Monday, June 16, 2008

Washington Social Diary

Outside the NBC News studios in Washington, where Tim Russert was bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press."
One Week. Two Men.
By Carol Joynt

In the past week two important men of Washington captured national and even global headlines, and neither chose to be there. The stories of James A. Johnson and Tim Russert offer a notable look inside the workings of this town.

Both were of the brand that's known as "Washington insider," a term that's suddenly less of an accolade. Russert was for years a household name. Johnson was the former Fannie Mae chief and is current vice chairman of Perseus, the private equity funds, although he long sailed under the media radar.

Tim Russert.
Last week began with Johnson’s resignation as one of the vetters of Barack Obama’s future running mate after revelations about a sweetened past mortgage deal. The week ended with Russert’s untimely death. For Washington these events were seismic.

If it were a movie, Johnson would be played by Harrison Ford and Russert by Bill Murray. Johnson is the quiet one -- in and out of the political and corporate worlds for years, knew everyone, amassed serious wealth; tall, handsome, well-dressed, and --unusual among Washington men -- he rarely talks about himself. His wife, Maxine Isaacs, is a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They are a “power couple.” He was a charter member of the Barack Obama team.

Russert, on the other hand, had an outsize personality. Big happy, friendly guy; broad, funny and laser-like, everything within his domain was under his absolute control. His time spent with Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan was not wasted. His story now is legend. When Johnson was amassing wealth, Russert was amassing media power. While Johnson personified suave political style and transformed it into corporate heft, Russert pushed everyone out of his way to reshape and re-energize his Sunday morning talk show, and the competition as well. And like Johnson, Russert, too, married a woman with her own substantial career, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth.

Why they are intertwined in the same column is because their personal stories cut to the heart of the bigger theme here this week, the way this town is changing even in advance of a new administration. Johnson because his insider status hurt rather than helped him. Russert because he leaves such a void (largely a problem only for NBC, but a problem that will be media meat for days and weeks to come).

The news involving both men produced shock. Text messages and cell phones flashed like wild fire all over town. In Johnson’s case, the Obama narrative suddenly became about Johnson getting some sweetheart loans from Countrywide’s CEO Angelo Mozilo. Then word got out that the New York Times and Washington Post assigned investigative reporters to look into some of his board activities. His resignation from the Obama campaign was inevitable.

The shock was that Jim Johnson got in a fix. He’s considered one of the good guys: upstanding is a frequent appellation. He was an important adviser to Obama. He gave his time to the campaign for no pay. He could get anybody on the phone, actually practices authentic discretion, and knows the difference between rumor and skeletons. But Johnson got caught in the (new) rules. Nevertheless, everyone in the capital expects an eventually resurging Jim Johnson; he’s part of the firmament.

James Johnson (Susan Walsh/Associated Press).
Without ever actually seeing them together, I assume Jim Johnson and Tim Russert knew each other. Friends by Washington standards. The insiders in this town do, in fact, know each other. Off the playing field they attend each other’s parties and dinners, their kids are often in the same schools and on the same sports teams. Woe to America if the powerful in the nation’s capital stop having down time together. No matter how many reasonable debates you see on TV or before Capitol hearings, it’s the behind-the-scenes “insider” moments that often get the job done.

Insiders are on the outs right now. Should it change? Should the insiders be tarnished and painted as bad guys? It’s an admirable goal, but the insiders have kept the trains here running on time for decades. They can be pushed out, but someone still has to do that job.

Tim Russert loved, embraced and interpreted Washington - warts and all. He had a little boy’s exuberance for the good, bad and ugly. He acknowledged the good and did not shirk from the bad and ugly. He wasn’t always the most popular boy in the class, but no other town on the planet has more respect for a gamer, and he was a master gamer. There will be a long goodbye and it will practically be on the scale of a state funeral. St. Albans School for Boys – (the singular Washington insider school, and where his son Luke is an alum) will host a wake on Tuesday that runs almost the full day. There will be a memorial service Wednesday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, and it will be broadcast live on MSNBC.
Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.