It was the second Presidential election I voted in, but it was the first where I felt like the future of my country depended on the outcome in a deeper way than any other election in my lifetime. A few friends gathered, all in their early to late twenties, for enchiladas and margaritas and conversation while watching election results. I had to stop myself from preventing two friends from entering my home as they admitted they hadn't voted. Hadn't voted. I wanted to stand tall and say the words of President Andrew Shepard, portrayed by Michael Douglas in the movie The American President:
America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free."
I wanted to say, "Don't you get it? You have to vote. You. Have. To. Vote. In this country, we can vote. We must." But, I didn't say those things. I didn't say those things because the truth is that voting is a choice. And they had exercised theirs.
That night we sat there and watched the states turn colors. Red. Blue. And we listened to Tom Brokaw and his rumpled, smiling colleague, Tim Russert, tell us that Florida was going to be key.
Can you see those words written across a simple whiteboard?
It started to get late in my Indiana home. People started leaving one by one. Those who stayed started to fall asleep as they waited to see what would happen in Florida, Florida, Florida. Earlier the blue folks in the room…we had started celebrating, thinking that sunny state had gone to our guy…Al Gore. But then Tom Brokaw had to tell us that they had given it to him too early. We knew we were in for the long haul as our eastern time zone clock ticked later and later. Finally, I was alone and I pulled out the sofa bed so that I could see the results throughout the night. I fell asleep with a heavy heart thinking George W. Bush was the new president. When I woke up to see that rumpled, smiling man on The Today Show, he was wearing the same clothes and had the same level of enthusiasm he had displayed when I had first tuned in the night before, when my guests hadn't even arrived yet. His words gave me hope as he explained that there might be a recount in Florida…that we didn't know who the next President was yet.
At work that day, my coworkers were talking about that whiteboard and how strange it was that we didn't know who the new President would be. I guess what probably went unsaid because we were all so focused on wanting our specific candidates to win was how that man with the round, kind face had clearly explained everything in the midst of a dizzying night in the world of American politics. He had been in his own classroom teaching the citizens of his country how this confusing process would work. He had explained possibilities and then what would happen.
I remember wondering if he ever slept as I saw him morning and evening throughout those weeks as we waited for the decisions to be made…as we hoped and prayed and crossed fingers and toes…as our country was shaped by decisions made by one person and then another. Tim Russert was there explaining it all.
So, I guess it was during that time that I made the decision to invite Tim Russert into my home. To unofficially ask him to be part of the family and my teacher.
Although I didn't always tune in to Meet the Press every Sunday, when I did, I always learned more than I imagined and always sat in my living room in awe at his ability to get the answers he sought. I must admit that I didn't always tune in because when he had on people from the current administration, I would find myself yelling at the television. Not at Tim, but at someone…well, as Andrew Shepard said, " whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours." But, when I did tune in, my view, my understanding, all of it was shifted in some way.
I certainly paid attention and voted and hoped and followed things during the 2004 Presidential race, but not like this year. This year, Jon and I have been glued to the television watching history unfold before our very eyes. Through it all, one person would cut through all the drama and just tell it like it is. So, we would turn to Tim Russert and the folks at MSNBC, especially as the Democratic race got a bit uglier. I just wanted someone to tell me the simple truth; someone to explain the numbers and how the process works instead of getting so wrapped up in his own beliefs that I couldn't understand what was being said. That person was always, always Tim Russert.
On Friday, Jon made us lunch and then turned on MSNBC. After a few minutes, a phone call came in and I muted the television, and as I often do I left the television on muted and got so involved in my work that I forgot about it. As Jon left to go meet with a student at school, I looked up and realized Tom Brokaw was talking. In the middle of the day. On MSNBC.
I unmuted the television and sat there stunned as I heard him talk. Thinking I misunderstood, I used the DVR's rewind button and went back the 30 seconds or so I had missed. I heard him tell us his friend was dead. As I listened to him say those words and speak in his gentle but clear Tom Brokaw way, as he tried not to cry, I started crying.
I called my mother.
This is what my mother and I do. Do you have someone you do this with? We call each other when someone famous has died or some other shocking news has happened. We always do this if the person is someone, like Tim Russert, that we both admired. She called me while driving to tell me about Teddy Kennedy's brain tumor. I called her to tell her about John Denver. She was driving again Friday when I called her to say Tim Russert was dead. She was as shocked as me. I don't think she believed me at first. I had to say, "I am watching Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams both try not to cry as they are talking about this. Right now. Brian Williams is live from Afghanistan and they are talking about it."
My mom and I have this shared love for politics. For the advanced citizenship that is America. We have watched The American President a lot. I mean a lot. We can basically quote the movie. The same is true with the movie Dave. And to say that we were fans of The West Wing…that we wanted to vote for President Bartlett in 2000 and 2004, well, that is an understatement. We are believers in this country. We believe. And, because we believe in the Constitution and all that it stands for, because we both read about and study…just for fun…the Founding Fathers and the former Presidents… we have both, in our different ways, felt a bit…I think the word is maybe heartbroken…at what has happened in the last eight years. I can only imagine how it must be for my mother's generation though as they relive 1968 and the Nixon years and other events that I can only read about.
My mom and I both knew we had a kindred spirit in someone like Tim Russert. He got it. He talked up to the viewer while educating. His enthusiasm was contagious. He loved his country and his wife and son and his dad and baseball and the Buffalo Bills. He seemed honest and kind. He was the kind of man you wanted to invite to dinner, who you wished was your uncle, who you wanted to call friend.
As I watched MSNBC Friday afternoon, I listened to Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory talk about this man. I listened to them talk about a man they so obviously loved. I felt honored to listen to their conversation. I was so impressed by the way MSNBC didn't take any commercial breaks. They just let these people talk. When Brian Williams began to recap for people just tuning in, he started to break down. David Gregory picked up for him and read statements that were coming in from people who had heard the news. I realized what good friends Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert had been. It wasn't just that they seemed to be friends…they were. I thought about how strange it must feel to be on television in the early minutes of grieving. But, perhaps because it was his calling, it felt comforting to him. I know that it was selfishly comforting for me…and perhaps that was the bigger picture and the point.
Even though it might seem odd to some that I felt so affected by the news of his death, I felt honored to watch the colleagues of Tim Russert talk about him. To hear their stories and honor their grief. I am glad that the powers at be gave them that gift of letting them talk as MSNBC focused on Tim Russert throughout the day. I didn't watch the coverage all day, but did tune in again later that evening. All I kept thinking was that these people get it.
Watching the news over the last few years has seemed like a circus at times. People yell. A lot. I don't tune in to some programs because I don't like all the yelling. But, the people at MSNBC and Tim Russert's colleagues…people he mentored…they get it. And, I feel like I know this because they let me see inside their grief…even if just for a moment. They were real people on Friday…at least to me.
They talked about their friend Tim Russert and the amazing father he is and how much he loved his job and America. They talked about this good guy. This good guy.
One person can make a difference…can change the world…can invite others to look at themselves, their country, their families and think. One person can do that while being true to himself and his roots and what he believes in.
Thanks for teaching me that Tim Russert.
It's father's day. A good day to reflect on these things I suppose. A good day to call my dad and say I love you. And to then call my mom and say the same. And to thank them both for what they have done to shape who I am and what I believe and what I stand for as a person in this country, in this life.