Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, Mister Rogers & Me

The New York Times just confirmed some sad news: Tim Russert has died of a heart attack.

You'll recall that Chris and I visited Tim in his NBC offices in November, 2006 to interview him for our documentary.

We scored the interview courtesy of my uncle, with whom Tim had worked for years, after I read Tim's wife, Maureen's, remembrance of Mister Rogers in The Nantucket Inquirer-Mirror some months earlier.

It was a cold, drizzly Monday morning as we pulled into NBC's Washington, DC, bureau. Despite a fair dose of preparation, I felt exceedingly nervous. Here I was -- some kid from Iowa -- interviewing on of journalism's foremost interviewers. Worse, it was only Chris and my third shoot, and one that had to take place under challenging circumstances; we had just fifteen minutes to get what we needed.

We were ushered through the lobby by his assistant, Lisa, past the "Meet The Press" set, to a large, off-white, windowless conference room dominated by a huge, oak table. Chris and I quickly conferred on our set up, and tossed up our two lights -- one of which, we discovered, was missing its bulb. Moments before one of the biggest interviews of my life, I dashed through the rain to our car for a replacement.

I was pacing the conference room when Tim finally walked in. I'd asked Chris to roll on our handshake, which he did. He asked about our uncle, asked about the film, made a quick sports reference of some sort (which I probably feigned to understand), then sat down and began mic'ing up like an pro.

I remember noticing some makeup in the corner of his eyes, presumably left over from a previous TV appearance. I led with a question about Nantucket, which threw him a bit. "Is the film about Nantucket? Or FredRogers?" I explained, and we were off.

We talked a while longer than fifteen minutes, moving from his first trip to Nantucket as a college student to meeting Mister and Mrs. Rogers when his son, Luke, was five-years-old. Then I asked about his parents.

Benjamin Wagner: Reading your book, it struck me that your parents and Mister Rogers were somehow on the same page.

Tim Russert: I remember my mom would wake me up every morning she would stand at the foot of the steps and say,"Tim, Tim, Tim." Very soft, sweet voice. But she had a direct frequency to my heart. And it taught me so many lessons which I use every Sunday morning.

You don’t have to be loud for people to pay attention to you. And I think that's something that Mister Rogers taught too. You can walk into a room and be respectful, and be civil, and have very strong views but learn how to disagree agreeably.

And the thing that baffles me about Washington as we sit here and talk is that we all learn these same lessons but somehow people come here and forget them. And I think that the world would be a lot better off and I know that the relations between Congress and the White House would be a lot better of if they remembered and listened to Big Russ and Mister Rogers.

As we wrapped our our interview, I drew a parallel between the two shows, "Meet The Press" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

BW: "Meet The Press" is the nation's longest running network television program. And "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is public television’s longest running program. I wonder if you can draw some meaning or connection from that fact.

TR: Well, they’re both national treasures. I happen to be a temporary custodian. And I think Fred would see himself as a temporary custodian in allowing more and more people to see it as it's replayed and replayed even after his death. And the essence of those programs was to get people of good intentions and open hearts to sit down and talk with one another, and learn from one another.

I've always believed as my mom and dad taught me and as Fred Rogers taught millions of Americans that true quality, true wholesomeness does rise and is embraced and respected.

His warmth, substance, intelligence and humor really shone through in our interview. You can see it in our trailer: his is the first testimonial at roughly 1:10 in.

Just like with Mister Rogers, it seemed like there was a segment of culture that wanted to tear Tim down in some way, whether for being too partisan, or not too partisan enough, or playing some role in the Valerie Plame case, or whatever. I don't really where the truth is on any of that and, to be honest, I don't really care to.

All I know is that this immensely well-connected and busy gentlemen took a half an hour out of his day to talk with a couple of young guys making an independent documentary about something as esoteric as the need for depth and simplicity in modern culture. In addition to contributing a few terrific stories and some great insight to "Mister Rogers & Me," Tim's participation lent an air of legitimacy to the rest of our production.

As I've said before, eulogies are usually hurried and artless. This is surely both.

But it is also well intentioned, full of love, and full of gratitude. I'm so grateful Chris and I met Tim Russert, and spent a little bit of time talking about some pretty important stuff: soft voices, good intentions, and open hearts.


Linda said...

Tim Russert brought politics to the casual and resistant observer (me). He educated and informed on such a human level. I actually knew things about politics because I liked listening to him. Your posts about him, in the making of your film, brought him closer to this fan. For that, I am grateful. You are fortunate to have met him. He, his white board, his knowledge and his joy will be sorely missed... rough watching the news tonight.

davyfound said...

thanks for this remembrance benjamin. your finished film will stand as tribute to tim as well as fred.