Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and the influential host of its Sunday morning program Meet the Press, died the afternoon of Friday June, 13, after collapsing from a heart attack while recording voice-over segments for Sunday’s show at NBC’s Washington news bureau. He was 58.
had previously been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, which he treated with medication and exercise. After the collapse, medics rushed Russert to Sibley Memorial Hospital, where efforts to resuscitate him failed. According to doctors at the scene, cholesterol plaque had ruptured an artery in Russert’s heart, which was enlarged, an autopsy later revealed.
Tom Brokaw announced the news of Russert’s death on the air for NBC. His colleagues were shocked and grief stricken. Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has known Russert for about a decade and was a frequent guest of his on Meet the Press was in tears after a television station broke the news to her with a telephone call.
“I feel so bad,” she told The Observer. “He was such a good friend.”
“Somebody just called from the television studio and said have you heard the horrible news about Tim and I thought he must have been in a plane crash,” she added. “He’s a giant and he’s the best. I loved him…I can’t imagine what the news bureau is going through down there. I heard it is just wailing.”
Russert took the anchor chair on Meet the Press in December of 1991, 43 years into the legendary news program’s run. “At the time Meet the Press was not what it was today,” The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta recalled to The Observer. “It did not have the ratings. It did not have the cachet.”
In the years to come, Russert gradually built the show into the premier public affairs program in the nation. Named this year by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Russert’s program became the most important hour of political news of the week, and the most important appearance for American politicians, policy makers, candidates and political journalists.
“Meet the Press became the first primary of the presidential campaign,” said Mr. Auletta. “Long before Iowa and New Hampshire there was Meet the Press. You had to go on there and prove yourself. That wasn’t true before Tim. Tim made that.”
He did so, in part, by pioneering a new style of on-air interview. Every Sunday, Russert would cross-examine his guests using quotations from their past, reclaimed from the amnesia of recent history, made tangible in print, and read aloud back to the guest for comment. The technique allowed the constitutionally convivial Russert to confront his guests not with his thoughts, words, and beliefs but with their own. Asked to grapple with their own shifting viewpoints, politicians often stumbled. The much-copied technique will be a major part of Russert’s journalistic legacy.
“If you go back and look at the early years of Meet the Press–Lawrence Spivak, who started it, and his successors–they tended to be very stern,” said Mr. Auletta. “They asked questions that appeared to be tough. But that was as much of the manner in which they asked them as the substance.”
“The substance of Tim’s questions were tough,” said Mr. Auletta. “But Tim never looked stern. Tim liked people. He could come in and glad hand and swap stories before Meet the Press. Once he was on the air he was all business.”
“He had this wonderful ability to mix toughness with humanity, especially in an age when lots of people are posing as tough guys,” said Mr. Auletta.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist and frequent guest on Meet the Press, said he thinks that Russert was “the greatest political interviewer of our time and maybe all time. He held people to account. Politicians love to change their views depending on circumstances—they are only human—and there was Tim with a quote from six months ago, a year ago, five years ago, to put it up on the screen and say, ‘Well, how do you explain your position today, when you said this five years ago?’
“The other thing he did was he reinvented the Sunday talk show,” said Mr. Shrum. “The Sunday talk show could have died. He gave it new life and drama and people really cared about it.”
Early in his career, before jumping into journalism, Russert worked as chief of staff to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from 1977 to 1982 and was a counselor in the office of Governor Mario Cuomo from 1983-84. “[H]e was a progressive Democrat, he never made any secret about that, but he was totally fair,” said Mr. Shrum. “You could get people on both sides of the aisle to say that.”
Yesterday afternoon, conservative and liberal politicians alike lined up to pay tribute.
“Laura and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Tim Russert,” President George W. Bush said in a statement to the press that was sent out via text message on the afternoon of Russert’s death. “He was an institution of news and politics for two decades. He was tough … thorough … and as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it.”
“We were stunned and deeply saddened to hear of the passing today of Tim Russert,” said New York Senator Hillary Clinton. “Always true to his proud Buffalo roots, Tim had a love of public service and a dedication to journalism that rightfully earned him the respect and admiration of not only his colleagues but also those of us who had the privilege to go toe to toe with him.”
“Western New York will miss Tim Russert more than any other place because he was in everyway Mr. Buffalo,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer in a statement. “Even when he was interviewing presidents and heads of state, Western New Yorkers knew that his blue collar, Buffalo sensibility guided him throughout.”
Russert is survived by his wife Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair, their son, Luke, who recently graduated from Boston College, and his father—his relationship with whom, the late Russert chronicled in his best-selling book Big Russ and Me.
When reached by The Observer on Friday, NBC News Analyst Howard Fineman said that when he heard the news he thought about a dinner he had shared with Russert a few months ago in Florida. They were in the thick of the campaign and heatedly talking about politics. But every so often, Russert would excuse himself to talk on the phone with his ailing father back in Buffalo.
“The fact that his dad now has to see his beloved son die at a relatively young age like this…,” Mr. Fineman paused. “It’s just shocking.”
In the present election cycle, Russert solidified the influence of Meet the Press in national politics. But his reputation among reporters was that of a gentleman and friend.
On January 6, fire marshals closed the doors to a small theater in Manchester, where thousands of voters had crammed into the tiers and aisles to see Barack Obama speak, fresh off his Iowa win. Outside, a small gaggle of reporters were left out in the cold, receiving stern looks from police and helpless shrugs from campaign staff when they tried to sneak in. When Russert arrived, wearing his trench coat and knocking on the glass door, guards instantly recognized his face and minutes later, the door opened. And he made sure to take some fellow reporters in with him.
Out in Indiana, a few days before the May election that would for all intents and purposes end the Democratic primary, Russert wandered the small streets of downtown Indianapolis alone to absorb the atmosphere. Around him were marathon runners in town for a race the following morning waiting on lines to get into pasta restaurants and teenagers dressed in prom dresses and tuxedos. At various intersections, couples stopped Russert to talk politics and express their appreciation for his show. Others asked him to pose for photographs and he obliged happily.
afternoon, a long list of TV journalists eulogized their friend, colleague, and competitor. “Tim projected vitality—always excited about the stories he covered and intrigued by the people he interviewed,” said ABC’s Charles Gibson in a statement. “That’s what made him so good, and his passing so hard to absorb. His competitors—just like his co-workers—held Tim in the highest of regard.”
“No one could see Tim in a room and not smile,” said Diane Sawyer in a statement. “He was a defining American newsman. Love of country, love of family poured through him onto the screen, into the work, into stories at dinner, into the little chuckle that reminded us —aren’t we lucky to be here in this big life.”
Throughout the night, across the cable news landscape, journalists and politicians continued to recall anecdotes about Russert and to pay their respects. In between moments of reflection, those in the business couldn’t help but also ponder what will be next for the Washington bureau of NBC News.
“That desk, that Meet the Press seat, how is that fill-able?” CNN’s Larry King asked ABC’s Barbara Walters. “Who’s going to have to do that?”
“Everybody is going to want that seat,” Ms. Walters responded. “They’re going to have a hard time at NBC tying to decide who can possibly take his place. Not only that, they are going to have to handle the Washington Bureau. This was not just a job in name only. He did the hiring and firing.”
Elsewhere on TV, those whom Russert had hired and coached over the years fondly recalled their mentor.
“Traveling with Tim, traveling to New Hampshire from Iowa, landing at 4 in the morning–as exhausted as everyone was, he was still so accessible in the airport, people always approached him, people from every walk of life,” said Andrea Mitchell on NBC. “Always teaching everyone around him, to be as rigorous as he was. To be fair, and down the middle…Being able to talk on the TV today attests to what Russert taught us, how to respond to an emergency and still be able to report.”
“Father’s day weekend is such an appropriate time to honor Russert,” NBC News political director Chuck Todd, a frequent guest on Russert’s show, told viewers on the afternoon of Russert’s death. “[He was] everybody’s father figure at the network. And was extremely in touch with everyone’s families. He was a friend, mentor, idol.”
With reporting by Leon Neyfakh, Bharat Ayyar and Rebecca Lazarus.