Much has been written about Tim Russert's enormous contributions to journalism and politics. But when fellow journalists and others pay tribute to Russert, they might also remember him as a skilled spokesperson and trusted counselor to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1983 and 1984.
You see, the Tim Russert who America came to know and respect since he joined Meet the Press in 1991, honed some of his journalistic skills and instincts while chief spokesperson for the Cuomo administration from 1983 to 1984. Back then, he was "Timothy J. Russert," and was the contact person for the media whenever Gov. Cuomo issued yet another eloquent press statement (in 1983, I was a reporter/editor in Albany for The Legislative Gazette, a student-run, weekly newspaper that covers state government).
Few people outside of Queens and Albany knew much about Cuomo. Enter Russert, then just 32, who used his experience working for US Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to help transform the governor into a national figure in just a short amount of time. The pinnacle of Cuomo's political career was when he gave a stirring keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, which I don't believe would have happened without Russert. It was a great demonstration of Russert's superb political instincts and certain PR skills.
In doing so, he had to face off regularly against smart, tough reporters down the hall like Fredric Dicker of The New York Post; Michael Oreskes and EJ Dionne of The New York Times; Marc Humbert of The Associated Press; Alison Mitchell of Newsday; and Marcia Kramer of The Daily News. There was the usual give and take you'd expect whenever the media and government collide in a democracy, but I don't remember anyone questioning Russert's integrity or ability.
In short, he seemed to be well liked by the reporters and respected throughout Albany as part of Gov. Cuomo's "inner circle." Many written tributes recently - including those by Kramer and Dicker - remembered Russert's sense of humor and his likeability.
Tim Russert left government PR to take a job at NBC and went on to raise America's awareness of politics and government at a time when society needed him most.
His passion for this country's democratic principles and process lit a fire under many people who are now active in some way, particularly those who registered to vote for the first time in 2008 (that's certainly evident from the large voter turnout in the presidential primaries).
Many articles in the days after Russert's death mentioned his move "from politics to the press" in 1984. Yes, Russert was certainly a smart political adviser. But he was as equally effective as a spokesperson and PR pro.
History will correctly reflect his great contributions to American political discourse and to journalism. I'm just proud that Tim was one of "ours" who demonstrated what's right in our industry, even if it was for a short time a quarter century ago.
Rich Klein is a VP at Beckerman Public Relations, based in the Hoboken, NJ, office.