- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2008

When television news and commentary were still relatively in their infancy, a bright young reporter for Time Magazine became one of that media’s first congressional correspondents. Neil McNeil also was a founding member of Public TV’s popular “Washington Week in Review” now called “Washington Week.”

Mr. McNeil died last week at 85 only a few days before the untimely death of NBC’s Tim Russert, one of those who benefited from his pioneering efforts to foster sound, sane and unbiased public affairs analysis on television, a medium that wasted little money on news those days. Only “Neil McNeil Reports from Washington” and then “Washington Week” and Lawrence Spivak’s “Meet the Press,” to which Mr. Russert ultimately fell heir, made much effort to bring more than news headlines to its viewers.

Unlike Mr. Russert, a lawyer who derived his expertise from several years as a political spokesman and operative, Mr. McNeil’s origins were strictly journalistic. His father was a respected member of the staff of the New York Times and he worked there briefly after Harvard before spending several years as a correspondent for United Press, following the path of early TV network news stars Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. He joined Time in 1958 where during 30 years of reporting he became perhaps the leading expert on Congress.

Those are the barebones of a distinguished career set out in no more than four or five paragraphs in the national press - a sharp and annoying contrast to the explosion of Page One accolades and effusive radio and television eulogies for Mr. Russert.

That’s understandable given the difference in their ages. Mr. Russert, 58, was at the peak of his career in a highly visible position. The hyperbole about his rank in the pantheon of journalistic greats can be excused by the shock of his sudden death and the almost instant celebrity television carries with it. Mr. Russert had remodeled Mr. Spivak’s old NBC show with its sterile questioning of prominent political guests into a colorful and entertaining weekly tableau of politics and analysis dominated by his own interviews and personality. He was excellent at what he did and by all accounts made millions of dollars annually for doing it, evidence enough to question whether he was truly a journalist.

Mr. McNeil on the other hand had long faded into that “remember him?” category of past reporting greats left with the inherent right to tell old war stories and brag about being reporters once themselves.

The real story of Mr. McNeil is far more complex than his limited obituaries would lead one to believe. He was among the most dedicated and accessible members of a print craft that has its own share of snobs. He became the man to go to for insight into the Byzantine machinations of Congress and although he labored all those years in the anonymity of a news magazine that never gave bylines, his work was instantly recognizable when it appeared.

On more than one occasion he provided a young reporter the edge on a breaking story with a solid tip. I never forgot it. In his own time and place he was and still is as important as anyone who practiced his profession in the nation’s capital.

Neil McNeil authored a definitive history of the U.S. House of Representatives and a biography of one of the most compelling figures in Congress, Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. They weren’t best-sellers like Mr. Russert’s book about his father, but they are indispensable for those who study the ins and outs of the people’s parliament with an eye to predicting the future with any degree of certainty. Had the Gridiron Club of Washington’s “elite” print correspondents permitted the election of magazine reporters at that time, he would have become the first. Many years later that rule and one barring TV correspondents was overturned and Mr. Russert became the first broadcast member of the 60-person organization.

Mr. McNeill was a proud Scotsman who collected inaugural medals, liked good whiskey, always had time to give advice when asked, courted the friendship of congressional staff members as well as the lawmakers themselves and treated friends to his gourmet cooking.

Perhaps he was most proud of the fact that as a youngster, he had invented a primitive baseball helmet, the first of its kind that now resides in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

It is sad to lose two such important figures in the increasingly turbulent world of communication. Soon we will be exchanging the noble title “reporter” for “blogger.” Neither of these men fits that rather disgusting appellation. But in remembering Mr. Russert we should not overlook the Neil McNeils who paved the way.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.