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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."