In a profession that has become tarnished by partisanship and cheap shots, Tim Russert stood apart.
The NBC News Washington bureau chief and host of “Meet the Press” was a model journalist. He was fair to all sides, did his homework, reported honestly, and was always a gentleman. His appetite for politics was voracious.
When legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herblock died in 2001, he designated almost all his $50 million estate -- $49 million of it in Washington Post stock -- to create a foundation that bears his name. Besides giving awards and grants, the foundation holds an annual lecture and reception.
This year, Russert gave the talk at the Library of Congress. Speaking without notes, Russert revealed how he got reluctant presidential candidates to go on “Meet the Press.” Russert told them he would hold a “virtual” show where he would address his questions to an empty chair for each missing candidate. Soon, all the candidates appeared on his show.
Russert, 58, collapsed while recording voiceovers for his Sunday morning interview program. The network said that he was “stricken at the bureau” and subsequently died. An autopsy will be performed to determine cause of death. Russert had just returned from a family trip to Italy with his wife, writer Maureen Orth.
“Tim was a caring and supportive boss to me and to all of us here at NBC News,” Jim Popkin, senior producer at the NBC News Investigative Unit based in the Washington bureau, told me. “We are all shell-shocked today about his loss. He wore so many hats at NBC News and was such an important figure in the worlds of politics and journalism. He is truly irreplaceable, and we are all in deep mourning.”
Russert had so much influence that when he declared that Sen. Barack Obama had wrapped up the Democratic nomination last month, it became a news event. He also wrote a New York Times bestselling book about his father, Big Russ and Me.
“He worked to the point of exhaustion so many weeks,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw said, adding, “This news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice.”
Russert served as host of “Meet the Press” longer than any other person and was “one of the premier political analysts and journalists of his time,” Brokaw said. Russert began hosting “Meet the Press” in 1991.
In a typical exchange, during a presidential debate in September, Russert read a blind quote from a “Meet the Press” guest who had approved of torture in extreme circumstances. Sen. Hillary Clinton said in the debate that she disagreed with the assertion, and Russert told her that the quote was from “William Jefferson Clinton.”
Doesn’t that mean she disagrees with her husband? Russert asked.
“Well, he’s not standing here right now,” Hillary said.
As the audience cheered, Russert pressed her further for some acknowledgment that she disagreed with her husband.
“Well,” Clinton said. “I’ll talk to him later.”
President Bush said from Paris that he and first lady Laura Bush “are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Tim Russert.” Bush added, “As the longest-serving host of the longest-running program in the history of television, he was an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades. Tim was a tough and hardworking newsman. He was always well-informed and thorough in his interviews. And he was as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it.”
Sen. John McCain called Russert “truly a great American who loved his family, his friends, his Buffalo Bills, and everything about politics and America.”
The son of Irish-American parents, Russert was born in Buffalo, NY. His father was a World War II veteran who worked two jobs while raising four children in South Buffalo. Russert attended Buffalo’s Jesuit Canisius High School and graduated from John Carroll University and Cleveland State University’s law school.
He worked on the political campaigns of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo. He then served as chief of staff to Moynihan from 1977 to 1982 and was a counselor in Cuomo’s Albany office from 1983 to 1984.
NBC hired Russert in the Washington bureau in 1984. Four years later, he became the network’s Washington bureau chief.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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