Friday, June 13, 2008

The Night I Met Tim Russert...

...or more accurately, the night my mother-in-law got tipsy and accidently backed into Tim Russert.

Allow me to back up a moment... I had the good fortune of seeing Tim Russert in person and actually meeting Peter Jennings just once each in their lives, and it happened to be on the same night - January 26, 1996. We were in New York for the annual duPont award ceremonies, sponsored by the Columbia University School of Journalism. It was an unforgettable career highlight for me that you may revisit here if you wish.

I'll tell you first about meeting Peter Jennings. I was at Columbia to accept a Silver Baton for a series I had done on the Disney theme park that had been planned in Northern Virginia. Now - this was about two weeks before Disney's purchase of ABC, which owned my radio station. So, in accepting the baton, I made a crack to the audience that in another couple of weeks, my award would have been a conflict of interest. The folks at ABC News were very worried that having Disney as an owner would result in Mickey Mouse being shoved down the throats of the news division, a concern that largely never really came to pass. However, the paranoia was still very real. After I accepted my award and began to return to my seat, a man sitting on the aisle reached out his hand to me. It was Peter Jennings. He took my hand, beckoned me close to him, and said, "I can assure you, there will be no conflicts of interest with Disney".

When Peter Jennings died 3 years ago, I received an email from my former General Manager, Tom Bresnahan, who told me the first thing that went through his mind when he heard Peter Jennings had died was Peter's brief encounter with me.

Now back to that night at Columbia University. My proud mother-in-law made sure she and my father-in-law were on hand to see me pick up my award, and being a news junkie, she was IN HER ELEMENT at the pre-awards cocktail reception. She saw Ted Koppel and Daniel Schorr and Edward R. Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly there, not to mention Peter Jennings. She was so excited, she had two or maybe three glasses of wine - probably ten times her monthly average of alcohol consumption! So Mom was a little tipsy when she stepped backwards in the crowded hall - right into Tim Russert! Mom spun around to excuse herself, saw Mr. Russert, and loudly exclaimed "What are you doing here in person, and not on my TV screen?" Now, I'm quite sure Tim Russert had no idea WHAT to say to this beaming, somewhat tipsy woman, but he managed to smile, politely excuse himself and saunter away.

I bring this up because, just as my old boss remembers Peter Jennings first for his encounter with me, I recall Tim Russert first for his accidental close encounter with my mother-in-law.

I learned the news of Tim Russert's death in an appropriate place - a news bureau, where I had just finished a job interview. Others will pile plaudits high and wide for Russert, who was as fair and tough an interviewer as one could be. I join them in expressing my regrets - but I take an odd comfort in knowing my first thought of Tim Russert will always be one that gives me a chuckle.

Thanks Mom... and thank you, Tim Russert.

For those of you who care about these things, here's NBC News Anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw breaking the news on NBC:

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