June 16, 2008
Thoughts on mortality.
Several years ago I was in a restaurant in downtown Washington,
D.C. for a business lunch. At one particular moment, the entire
Restaurant seemed to drop a decibel in noise level. The woman
seated across from me leaned in to all of us and said: Tim
Russert is here. When eventually the restaurant had assimilated
the presence of Mr. Russert, all went back to normal.
He had that kind of presence. If it had been a restaurant
in Los Angeles I think the reaction would have been parallel
though several notches below the stir he created in D.C. In
Washington, he was one of the biggest stars in town, NBC's
Washington's Bureau Chief, host of MEET THE PRESS and one
of the most intelligent newsmen in the business with a laser
like focus on a subject. In news he was as formidable a presence
as Brad Pitt is to the movies.
He died last week, suddenly, at his desk, victim of a massive
All weekend he has been discussed and remembered by politicians
and men on the street. He had come into lives in a way few
newsmen do and his sudden, unexpected passing carried a great
weight with it. We had lost a familiar face and voice and
someone we thought of as a friendly, wise presence in our
lives. His passing has caused me to think about mortality,
my own and others. His unexpected passing touched me.
My mind had already been thinking about life and death. I
was enormously affected by the story of a man whose name I
only know now because I googled him. His name was Eduard Burceag.
He and his wife, Mariana, and a friend, Daniel Vlad, were
caught in a sudden late spring blizzard on Mount Rainier on
a day hike. He used his body to take the brunt of the blizzard.
He died; his wife and friend lived.
In another incident that has haunted me this weekend as I
have been contemplating life and death is that of the story
of a Boy Scout camp in Iowa that was visited by a deadly tornado.
scouts died; the rest distinguished themselves with their
courage and generosity. As the storm hit older boys threw
themselves on younger ones to shield them. When the tornado
passed, the entire group attacked the rubble of the structure
where some had been caught with their bare hands, scrambling
to reach survivors.
For those who have read my letters over the years, you will
understand that I am stunned by the goodness of men while
at the same time appalled at our capacity for cruelty.
As I listened this weekend to the eulogies for Tim Russert
I have been struck by what seemed to be the fundamental decency
of the man. I am sure he had his full share of ego but it
also seemed he never forgot in the deepest part of himself
that he came from Buffalo and was the son of a sanitation
worker, a man of whom he was loudly, articulately and hugely
proud for being an example of the qualities that created the
America in which we live.
Those qualities are exemplified by Mr. Russert, his father,
Eduard Burceag on the mountain, by those Boy Scouts in Iowa
who threw themselves on younger boys to protect them and all
the others who used their bare hands to get to their comrades.
What mystifies me is that as men do good, they do evil things
too. While Eduard was giving his life for his wife and friend,
other men were doing their best to kill some other men in
Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Darfur, Pakistan. And as they
do their best to kill, they do great collateral damage.
I ponder all of this, frequently. We probably all should.
Somewhere in all of this is the essence of what it means to