A few weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, I received an e-mail from an associate producer for a national cable-television program, who wanted me to appear on a show about Barack Obama.
Her e-mail said: "We're looking for someone who will say, 'Yes, he's cocky and his cockiness will hurt him, if not in the primary, definitely in the general election against McCain.' " I passed.
She responded by asking if I would instead say Hillary Clinton was untrustworthy. I said no.
A few days later came another invite: "We wanted a person to go after Hillary and how often she lies, how it's easy for her, etc." Although I again said no thanks, I am sure in each instance someone filled the prescribed role.
I was thinking about those exchanges while watching the many tributes to Tim Russert, whose memorial service was scheduled for today. How ironic that the same journalism community that feted Tim Russert after his death Friday has so many members who don't follow his lead.
Russert never practiced the brand of journalism upon which many radio and television careers today are predicated. It seems almost hypocritical that he should be extolled by those who don't emulate his example.
Tim Russert didn't become the pre-eminent political journalist in the nation by browbeating, condescension or debate-stifling. He was a facilitator of intelligent, political conversation, not an enabler of the stark left-right, black-white, Democrat-Republican, liberal-conservative cable world in which we now live.
That doesn't mean Russert asked guests to check their partisanship at the door, or that he was devoid of strong views. To the contrary, his was a forum where clear difference would emerge, but minus the edge that has otherwise become commonplace. Through direct discourse, not shouting and cross-talk, he guaranteed that all sides would be represented - and not in a carnival atmosphere. Russert was forceful, yet deferential. He'd ask the tough questions, and then afford an opportunity for a response.
Perhaps reflective of his law-school training, you could always count on him to bring up the prior inconsistencies of a guest's various statements. But unlike so many of his would-be successors, he'd always follow up with a willingness to listen to an explanation or reflection.
Russert combined an intellectual understanding of the intricacies of government and policy with street smarts about the electoral process, honed no doubt from his days of service to both New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Empire State Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
That combination of comportment, political acumen, and wit made Russert a unique bridge - someone to be relied upon for guidance about matters of great importance, and yet, you wished you could seek that wisdom over a beer or two.
I interviewed Russert twice, after each of his books, Big Russ and Me and Wisdom of Our Fathers, were published. He was as impressive on the receiving end of questions as when he was the questioner.
Perhaps his greatest gift was his humble, down-to-earth nature, which he likely gleaned from his father. When we last spoke - almost a year ago - Russert told me he admired "the quiet eloquence" of his father's hard work. Well, like father like son.
Not long after I interviewed Russert about Big Russ and Me, I selected it to be read by a small, informal book club to which I belong - eight guys who get together every few months. We read, yes. But, more important, we drink, eat, and enjoy one another's company.
I had asked Russert if he would mind telephoning our gathering and chatting with the group for a few minutes. The host of the most-esteemed talk show in America obliged.
That night, in a small private dining room at a George Perrier restaurant on the Main Line, his call arrived. He was on a cellphone in his car, and we lost the connection soon after it began. But the guys were thrilled, and Russert seemed to get a kick out of their interest in his book.
Months later, I met him at an NBC party in the Rainbow Room high atop Rockefeller Center, where we spoke for a few minutes. I was eager to talk politics; he wanted to know more about my book club.
I painted the picture of our end of the call, especially the camaraderie he'd inspired. Tim Russert seemed to genuinely enjoy the fact that for one night, he'd been a catalyst of such friendship.