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He was one of us: Remembering Tim Russert on 10th anniversary of his death

On June 13, 2008, I was on a golf course when my phone rang. It was my daughter asking, "Did you hear about Tim Russert?"

Then she said the unimaginable: Russert was dead at 58.

The shocking death of the South Buffalo legend remains one of those "I remember where I was" moments.

A decade later, it is time to reflect on what Russert meant to Buffalo and what it might have meant to the nation if he were alive in these turbulent and polarizing political times.

Russert — who went from political operative to moderator of one of the most important television programs in history, NBC's "Meet the Press," for 17 years — was one of Buffalo's biggest links to the big time that didn't involve sports.

His death hit me hard. He was the rare media member with whom I felt comfortable developing a personal relationship.

I especially loved the brief chats we had after interviews. The last time I spoke to him, we discussed the similarities that the youthful and historic presidential candidacy of Democrat candidate Barack Obama had with the 1960 candidacy of John F. Kennedy.

That led to a story that Russert often told about the day he asked his father, Big Russ, why there was a Kennedy campaign sign on their South Buffalo lawn.

“Because he’s one of us,” replied Big Russ. At age 10, Russert accepted that explanation. “It took me years to realize,” Russert told me, Kennedy "wasn’t one of us. He was rich.”

Tim Russert became rich – and still was one of us.

Tim Russert shares a laugh with then-Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams after a celebration at City Honors in 2007. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Connections were always important to him. It's why he boosted Buffalo whenever he could, even ending "Meet the Press" broadcasts on autumn Sunday mornings by saying "Go Bills."

On the night of Russert's death, former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann captured what he meant to Buffalo.

"No city has ever been prouder of a native son and no son as ever been prouder of his native city," said Olbermann.

My girlfriend shares Russert's South Buffalo roots, which enabled me to understand him even better than I did when he was alive. She helped me better understand why handwritten notes and personal connections were so important to Russert.

My girlfriend's aunt is a Mercy nun and was a close friend of the late Sister Lucille A. Socciarelli, who is given credit for inspiring a young, energetic Russert to become a journalist.

A year before her death, an animated Sister Lucille was giving me humorous tales of Russert at a Thanksgiving dinner. I'm sure Russert would have laughed to know that I had connected with his old world that evening.

Russert's ability to make connections led to the job that made him famous – moderator of "Meet the Press."

When Russert was NBC's Washington Bureau Chief, former NBC News President Michael Gartner asked him to draw up a short list of candidates to replace Garrick Utley as moderator. When Russert handed in his list, Gartner asked why he wasn’t on it.

“I said, ‘Michael, I’ve never had any TV training,’ ” Russert told me. “ ‘I have never done this kind of thing. I don’t think it’s the way to go. He said, ‘I do.’ ”

He became known as the disheveled-looking Everyman who revitalized the Sunday morning talk show format, asked tough questions and had a soft spot in his heart for anything Buffalo.

Of course, some people have even gone as far as saying the presidency of Donald Trump and the new political world would be different if Russert were still around to interrogate the politicians in our increasingly dysfunctional government.

I raised the subject to Russert's widow, Maureen Orth, only five months ago when I saw her in California.

"It is very hard for me to judge that because we are living in a completely different world of social media," said Orth, a respected reporter and author. "The 24-7 news cycle was one tenth the intensity that it is today. I think it is very hard to know that because the entire landscape is so altered."

It indeed is hard to say whether Russert would have an impact on the Trump presidency. But he was always able to make many Americans feel that the right questions were being asked.

I remember feeling more than a little out of place hanging with so many celebrities after getting an invitation to the memorial service for Russert in Washington, D.C. So I did what I thought Tim Russert might have done. Not the journalistic icon who in death was so beloved that he was treated like a Kennedy; I did what the younger Tim Russert of South Buffalo would have done before the poignant service and the reception after it.

I tried to make as many connections with as many big shots as I could.

I ran into Chuck Todd, who wasn't exactly a household word then as the political director and analyst for NBC. He was flattered when I asked about the speculation that he was being considered as Russert's replacement.

"I'm not the fool who is going to try and replace Tim Russert," Todd said with a smile.

In other words, following Russert was like following a legendary Notre Dame or New York Yankee coach or manager. It was better to be the person who replaces the person who replaces the guy so beloved and respected.

That's what happened to Todd. After Tom Brokaw's brief stint as moderator during the 2008 election campaign, David Gregory was named the full-time moderator. It didn't go well, so Todd was brought in to replace him.

Todd, who was hired by Russert at NBC, has added a "Meet the Press Daily" on MSNBC and does a podcast.

"I was building upon what (Russert) did," Todd told me two years ago.

He acknowledged that the difficulty today is agreeing on the definition of fairness in a polarized country.

Todd has done a good job under extremely difficult circumstances. But to paraphrase the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Todd is no Tim Russert.

In fairness to Todd, as far as Western New Yorkers are concerned, nobody could be.

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