Russert's Silence Will Be "Heard" This Election Year


"Let the conversation begin" is how Hillary Clinton entered the 2008 presidential campaign. As that conversation now continues without her, it plainly will be different from what American voters have grown accustomed to.

Barack Obama's status as the first African-American nominee of a major party is only the most conspicuous difference. There are others--of style, scale, and the silence of the leading journalistic voice in contemporary political culture.

The style difference flows from the remarkable profile Mr. McCain cuts as GOP standard-bearer. He has rare skills for a Republican for waging guerrilla war with help from the media. By his accessibility, humor and candor, he has has bonded with mainstream journalists and also the satirists who interpret the campaign conversation on late-night TV. The author Neal Gabler says his sense of irony makes the former war prisoner "their spiritual kin - a cosmological liberal."

The scale difference flows from Barack Obama's record-shattering ability to raise money. If he avoid the limits of taxpayer funding in the general election, as strategists in both parties expect, he'll have unprecedented options for communicating with voters as he tries to expand the political battlefield. That could mean national ads seen by all TV viewers, not just those in the 15 target states that received the vast majority of TV ads in 2000 and 2004.

And on top of the "micro-targeting" methods of direct mail, phone banks, and the Internet, Obama might even have enough cash for the old school technique of newspaper advertising.

The silence is that of Tim Russert, who died suddenly last week at age 58. As the American media's leading political analyst, he played a role far beyond the viewership of NBC's "Meet the Press." Grilling candidates respectfully, moderating debates fairly, interpreting election results with the insight of a former political operative, Russert drew admiration from colleagues and both parties.

The Obama-McCain contest will be the first general election in 20 years without Russert in the "Meet the Press" moderator's chair. "An election without Russert," concluded Republican ad-maker Mark McKinnon, "will be like Oz -- without the Wizard."