The rap on Tim Russert among his critics was that he was averse to substance. There was certainly some truth to that: If there was an episode of Meet the Press where politicians were asked to hash out the strengths and weaknesses of, say, competing health care plans, I missed it. But Russert performed a different and equally important service. Politicians are a slippery species by nature, and Russert’s mission was to call them on it and nail them down. If you said one thing to one crowd and another thing to another crowd, Russert would roll the tape. If you tried to waffle on a question, he’d ask it again until you staked out a position. And unlike other hosts who fancy themselves fearless truth-seekers, he didn’t wallow in self-aggrandizement. If a guest had a bad day on Meet the Press, it wasn’t because he couldn’t get a word in edgewise, as might happen on Hardball or The O’Reilly Factor. It was because Russert demanded an answer.
If Russert is replaced by a preening blowhard like Chris Matthews, it will of course be a terrible loss. But it will be almost as bad if he’s replaced by someone who can be bullied by lectures about “playing gotcha” at the expense of “talking about the real issues.” When a politician complains about gotcha, it usually means she’s been got. Gotcha is important, and Russert was better at it than anyone. I fear that he may prove irreplaceable.