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Tim Russert--Elegy for a Rubber Stamp

Updated on October 1, 2013

Elegy for A Rubber Stamp by Lewis H. Lapham Harper's Sept 2008


Here're some exerpts from an article from the master wordsmith on politics, Lewis Lapham, in the September Harper's Magazine. I would link the article but the webzine is open only to subscribers, and it apparently doesn't allow cutting and pasting.

Elegy for a Rubber Stamp by Lewis H. Lapham

"Fulfilling your duties, where does that land you? Into jealousy, upsets, persecution. Is that the way to get on? Butter people up, good God, butter them up, watch the great, study their tastes, fall in with their whims, pander to their vices, approve of their injustices. That's the secret." Denis Diderot, "Rameau's Nephew"

Lapham leads off with a detailed description of the extravagant and lengthy attention devoted by MSNBC to Tim Russert's death and extended funeral observations, ending with "The program signed off with an orchestra playing 'Over the Rainbow' while the guests made their way out to the limousines to be be blessed by a sign from Heaven. Lo and behold, right there in the gray twilight, swinging low over the White House and the Washington Monument, right there in plain sight, there was a real rainbow in the sky...Later that night on MSNBC's rebroadcast of the proceedings, Olbermann reported the rainbow as no coincidence. 'I know that was Russert,' he said. 'I'd recognize him anywhere.'"

"Olbermann is an intelligent man, and how else could an intelligent man interpret the glorification of Russert if not as a joke, or as a ninety-six hour public-service announcement paid for by General Electric, the company that owns the NBC network but depends for its profit margins on its patriotic dealings as one of the nation's primary weapons manufacturers. Jack Welch, the company's former chairman and CEO, was among the mourners making a cameo appearance in the weekend film clips. 'We all felt he was our friend. He represented us. We were proud of him. We loved him.'"

[Lapham doesn't miss a connection!]

"I mean no disrespect to his widow or to his son, but if I have no reason to doubt his virtues as a man, neither do I have any reason to credit the miracle of Russert as a journalist eager to speak truth to power. In his professional as opposed to his personal character, his on-air persona was that of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter, as helpless as Charlie Rose in his infatuation with A-list celebrity, his modus operandi the same one that pointed Rameau's obliging nephew to the roast pheasant and the coupe aux marrons in eighteenth-century Paris: 'Butter people up, good God, butter people up!'"

"With the butter Russert was a master craftsman, his specialty the mixing of it with just the right drizzle of salt...To an important personage Russert asked one or two faintly impertinent questions, usually about a subject of little or no concern to anybody outside the official rope lines around official Washington; sometimes he discovered a contradiction between a recently issued press release and one that was distributed by the same politician some months or years previously. No matter with which spoon Russert stirred the butter, the reply was of no interest to him, not worth his notice or further comment. He had sprinkled his trademark salt, his work was done. The important personage was free to choose from a menu offering three forms of response--silence, spin, rancid lie. If silence, Russert moved on to another topic; if spin, he nodded wisely; if rancid lie, he swallowed it. The highlight reels for the most part show him in the act of swallowing...

"February 8, 2004: Question for President Bush, 'In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?'

"A. 'That's an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or a war of necessity. It's a war of necessity.'

"Having seen the original broadcast of the interview with President Bush, I remember Russert's attitude as that of a trend-setting restauranteur anxious to please his best customer....

"Madeleine Albright expressed her gratitude to Olbermann: 'Tim was amazing because I can tell you that, as a public official, it was really, first of all, a treat to get on the show.'

"Mary Matalin...seconded the motion, attributing Russert's profound knowledge of national politics to his superb qualities as a rubber stamp. 'He respected politicians,' Matalin said. 'He knew that they got blamed for everything, got credit for nothing. He knew how much they meant. He never treated them with the cynicism that attends some of these interviews. SO THEY HAD A PLACE TO BE LOVED!'

"Speaking truth to power doesn't make successful Sunday-morning television, leads to 'jealousy, upsets, persecution,' doesn't draw a salary of $5 million or more....

"On television the voices of dissent can't be counted upon to match the studio drapes or serve as a tasteful lead-in to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V and the U.S. Marine Corps. What we now know as the "news media" serve at the pleasure of the corporate sponsor, THEIR PURPOSE IS NOT TO TELL TRUTH TO THE POWERFUL BUT TO TRANSMIT LIES TO THE POWERLESS....

"When requesting explanations from secretaries of defense or congressional committee chairmen, they do so with the understanding that any explanation will do. Explain to us, my captain, why the United States must go to war in Iraq, and we will relay the message to the American people in words of one or two syllables. Instruct us, Mr. Chairman in the reasons why K-Street lobbyists produce the paper that Congress passes into law, and we will show that the reasons are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be suspicious or scornful Together with the television camera that sees but doesn't think, we're here to watch, to fall in with your whims and approve your injustices. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your vices in the rosebushes of salacious gossip and clothe your crimes in the aura of inspirational anecdote.

"I don't doubt that Russert was as good at the game as anybody in Washington, but why the five-star goodbye?...The production values were so far out of line with the object of their affections that the memorial services collapsed into absurdity.

[Why?--eyeballs for NBC, of course!]

"The notion that journalists were once in the habit of speaking truth to power we borrow from the medium of pring, from writers in the tradition of Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, I.F. Stone, Hunter Thompson, and Walter Karp, who assumed that what was once known as "the press" received its accreditation as a fourth estate on the theory that it represented the interests of the citizenry as opposed to those of the government. Long ago in the days before journalists became celebrities, their enterprise was reviled and poorly paid, and it was understood by working newspapermen that the presence of more than two people at their funeral could be taken as a sign that they had disgraced the profession.

[Emphasis added.]

[The above exerpts don't do justice to the elegance and intelligence of Lapham's elegy to Russert. If you are a subscriber read it. If not, Lapham's article alone is worth the newsstand price.]


"It's now very clear that the Bush years were all about kicking the can down the road either ignoring problems or, even worse, creating them and not solving them. This was true of a huge range of issues including the economy, energy, health care, global warming and of course Iraq and Afghanistan.

"How did the media cover it all? Not well. Reading pretty much everything that was written about Bush on a daily basis, as I did, one could certainly see the major themes emerging. But by and large, mainstream-media journalism missed the real Bush story for way too long. The handful of people who did exceptional investigative reporting during this era really deserve our gratitude: People such as Ron Suskind, Seymour Hersh, Jane Mayer, Murray Waas, Michael Massing, Mark Danner, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (better late than never), Dana Priest, Walter Pincus, Charlie Savage and Philippe Sands; there was also some fine investigative blogging over at Talking Points Memo and by Marcy Wheeler.Notably not on this list: The likes of Bob Woodward and Tim Russert. Hopefully, the next time the nation faces a grave national security crisis, we will listen to the people who were right, not the people who were wrong, and heed those who reported the truth, not those who served as stenographers to liars."

"The Atlantic" June 26, 2009.


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    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Thanks for the comment. I agree.

    • bgamall profile image

      Gary Anderson 9 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      And Ralph, the thing is, Fox News was blatant, and the other controlled media has been more subtle in their censorship of the news and of ideas. I think it is pathetic. Russert was not true to his profession. He was a fake.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Thanks for the comment. However, although I was never a big fan of Russert--although something seemed phony about him--I never gave much thought to him, reserving my enmity for Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, et al, until I read Lapham's column in Harper's. Then the lightbulb came on, and I understood why I had instinctively been turned off by Russert.

    • bgamall profile image

      Gary Anderson 9 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Ralph you are very perceptive. I was wondering if I was the only one who believed that Russert was not a real journalist, but rather left the muckraking to others while pulling down a huge salary. Russert allowed the neocons a free reign on Meet the Press and he failed to be true to the responsibility he held. His journalistic "sin" was the omissions in the story of the past 8 years, not necessarily the commissions.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Moreover, a solid week of coverage on TV struck me as it did Lapham as a bit much. Kings, emperors and presidents have had less.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Well, I'm sure you are in the majority. But there is much truth in Lapham's piece. I suggest you take a look at this


      Perhaps Norman Solomon can add some perspective on Lapham's take on Russert and the interaction between mainstream media, the government and the defense industry. Basically, he's saying that Russert and his corporate bosses at General Electric are propagating government lies and enabling unnecessary and destructive military adventures.


    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 9 years ago from Northern California

      This "elegy" is something I wouldn't have expected, that's for sure. I've watched Russert and yes, he wasn't the most aggressive journalist, but I wouldn't think to criticize him in his death... only think to the future.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Great comment. Thanks!

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 9 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      I know from personal interviews with some of those old Leftists of the 1930's, and from volumes of testimony, both in court and to reporters & real journalists that to many suffering in the Great Depression, which some at the time called The Great Neglect, that millions upon millions of people felt completely abandonned by their government.

      Our own Constitution and Declaration of Independence calls for people to act when government fails them. Just because we have a tradition of allowing government to (eventually) correct itself at the balot box when it strays too far does not mean that we can't, or even shouldn't, revolt from time to time.

      There are people today who are feeling the crunch of government neglect and the negative effects of false ideas such as "Compassionate Conservativism", which to me means to throw a few crumbs at the starving. Our Marie Antoinette government phylosophy of "Let Them eat Cake" (sic) does not realize that we were born of revolution and that the spirit that led us then is still with us today.

      There are many who would deem this a traitorous thing to say, but there are many who also believe our govenment has betrayed us.

      If the govenment forgets its fundamental duties to the nation, indeed purposely neglects its duty to serve the people, then it is no longer that same government which our founding fathers and mothers created more than 200 years ago.

      So to the King George of today I warn: In my humble opinion (shared by many others) people are getting angrier by the moment. I may not live to see it, but one day, if things do not get better, if we are still being lied to and placated by politicians acting in their own interest inlieu of the Peoples' best interests, then We the People will once again rise up and make changes.

      With that in mind, the growth of Communism in the U.S. was to be expected in a political climate that ignored millions of starving, homeless and hopeless people. It was considered a badge of honor amongst many to have been part of a political movement that, at the time, seemed 1000 times more progressive than the Hoover administration.

      That Communism later proved itself to be just as corrupt as Capitalism was unknown at the time. To many, it seemed to be a ray of bright hope. Equality in its truest sense.

      Long Live The Weavers!

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Correction: Seeger was convicted of contempt for refusing to name names before the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among witnesses he did not invoke his Fifth Amendment rights when refusing to answer questions about his associations in the Communist Party in the 1930s.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Thanks for the comments! CBS is not the network it was when Murrow was there. However, even then it was far from perfect, e.g. when CBS executives vetoed the Smothers brothers decision to have Pete Seeger sing "The Big Muddy" on their show during the Vietnam war. Not long before that incident the New York Times in a front page story accused Seeger of singing anti-American songs in the USSR. He had also been convicted for refusing to testify before Joe McCarthy's hearing. This was reversed later by the Supreme Court. I doubt that the current court would have reversed that decision.

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 9 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      Our media has often failed in its role to keep them honest, meaning the elected public servants who now feel entitled to their places in the sun. Personally I liked Tim but I believe that since Edward R. Murrow we have been ill-served by our 4th estate.

      I will miss Tim, but I really hope that whoever takes his place will at least begin to uphold the journalist's creed of not letting people tell lies and get away with it.

    • profile image

      ColdWarBaby 9 years ago

      Two for two Ralph! You're batting a thousand!

      Great Hub! Please don't stop!


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