When the late Tim Russert actually became the late Tim Russert, I wrote an appreciation for the Vanity FairWeb site and said what I genuinely thought: that he was a nice and generous man and a first-rate journalist and one of nature's democrats. I added that he'd been very fair-minded to me when it came to our own greatest difference, which was his highly devout Catholicism. He'd always made room on his cable show for opinions that clashed with his own and had, in fact, positively sought out people like me who disagreed with him. And then I added, because I may have had some kind of premonition, that the journalistic profession sometimes overdoes things when one of its senior members dies and has a tendency to bang on as if some great and irreplaceable saint or statesman has passed away.
A few days after I published this innocent little appreciation, one could already detect a slight feeling that the media "tribute" industry had gone a tad far. Surely Tim can't have been the only person ever to have done well after being born into a working-class family in Buffalo, N.Y., for example? And other people must have served on the staff of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (even if not so brilliantly able to imitate the crusty old solon). The job of hosting Meet the Press was a job that a mere mortal could actually do, otherwise Tim would not have been able to do it. The seat would be filled soon enough. In a moment of irreverence at the Russert memorial service, Tom Brokaw pronounced that the largest group present was composed of people who thought they should be filling his shoes; I notice he's now landed the job.
But it was precisely around the time of these various wakes and memorials that the thing began to get seriously out of hand. One started to hear whispers about something more than the merely ordinary, as if a numinous and mysterious element had crept into the everyday obsequies. I quote from an e-mail entitled "The Russert Miracles," which came to me from someone quite well-known in the world of Washington TV and media:
The first "Russert miracle," as attendees called it, happened at the private funeral service held at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown; the family had requested that Senators Obama and McCain sit together. … CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman describes the scene to Newsweek: "They sat side by side and spoke for twenty minutes. The body language was total friendship. … I kept thinking here we are at the funeral of the son of a sanitation worker, and the presidential candidates are having their first one-on-one conversation here."
So at this point we are supposed to celebrate the holy miracle of "bipartisanship," an everyday occurrence in the Senate of which both men are members. The second "miracle," according to similar e-mails, consisted of the appearance of Bruce Springsteen on a big screen at the end of the next service or memorial, which took place at the Kennedy Center.The Boss did a version of "Thunder Road" and announced to Tim's son Luke that "this is for your pop." Springsteen is known—very much to his credit—to do these kinds of favors for the living. And the way in which this miracle was transmitted to the waiting flock is easily understood—not by me, admittedly—but by almost all the media folks who were present.
Last on the list of miracles (and do please beware anything that comes in threes) was the apparition of a huge and beautiful rainbow arcing over the Potomac as the mourners came up to the Kennedy Center rooftop for a reception. In the words of NBC News executive Phil Griffin, "After the magical experience of this service, to come out and see the rainbow and Luke at the bottom of it made the last dry eye weep." It was further pointed out that the last song at the memorial service had been "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."Tim's son Luke was quoted as asking, "Is anyone still an atheist now?"
Not pausing to answer that question, I think this media mythmaking, however tongue-in-cheek some of it may be, helps our understanding of why people are theists. After all, just remember why we mourners of that day were gathered in the first place. One of our friends and colleagues had been struck stone dead by his coronary arteries, in the prime of life, at just the moment when he had been celebrating his son's graduation. He had had everything to look forward to. For my part, I was distressed by all this and sorry about it, which is why I donned a tie and went along to bow my head. But now I read that, because of room-temperature political politeness and the vagaries of the weather, I was supposed to have been grateful for the bereavement? What if it hadn't been an election year? What if the network couldn't have contacted a rock star? What if the sky had been merely sunny or had filled with lightning? Surely our mass media would adopt a tone of polite condescension if it was reporting on such primitive attitudes in the backlands of Alaska or Peru or Congo.
In John Updike's brilliant novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, the son of a Presbyterian minister who lost the faith is listening to those who eulogize his departed father and suddenly realizes how the myths about Jesus got started in the first place. Surveying my e-mail traffic this week, I could see another such bubble of legend begin to swell. And I remain unshakably certain on two points. The first is that no benign deity plucks television news-show hosts from their desks in the prime of life and then hastily compensates their friends and family by displays of irradiated droplets in the sky. (I bet you now that it won't happen for Brokaw or Williams or Olbermann, even if they all convert to Catholicism, and you know I am right.) My second bet is that Tim Russert, a man of firm but modest faith, would reject this foolish superstition and the silly cult of celebrity. This latter cult belongs to the material world, which, in the absence of a supernatural one, is the only world we have.