So who was the next Tim Russert? Two weeks ago we asked the question in this space and since then we have heard lots of opinions from lots of people, a few of whom wondered if they would be the next one to be struck down unexpectedly by a heart attack.

We suspect a lot of people lingered over the Sunday, June 29, issue of the New York Times, with its front page story titled “Weighing the Costs of a Look Inside the Heart,” one in a series of pieces evaluating the effectiveness of cutting edge medical technology. In this case the Times was focussed on non-invasive CT scanners that produce detailed images of the heart and its principal arteries. But do the scans benefit patients? The Times concluded there is “scant evidence” that they do, despite their cost in radiation exposure, on the order of 1,000 chest X-rays.

But post-Tim Russert, you can bet that people are lobbying their cardiologists for a spot inside that doughnut-shaped scanner.

What about George Carlin? A few people nominated him as the next Tim Russert. The irreverent and brutally honest comedian passed away June 22, just nine days after the political commentator died preparing for the next edition of Meet the Press.

Carlin certainly had taken note of Russert’s death. As Carlin’s good friend Jerry Seinfled wrote in the New York Times on June 24, “The honest truth is, for a comedian, even death is just a premise to make jokes about. I know this because I was on the phone with George Carlin nine days ago and we were making some death jokes. We were talking about Tim Russert and Bo Diddley and George said: ‘I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before they come after the next one. I always like to fly on an airline right after they’ve had a crash. It improves your odds.’”

But Carlin had a history of heart trouble, and he didn’t exactly get blind-sided by the kind of attack that felled Russert. Carlin, age 71, complained of chest pains and made it to the hospital, where he died a few hours later.

That’s right died. Did I actually write “passed on” in that paragraph above? What was I thinking? As Carlin pointed out in one of many bits he did that related to death and dying (as quoted by “I’m getting old. And it’s OK. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won’t have to die — I’ll ‘pass away.’ Or I’ll ‘expire,’ like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital they’ll call it a ‘terminal episode.’ The insurance company will refer to it as ‘negative patient care outcome.’ And if it’s the result of malpractice they’ll say it was a ‘therapeutic misadventure.”’

Another candidate for the Tim Russert role was much closer to home: Trentonian columnist Rick Murray, who died just a week after Russert and at the same age, 58. Murray was on a train headed toward the Trentonian newsroom when he suffered his fatal heart attack. Like Russert, Murray apparently did not have a clue about what was about to happen to him. No doubt Murray, who gained publicity himself in 1997 when he become one of the first people ever to publish a book on the Internet (a sci-fi novel), had a lot of columns left in him. His last column, published on the day of his death, was about Congo, the German shepherd that has been an item of considerable interest in his own right.

How about that Congo? To bring everyone up to date on one of the more bizarre animal stories of our time, let’s go back to June 5, 2007, when a group of gardeners arrived at a Princeton Township home to perform some landscaping chores. Stripped of all the opinions and judgments, the story is pretty simple: The homeowner asked the gardeners to stay in their car until the family pets, some German shepherds, could finish their time running loose in the yard. As a result of some mis-communication, the gardeners entered the yard before the dogs went inside. A confrontation resulted, and a gardener received serious bite wounds.

A municipal court judge ruled the animals vicious, and ordered the leader of the pack, Congo, to be euthanized. The homeowner, Guy James, appealed in court and in the court of public opinion — Congo and his human family, including four children, ended up on national television. Given that the gardener was described as an illegal immigrant, and that the dog was an 85-pound bundle of warm and fuzzy fur, the opinions flew faster than fur — mostly in favor of protecting Congo from inhumane authorities.

The governor’s office reported receiving more calls and letters regarding Congo than it has on any other issue. Finally a state judge stayed the execution and allowed Congo to return home, under a set of specific provisions.

Then on June 17 of this year, Congo, his mate Lucia, and their offspring Bear and Hunter, jumped on the 75-year-old mother-in-law of the dogs’ owner. While she and her son-in-law insisted that the dogs had not attacked her, she was nevertheless treated for bite wounds at the hospital. The owner had the dogs euthanized the next day. His explanation: Even though the dogs were innocent, he figured that execution was inevitable given the notoriety of the case.

This time the blogs and editorials were much less impressed by the warm and fuzzy fur. One Internet post quoted the humorist Corey Ford: “Properly trained, a man can be dog’s best friend.”

Given the shift in public opinion who could argue with Guy James’s assessment of his predicament: “It looked like my family and my dogs were going to be put through another bad situation,” James was quoted as saying. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done other than, God forbid, losing a family member.”

To which George Carlin might have replied, as he said in a monologue about euphemisims for death: “‘Lost’ a family member? He’ll turn up. Check the dumpster. He used to hang out there.”

Makes you wonder: Any of us could be the next Tim Russert. But who will be the next George Carlin?

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