Journalist Revitalized Washington Talk Shows

Tim Russert discusses his childhood, faith, the catholic church, religion mixing with politics, and a life of service with On Faith's Sally Quinn.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tim Russert, the NBC commentator who revolutionized Sunday morning television and infused journalism with an unrelenting passion for politics, died of a heart attack yesterday.

Russert was recording a "Meet the Press" introduction in an NBC sound booth in Northwest Washington when he collapsed and was taken by ambulance, accompanied by his longtime producer Betsy Fischer, to Sibley Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead soon afterward. He was 58.

The news swept the capital like a shock wave, with colleagues, rivals, President Bush and those vying to succeed him remembering Russert as a superb practitioner of political analysis and an irrepressible son of blue-collar Buffalo who, quite simply, loved the game. His influence was such that an appearance on the top-rated "Meet the Press" could boost or sink a candidate, and when he declared after midnight on May 6 that Barack Obama had wrapped up the Democratic nomination, that was treated as a news event in itself.

Russert wore many hats -- onetime Democratic operative, Washington insider, NBC bureau chief, MSNBC commentator, sports fanatic, committed Roman Catholic, biographer of his father, dubbed "Big Russ" -- but his greatest legacy was his sustained style of interrogation. Grounded in prodigious research, Russert would press his guests on past statements and contradictions, often for a full hour, spawning legions of imitators.

Friends were stunned by the news. "I just loved him," said Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's "Face the Nation." "When I scooped old Tim, I felt like I'd hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league."

"He was made for Washington because he lived and breathed politics," said Judy Woodruff, a former NBC correspondent now with PBS. "When our son was sick about 10 years ago, he was right there, calling, coming over, bringing him back gifts from trips."

Russert's internist, Michael A. Newman, told MSNBC that an autopsy showed the journalist had an enlarged heart and that cholesterol plaque ruptured an artery, causing coronary thrombosis. He said Russert had been diagnosed earlier with coronary artery disease, but that it was controlled with medication and exercise and Russert had performed well on a stress test in late April.

The thread of Russert's career is laced through recent political history. His whiteboard from Election Night 2000 -- on which, early in the evening, he scribbled "Florida, Florida, Florida" -- became an iconic symbol of the disputed tally. Days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Vice President Cheney chose to appear on "Meet the Press." In late 2006, Sen. Obama used the Russert program to say he was considering a White House run.

Russert moved his father, a former sanitation worker, to a nursing facility last week and had escaped for a brief vacation in Italy with his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, and their son, Luke, before returning to Washington Thursday. Luke Russert, a radio sports commentator, had just graduated from college.

Former anchor Tom Brokaw gave MSNBC viewers the news at 3:40 p.m. "He worked to the point of exhaustion so many weeks," Brokaw said, adding: "This news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice."

Within minutes, all the cable networks were airing nonstop remembrances of Russert, as if a head of state had died, and tributes poured in. Bush called him "an institution," "tough and hardworking," and "as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it."

Obama told reporters he considered Russert "not only a journalist but a friend. There wasn't a better interviewer on television, a more thoughtful analyst about politics. . . . I am grief-stricken with loss." Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, called Russert "the preeminent political journalist of his generation."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company