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The outpouring of tributes to Tim Russert on his death at age 58 was both surprising and well deserved. There was a palpable sense of guilt in the many descriptions of him by his colleagues in the commentariat. They frequently seemed to be saying that he was such a genuine human being uncompromised by stardom when the rest of them, having achieved only a small measure of his success, had become phonies of one kind of another. True, there were a few curmudgeons, such as Michael Kinsley, who accused Russert of “downward social climbing,” of playing the good ol’ boy shtick for all it was worth. As the show business adage has it, Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, the rest comes easy. I don’t believe that about Tim Russert.

One of the most moving tributes is by John Meacham of Newsweek . Meacham is an Episcopalian and a vestryman of the tony St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, but he has a fine grasp of how Russert was shaped by the Catholic culture of rust-belt Buffalo, New York. Tim Russert was born in 1950 and lived a Catholic childhood before the wheels went off that culture following the Second Vatican Council. It would soon be called a subculture or, as Benedict XVI noted during his recent American visit, “disparagingly” referred to as a “ghetto.” Russert was a one-man project not only to keep that world alive but to witness to its dignity, and even to make the case that it holds unexpected promise for the future. All these themes are evident in the book dedicated to his father, Big Russ and Me: Fathers and Sons, Lessons of Life . I ran into Russert and his father one day, and the latter told me, “He makes me look better than I am.” He really seemed to mean it and to be embarrassed about it. That, too, reflects a part of the Catholic culture with which Russert kept faith.

Meacham writes this: “He prepared for broadcasts the way he had prepared for Mass back in his altar-boy days. ‘Part of your responsibility was to be punctual,’ he wrote. Sometimes he had to go wake the assistant pastor, who liked his sleep; if Russert did not do what he was supposed to do, the service would not happen. ‘It all seemed so natural then, but when I look back on it, I’m struck by how much responsibility we had,’ he wrote. ‘We weren’t even in high school yet, but age-old traditions with great meaning depended on our showing up on time and doing the job exactly right.’”

As best I recall, I was a guest on Meet the Press twice. One time I was paired with an ultra-liberal and very loquacious priest¯the subject was the sex abuse crisis¯and he went on and on, overriding Russert’s efforts to move on. The next day, Russert called to apologize. “I shouldn’t have let that happen. I lost control of the show.” He didn’t have to call, and he certainly didn’t have to apologize. I had never before had an anchor call like that, no matter what had gone wrong. Tim Russert was a different kind of media star. He said he could not use Meet the Press as his own sounding board, but it was not as though he did not have definite views on both the lessons and follies of life. The ideas most egregiously offending common sense were best handled with a generous measure of humor.

In that spirit (this is a patently contrived segue), I was at the time I heard of Tim Russert’s death writing an item on a front-page story in the New York Times . It was written by Tara Parker-Pope and announced a breakthrough in our understanding of the human condition. “Gay Unions Shed Light on Gender in Marriage.” You just knew that same-sex marriage would have all kinds of spin-off benefits for everybody. The opening sentence: “A growing body of evidence shows that same-sex couples have a great deal to teach everyone else about marriage and relationships.” The LGBTQ community has so much to teach the orientationally challenged not only about marriage but also about relationships, which is just about the whole of life.

While there is slight reference in the story to evidence supporting that claim, you know it has to be a “growing body of evidence” since there was none at all before the Massachusetts court invented same-sex marriage in 2003. We read on: “The findings offer hope that some of the most vexing problems are not necessarily entrenched in deep-rooted biological differences between men and women. And that, in turn, offers hope that the problems can be solved.” Same-sex couples have problems much like other couples. It sounds like the Times is on the edge of rediscovering human nature. That such vexing problems are common to both men and women apparently comes as news to people who thought they are attributable to gender differences that are not only “entrenched” but also “deep-rooted.”

Sondra E. Solomon, who teaches psychology at the University of Vermont, casts light on these startling findings: “I think there’s a lot to be learned to explore how human beings relate to one another. How people care for each other, how they share responsibility, power, and authority¯those are the key issues in relationships.” And here you thought there was nothing left “to be learned to explore.” Well, at least Professor Solomon doesn’t teach English.

The report discloses that “same-sex relationships, whether between men or women, were far more egalitarian than heterosexual ones.” Both men being men and both women being women, as in more egalitarian , that would seem to stand to reason. In heterosexual marriages, we are informed, women do more of the housework and men are more likely to initiate sex. “With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally.” The of course is a nice touch. Whether initiating sex is a burden varies, I suppose, from couple to couple.

There is more: “While the gay and lesbian couples had about the same rate of conflict as heterosexual ones, they appeared to have more relationship satisfaction, suggesting that the inequality of opposite-sex relationships can take a toll.” No one can deny that there is a very long history of men having problems with women, and vice versa. I am told that novelists and playwrights have constructed entire stories around the theme. But it’s good to have this confirmed and backed up by “a growing body of evidence” in a front-page story in the Times . From now on, nobody can plead ignorance.

And that is not all. Researchers, we are told, speak of a “demand-withdraw” phenomenon in heterosexual marriages, meaning that women demand change and men withdraw from conflict. “But some surprising new research shows that same-sex couples also exhibit the pattern, contradicting the notion that the behavior is rooted in gender.” I’m working on that. In same-sex unions women demand and men withdraw? But I thought they were same-sex. Clearly, there is still a lot to be learned to explore.

But the gist of the report is clear enough: Same-sex marriage is a very good thing; gender differences are not as important as previously thought, except that they create problems in mixed marriages of different genders; and gays and lesbians are teaching all of us about marriage. What would we do without the Times ? Dream on. I notice that in stories on same-sex couples the paper frequently refers to a man and “his husband.” I have not yet seen a reference to a man and “his wife.” If we’re seriously talking marriage here, it seems odd that there are so many husbands and no wives. One resists speculating on why that should be. Maybe a wife will show up in a story next week. It’s best to announce really big breakthroughs one at a time.

From his Catholic faith and from Big Russ, Tim Russert learned the “lessons of life” that enabled him, and can help the rest of us, to survive the follies of life with a measure of equanimity and with uncompromised conviction. John Meacham writes that Russert believed that there are three really big things: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two surpass human understanding, so in our humbled state we should make the most of the third.


Big Russ and Me: Father and Son, Lessons of Life

Gay Unions Shed Light on Gender in Marriage ,” New York Times , June 10, 2008

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