When you try to assess a Tim Russert replacement on “Meet the Press”, you quickly grasp how truly irreplaceable the guy is. That’s a sentiment that’s been tossed about endlessly since he passed, but after you read the below scorecard of possible replacements, you’ll realize — as we did — that none of them quite fully match Russert’s two essential qualities: Toughness & universal appeal.
But away we go after the jump…
Take our poll: Who should replace Russert?
PROS: One of the “safer” choices. He’s hosted it before. He’s not wedded to another NBC/MSNBC show. Perhaps more than anyone else, Gregory’s got that Russert-like inquisitive demeanor. His chances of getting the gig are high when you consider that his main NBC/MSNBC competitors for the job either have no realistic shot (Matthews/Olbermann/Scarborough) or are too old to build a franchise around (Brokaw).
CONS: He’s the Pete Sampras of television…good at everything but you just can’t bring yourself to truly adore the guy (Go Agassi!). That tough guy/inquisitor demeanor can look disingenuous when you then see how Gregory chameleons into whatever show he’s on (“Today”: Dancing / “Race for the White House”: Hyper, cheesy). If Russert was the Boy from Buffalo, then Gregory is the Dude Who Always Dreamed About Making It In D.C. And, besides: Who wants to replace Rockstar Russert with a “safe choice”? (Although, being a safe choice has always worked out for the Goo Goo Dolls.)
PROS: Todd’s got a bit of Russert’s universal appeal — and some of Russert’s adorable nerdiness, too –despite not yet being a household name. Most Washingtonians (and reporters, especially) have a favorable view of him and almost everyone tips their hat to Todd’s outside-of-the-box political analysis and quick ascension at NBC. He’s enough of a young, fresh face that “Meet” could/would-be-smart-to launch a 20 year franchise around the guy, and with Russert having hand-picked Todd to join the NBC team, there’s a bit of an “anointed one” mystique to Todd. Picking Todd might also help blunt the “Why Didn’t They Pick Me?!?” anger of shunned NBC colleagues Matthews, Gregory, Brokaw, Scarborough, Olbermann, etc. by signaling that, Hey guys, it’s not you … it’s us: We’ve decided to go in an entirely different direction.
CONS: He’s the “Little Miss Sunshine” of this scorecard: He ought to get the Oscar, but you know he won’t (damn you, Departed). TV news is not known for taking such bold chances on the new guy. Todd’s primary skill set on television thus far has focused on the micro-political and its not clear he can (or want to) do what Russert did: Speak to the issues of ordinary Americans (political junkies love him because he seems to speak to us). We’ve yet to see any of Russert’s Tough Guy-ness from Todd, which brings us to perhaps Todd’s biggest weakness: TV position jockeying isn’t for nice guys.
PROS: He’s got the claws. He wants the gig. He’s put in his time at NBC. He’s a household name.
CONS: Unfortunately for Matthews, there are too many to count for this job. He’s got the tough guy ‘tood, but it has almost become a parody of itself. He’s been stigmatized lately as a liberal. NBC won’t want to take Matthews off his popular “Chris Matthews Show.” There’s already rumors of MSNBC wanting to cut ship with Matthews (and Matthews may have his own plans). He’s got a loose tongue. Although he’s got an incredible command of movie trivia and political history, can he focus on the here and know of news and politics? Will he do his homework? Matthews’ intellect allows him to essentially wing “Hardball” if he wants. For “Meet,” Matthews would need to be more focused, more disciplined and less enamored with himself.
PROS: Handing over “Meet”‘s reins to Brokaw would allow NBC to kick the can down the hallway and spend a bit more time making the careful, important decision of selecting a permanent successor. Brokaw is a familiar face, so the Russert-Brokaw transition wouldn’t seem so jarring to the average viewer. He’s got the resume, no doubt. The selection of Brokaw will help put the ambitions of other younger candidates on low-simmer for a while.
CONS: Brokaw is a tough guy to get excited about and has recently come off (sometimes) as the old guy at the party who sticks around a bit too long. He seems averse to confrontations and may not want to be forced to pull out the Russert Claws and thereby subject himself to the Media Matters / NewsBusters “YOU’RE BIASED!” campaigns (having escaped being thusly tarred).
PROS: Like Russert, she’s smart, self-assured and tough. In other words, she’d be very good at the actual job. Like Russert, she’s well-liked and isn’t as drawn to the Georgetown cocktail scene. And then there’s that whole black female thing, which could prove especially symbolic in an election year that so excited Tim thanks, in part, to formidable black and female candidates.
CONS: ls “Meet” confident enough in its ratings empire to install its first female host (see: CBS, Couric)? What kind of damage will NBC create internally by going outside the network to replace Russert? Does Ifill want to move from the low expectations game (read: PBS’ NewsHour) to what will be one of the most scrutinized transitions in recent television history?
PROS: Like Todd and Ifill, picking Stephanopoulos would be a smart choice for “Meet.” He’s exhibited a Russert-like discipline when it comes to preparation, a Russert-like questioning style and a Russert-like vision for reshaping shows (“This Week” has evolved as a program significantly in the past two years).
CONS: Again, he probably wouldn’t leave and NBC probably wouldn’t seriously consider his candidacy (he’s likely still under contract with ABC). In dark, private places that you don’t talk about at cocktail parties, “This Week” — while admittedly devastated over Russert’s passing — likely sees this as one of its only opportunities to catch up to “Meet”‘s ratings machine and Stephanopoulos wouldn’t mind that come-from-behind victory as part of his legacy. Stephanopoulos — like Gregory — doesn’t have any of Russert’s Boy Next Door charm and occasionally that translates on air: He seems like the really smart guy who might not bother chit-chatting with you in the grocery line.
PROS: He carries a lot of weight at NBC and is a familiar face to most Americans (he also gives good Gravitas Voice). He’s liked by many within the journalistic/media community (read: Saturday Night Live).
CONS: Oddly…lots. It’s not a given that Williams would want to get into political analysis as closely as Russert did (reading teleprompters on the “Nightly News” is just so much easier. He’d need to move to D.C. from New York. NBC wouldn’t want him to leave his day job (and then have to find a replacement for that empty chair) and yet failure to do so would make “Meet” seem like a side gig.
PROS: She and Russert were big fans of each other and she’s an institution at NBC. She has the pedigree and resume for the gig and still some top sources around town.
CONS: Although Mitchell would allow NBC to check off “female host” from its diversity chart, she’s also 62 and “Meet” may want to build its post-Russert phase around a younger face. Having “sources around town” doesn’t really matter on “Meet” (the guests break the news, not the host). When she’s guest hosted “Meet,” we’ve been underwhelmed (she’s not a natural at bringing the claws out on air). Her marriage to Alan Greenspan and her prowess on D.C.’s cocktail circuit makes her feel a bit too “part of the system” (She’s McCain to, say, Chuck Todd’s Obama in this race).
Not serious contenders / not even worth considering: Keith Olbermann, Joe Scarborough.
People who don’t stand a chance of actually getting the gig, but are interesting to think about in the host chair nonetheless (think TV experience is a must? It sure wasn’t when NBC first hired Russert):
NPR’s Juan Williams (PRO: Sharp claws, sharp grasp on the fine print CONS: He seems scared of Brit Hume)
The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan (PRO: Free thinker, born to buck conventional wisdom CONS: Lack of restraint, abundance of that “I’m flabbergasted that the whole world doesn’t agree with me!” look/laugh)
Columnist Robert Samuelson (PROS: Data driven realist CONS: Even Russert makes Samuelson look put together)
National Journal’s Stuart Taylor (PROS: Again, data driven realist CONS: Soft claws when debating, almost considers each side too much, leading to “on the one hand, on the other hand”)
Brookings’ Thomas Mann (PROS: Mostly centrist wonkish think tanker, Russert-like jollyness CONS: Can any of these think tank types keep points short and concise?)
Former WH press secretary Mike McCurry (PROS: Always a compelling speaker and thinker, knows the Washington game from all sides CONS: “Meet” could swallow Russert’s work in Democratic politics…a former WH flak could be a bit too much to chew)
New York Times’ John Harwood (PROS: Good TV presence, gives good serious face CONS: Almost too pretty for role of Questioner-in-Chief)
Politico’s David Rogers (PROS: Knows how the sausage gets made better than anyone CONS: You’ve seen how he dresses right? Rogers shuns the spotlight)
Fox News’ Bret Baier (PROS: Has a Russert-like presence behind the anchor’s table CONS: Has yet to prove inquisitorial chops)
AEI’s Norm Ornstein (PROS: Combines insider knowledge of Washington with a refreshing, humorous take on the ridiclousness of things CONS: Too goofy to be taken seriously on air)
New York Times’ Carl Hulse (PROS: Has that old school newsman look to him, great hair CONS: Might think he’s too good for the gig)
CBS’s Jim Axelrod (PROS: Looks like he could have been Russert’s little brother CONS: Jersey Shore-like gum chomping)
Newsweek’s Evan Thomas (PROS: Provides the magazine with excellent long-form narratives and analysis CONS: For a guy like Thomas, even “Meet” doesn’t let you dig deep enough)
AP’s Ron Fournier (PROS: It’d be a better career switch than HotSoup.com CONS: In perhaps less glamorous ways, his AP gig is arguably a more powerful gig)
Slate’s John Dickerson (PROS: Original, creative thinker/reporter CONS: The soft, fuzzy bunny rabbit of the press corps, he’s too pretty to fill Russert’s shoes)
Ben Bradlee (PROS: He could top Russert’s best grilling CONS: And you thought Brokaw was old….Unlike Russert, Bradlee would relish the gotcha questions)
Slate’s Jack Shafer (PROS: He always says it better than you ever could CONS: Homeboy would probably find the gig boring).
Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum (PROS: Smart, serious, respected by journalism’s “IT” crowd in Washington CONS: 18 million voters don’t like him).
TNR’s Peter Beinart (PROS: He’s smarter than most people on the list and he’s had a track record of adopting policy positions that closely hug the political center CONS: You may not be able to take your eyes away from his pocket protector)
C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb (PROS: He’s got that “Old Wise Man” look about him and, like Russert, he’s adored around town CONS: He hasn’t proved his Tough Guy chops and he’s already expressed a desire to slow things down work-wise)
Washington Post David Ignatius: (PROS: Highly respected journalist with must-read column CONS: Does he want to take his name out of consideration for Washington Post Executive Editor gig? With his focus so international, will “Meet” viewers want him to stick to the domestic?)
USA Today’s Susan Page (PROS: She’d be a natural in Tim’s chair — tough, poised, prepared CONS: If they pick a female, Gwen Ifill and Andrea Mitchell would get picked first).
What about you? What do you think? Drop us a line, leave us a comment, or tip us in the below box.