Tim Russert

Faith and Tony Snow's grace

Few things in life cause more shame than encounters with con artists, those old-fashioned predators who know how to massage egos while selling snake oil by the barrel.

But painful experiences can lead to big questions and critical insights into the state of one's soul, said White House spokesman Tony Snow, giving the commencement address at the Catholic University of America in 2007. The key is to take a long look in the mirror, to stop making excuses and then to move forward with wide-open eyes.

"Once you've gotten past the mirror phase, then things begin to get really interesting," said Snow, in a speech that focused on faith more than news and politics. "You begin to confront the truly overwhelming question: Why am I here? And that begins to open up the whole universe, because it impels you to think like the child staring out at the starry night: Who put the lights in the sky? Who put me here? Why?"

And one more thing. It's hard to ask ultimate, eternal, life-and-death questions without thinking about God, he said. That scares some people, but they need to lose that hang up.

"Don't shrink from pondering God's role in the universe or Christ's," said Snow. "You see, it's trendy to reject religious reflection as a grave offense against decency. That's not only cowardly. That's false. Faith and reason are knitted together in the human soul. So don't leave home without either one."

It was easy for Snow's audience to read between the lines on that graduation day.

The witty commentator's 17-month tenure as President Bush's spokesman had been shaped by a series of battles in his war against colon cancer that, eventually, spread to his liver. Snow was urging his listeners to ask, "Why am I here?" But in his own life, he had long ago decided not to be crushed by the unanswerable question, "Why do I have to leave?"

The former newspaper columnist and Fox News superstar kept growing thinner and his hair greyer, even though his one-liners remained sharp as he handled the kinds of tough media questions haunt a president with declining approval ratings. Then he walked away from the White House pressroom last fall, saying that he needed a higher salary -- working for CNN -- to provide for his wife and three children.

Snow's quiet death at age 53 sent new shock waves through the clannish community of politicos and pundits at the heart of life in Washington, D.C., especially since it came so soon after the shocking heart attack that claimed NBC's Tim Russert. Both were dedicated family men and devout Catholics. Both were known for their ability to be friendly and fair, while mixing with activists in both political parties.

The key was that Snow shunned the kind of gloomy pessimism that haunts many conservatives, argued Jewish conservative William Kristol in the New York Times. Instead, his "deep Christian faith combined with his natural exuberance to give him an upbeat world view. ... I came to wonder: Could it be that a stance of faith-grounded optimism is in fact superior to one of worldly pessimism or sophisticated fatalism?"

In his Catholic University speech, Snow urged the graduates to take risks and to always strive to serve others -- confident that they would learn from their mistakes and keep growing. Religious faith, he insisted, was "not an opiate" that helped people avoid hard questions and big challenges. Instead, the ups and downs that accompany the life of faith should be seen as part of "the ultimate extreme sport."

In his case, Snow argued that his calling to live life to the fullest included the challenge to fight cancer. He learned his optimism the hard way.

"I don't know why I have cancer, and I don't much care," wrote Snow, in a Christianity Today essay entitled "Cancer's Unexpected Blessings."

"Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out. But despite this -- because of it -- God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don't know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face."

Faith and the Russert Test

The politico facing Tim Russert was Vice Present Al Gore and their testy dialogue was one of the memorable moments during the 2000 White House race.

RUSSERT: When do you think life begins?

GORE: I favor the Roe vs. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did --

RUSSERT: Which is what? When does life begin?

GORE: Let me just say, I did change my position on the issue of federal funding and I changed it because I came to understand more from women -- women think about this differently than men.

RUSSERT: But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don't believe life begins at conception. I'm just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?

GORE: Well, look, the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question --

RUSSERT: Which is?

Liberal critics said this line of questioning veered out of journalism into hostile territory, especially when Russert probed Gore on laws banning the execution of any pregnant woman on death row, somewhere, someday. Gore defenders defended his stunned, befuddled silence -- what one called a "pregnant pause."

But the Gore showdown raised other questions. Was the host of NBC's "Meet the Press" asking this question because of his own Catholic beliefs? Or was Russert pressing hard because he knew that, as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, Gore had an 84 percent positive National Right to Life voting record and he wanted to hear the candidate describe his change of heart?

"Tim wore his Catholicism proudly. He talked about it all the time," noted NBC anchor Brian Williams, who stepped in, after Russert's death, as the featured speaker at a recent Catholic Common Ground Initiative forum in Washington, D.C.

In fact, Russert's faith was not "an elephant in the room. It was the room. It was the room he was raised in. It was one of his great charms, as was how he dealt with it in life and in our public discourse. ... Catholicism was his base. It was never his bias. I think that's absolutely crucial and I will debate anyone who contends to the contrary."

Russert scheduled speech was called "Learnings from the Political Process for Common Ground in the Catholic Church," a natural topic drawing on his lengthy news career and his earlier brass-tacks political work with two major Democrats -- Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In the days after the 58-year-old Russert's shocking heart attack, the focus changed for this event at the Catholic University of America. Williams, who is also Catholic, said the key question was theological and journalistic: Was Russert's relentless search for the truth a result of his Catholic upbringing?

Williams argued that it was impossible to understand Russert's "beautiful mind" without taking seriously the Catholic life and education that formed him. The newsman was who he was, an Irish Catholic guy from south Buffalo, N.Y., who loved his family and always sang the praises of the Mercy Sisters and Jesuit teachers who inspired him enter public life. In April, he openly brought his rosary to a meeting between elite journalists and Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Washington.

Russert vowed to never miss Sunday Mass if his son, Luke, was born healthy and kept that promise. While he had strong ties to Catholic progressives, Russert also admired the work of Pope John Paul II. He once told Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a veteran Catholic writer, than when he died he hoped John Paul would meet him at heaven's gate -- wearing the white NBC News baseball cap that Russert gave him.

There were tensions in Russert's life and work. In particular, the clergy sexual-abuse scandals left him angry and shaken. The newsman saw the crisis as "a test of his Catholicism," said Williams. But he also believed that covering the story required him to do the "job of a journalist."

Russert always "understood that the stakes were high. He knew that better than most of us," added Williams. "He knew that the civility of our dialogue was under attack. He knew that diversity in the public square takes work every day. And he knew that our standards of journalism were being attacked. ?

"He understood what it meant to be 'called' to be Catholic, and I think that's very important. He took the call."