Tim Russert, who died suddenly Friday of a heart attack, was arguably the most influential television journalist covering American politics.
Moderator of NBC's “Meet the Press” for 17 years, Russert was 58 and, not surprisingly, at work – recording voiceovers for Sunday's broadcast – when he collapsed.
Former “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw went on the air at 3:39 p.m. to break the news. He tried to keep his voice steady as he added a personal comment: “This news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice.”
Among the scores of tributes Friday, the one from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., spoke for many: “With a reasoned voice, a sharp mind and a fair hand, Tim took the measure of every Washington official and all those that sought to be one. He was a great journalist and an even better friend.”
House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said in a statement that it was “hard to quantify the influence that Tim Russert has had over political discourse in this country today.” He added that Russert “was more than his career. He was a man defined by his commitment to family and friends making him the giant that he truly was.”
Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., called Russert's death “a great loss to his loyal viewers, to NBC, but above all to journalism across the board.”
A onetime aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Russert made the switch from politics to news in 1984. He began on the international beat for NBC, landing a prized interview with Pope John Paul II in 1985. In 1991 he became Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press.”
At that time, the show had gone through five moderators in seven years and was trailing both David Brinkley's “This Week” on ABC and CBS's “Face the Nation” in the ratings.
Russert turned it around by creating a signature style of interrogation virtually guaranteed to make his guests uncomfortable and mesmerize viewers. Belying his avuncular Irish Catholic style off-camera, the Russert who appeared on-camera was a difficult – he liked to say “persistent but civil” – interviewer. He would dredge up quotes that his subject had spoken, sometimes years earlier, put them up on the screen (or play the sound bite) and then grill his captive until he was satisfied with the response.
His style unsettled independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992. Perot stammered, “May I finish?” when Russert kept prodding him about his positions. In 2003, while being questioned on “Meet the Press,” Vice President Dick Cheney made his famous prediction that Americans would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq. And it was on “Meet the Press” in 2005 that Aaron Broussard, the Louisiana official whose parish was flooded by Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, broke down in tears.
“Russert frustrates the candidates by knowing their positions on issues better than they do,” wrote Jack Shafer of Slate in a widely discussed 2003 piece, “How to Beat Tim Russert.”
Russert was a student of “Meet the Press,” and claimed to have watched every broadcast saved in the program's 60-year history. He told The Kansas City Star last year about the time that Sen. Joe McCarthy took a gun to the NBC studio “and had it on his thigh during the interview.” Russert, as was his wont, ended the story with a quip: “That's why they called him Tail Gunner Joe.”
Though observers would lament the obsession of TV news with “gotcha journalism,” Russert told The Star last year that he was simply returning “Meet the Press” to its roots, when it was known for more hard-nosed questioning of guests.
“It's not a matter of playing ‘gotcha,'” Russert told The Star last year. “It's simply trying to help frame the debate.”
Rare among journalists, Russert was comfortable letting his personal side become public, especially after his bestselling memoir, “Big Russ and Me,” was published in 2004. (“Big Russ” refers to the senior Tim Russert, a sanitation worker and truck driver who raised four children in a south Buffalo, N.Y., neighborhood.) Russert was often approached at airports by fans who said his book had changed the way they looked at their own fathers. Their testimonials would lead to a second bestselling book, “Wisdom of Our Fathers.”
In 1995, the National Father's Day Committee named him Father of the Year and in 2001 the National Fatherhood Initiative bestowed the same honor. More than one observer was heard on TV Friday noting the poignancy of Russert passing on Father's Day weekend.
Russert was married to Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine. The couple had one son, Luke. The Associated Press contributed.