Big Tim

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Russert-Clinton.jpgTim Russert’s death has been so big a story because he was one of those fixed stars in American public life–a journalistic personality who you expected to be there, shining away, as presidents came and went. Usually those stars just grow dim, like Chronkite or Brokaw, reappearing as hosts or commentators for this or that special occasion or documentary, in a reassuring sort of way. They’re not supposed to blink out permanently at the height of their powers, as Russert did.
A particularly nice tribute comes from Time‘s Joe Klein, who was a Russert comrade in arms for 30 years. Klein emphasizes his friend’s Catholicism, stemming from the kind of postwar urban parochial school upbringing that shaped a lot more baby boomers than standard accounts of our storied generation generally recognize. And it is to the nuns who schooled Russert in Buffalo that Klein attributes what he considers his excessively censorious view of the Clintons:

Tim was boggled by Clinton, impressed and appalled by him. The only real differences we had in 30 years of friendship were over his treatment of both Clintons, which I thought was occasionally too sharp — and had its roots, I believed, in the strict lessons about sex and probity he’d learned from the nuns (which he often joked about). Our last conversation, sadly, was an argument over that.

It’s true that the Irish Catholicism of Russert’s youth was imbued with a Jansenist Puritanism that put its version of the faith tradition at odds with the more understanding posture towards sins of the flesh taken by the Mediterranean branches of the church. Still, this strikes me as not quite right.
Russert was the quintessential member of Washington’s political-journalistic complex, which never had much use for the Clintons and recoiled in special horror and dismay at the Lewinsky and other mini- and pseudo-scandals (remember the Lincoln bedroom overnights?) that came in their train. You would think that the the insiders would have been more worldly wise, but no, they are the acolytes of the American civil religion, and for them, the Clintons were guilty of sacrilege. (If you’re interested in my extended take on this, see here.)
Klein, to his credit, spent a lot more time thinking a lot more deeply about the Clintons than his Washington colleagues–see Primary Colors, book and movie–and as a result has managed to achieve a more subtle and dispassionate view. However much Russert owed his moral formation to the nuns, his anti-Clinton attitude seems to me to have been just part of the conventional belief system of his other faith, the cult of Washington.