asked Mr. Buckley’s permission to sing a song in praise of Lord Krishna. According to Richard Brookhiser, quoted by Konigsberg, “Bill was very gentle with him. He said, ‘Of course’… Mr. Ginsberg proceeded to play a long and doleful number on a harmonium, chanting along slowly and passionately, And when he was finished, Bill said, ‘Well, that’s the most unharried Krishna I’ve ever heard.’ ”
That is pure Buckley, but Russert had his own, equally enjoyable style. Until Eugene Robinson pointed it out, I hadn’t been aware of some Meet the Press traditions. “After each segment, a photographer comes out to take a picture for the archives. When the taping is done, snacks are brought to the set and the guests linger for a while, chatting with the host about their families, about baseball, about the news of the day and about what’s likely to be the news of tomorrow. It’s all so civilized that it feels almost anachronistic.”
In this photograph from Meet the Press archives, Senator Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, cavorts with Russert, his wife Jackie Clegg and their daughters, Christina and Grace. after a taping at the NBC Washington studios on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007 (AP Photo/Meet the Press, Alex Wong). There were many reasons newsmakers fought to be on Meet the Press, and while post-grilling socializing wasn’t at the top of the list, it surely played a role in the overall appeal of working with Russert.
It can be tempting to see Buckley and Russert as different ends of the thinking-and-caring scale, with Buckley the thinker and Russert the one who cared, but that simply isn’t so. Both men gave profound thought to the issues of the day and both cared deeply – not only about the issues, but about their life’s work and the people around them.
Equally important was their passionate care and concern for what they understood to be their responsibility to the nature and development of civility in public discourse. Whether writing, interviewing, or speaking, whether engaging the public by the persuasiveness of their ideas or sheer force of personality, both men brought passion, intellect and good humor to their love of truth and politics.
Given their dedication and passion, it seems perfectly fitting that both men died at their work. William Buckley was writing at his desk. Tim Russert was in a studio at NBC’s Washington News Bureau recording a voice-over. Men of faith schooled in Jesuit traditions, both understood the meaning of laborare est orare – to work is to pray – and both left this life wrapped in the mantle of that prayer.
As I think about these two lives lost in one year, and about their contributions to our public life, I cannot help but ponder the need to maintain balance between caring and thinking. Thought without care risks becoming judgmental. Caring without the discipline of thought easily becomes sentimentality. Finding the appropriate balance between the two is one of our most important tasks.
Though never granted opportunity to know these two remarkable men personally, I value their lives and work, and refuse to choose one over the other. Like thinking and caring, they seem to belong together – two visions and two voices born of two different worlds which share a single goal: an engaged and informed populace willing to forego platitudes and easy answers in favor of discernment and commitment to difficult decisions.
Whatever their differences, the words of Bessie Anderson Stanley surely apply to both:
He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.