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Journalist Revitalized Washington Talk Shows
"He was a junkie," said Washington Post writer Sally Quinn, a close friend. "He would say, 'People find stories about the budget boring -- that's crazy.' And then he would talk about the behind-the-scenes fights, the cast of characters, and it was interesting."
NBC News President Steve Capus called Russert's death "a loss for the entire nation. Everyone at NBC News is in shock and absolutely devastated."
Praise also poured in as rival network anchors issued remarks. CBS's Katie Couric, calling Russert "a big teddy bear of a guy" but "a pit bull of an interviewer," said he gave her a big break when she was a local reporter for Washington's WRC-TV. Russert told her that "he admired my work, particularly my coverage of Marion Barry, who was then the mayor of D.C. He liked my 'scrappiness' and asked if I was interested in becoming the deputy Pentagon correspondent." She did.
"No one could see Tim in a room and not smile," said ABC's Diane Sawyer. "He brought so much joy and curiosity and sheer vitality to all our lives."
Jeff Gralnick, an NBC producer, recalled going head to head with Russert one election night when Gralnick was at ABC: "He was brutal to compete against because he was always one step ahead of you. We looked up at the monitor and said, 'The S.O.B. did it to us again.' "
Russert delighted in asking a politician who decried the budget deficit which programs he would cut, or an opponent of foreign aid whether he would cut off aid to Israel.
In a 2004 interview, Russert said he would try to preempt a guest's talking points by incorporating them into his question, "and you take away at least the first time they say it. . . . You instinctively want to lean across the table and choke 'em and say, 'Stop! We've heard it!' "
Former Clinton White House aide Paul Begala recalled on CNN how Russert once "pounded" him during a 1998 interview, but days later sent a note saying, "Brother Paul, we both did our jobs."
Russert's position as a power player was confirmed by his role in the perjury and obstruction trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former top aide. Libby testified that he had learned the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame from Russert, but the newsman, on the witness stand for two days, said they had never discussed it. The jury believed him and convicted Libby.
Russert, a graduate of John Carroll University, put himself through Ohio's Cleveland-Marshall College of Law by booking a Bruce Springsteen concert and winning big in a Buffalo pinochle game. He quickly gravitated to New York politics, becoming chief of staff for then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan at age 29. His penchant for exhaustive research paid off when he slipped to two reporters information that Moynihan's 1982 opponent, former congressman Bruce Caputo, had claimed a military record in Vietnam when he had been a civilian Pentagon employee, forcing Caputo to withdraw from the race.
By the time Russert was working for then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1984, the New Yorker carried a possibly apocryphal quote from presidential candidate Gary Hart -- "Get me a Russert!" -- that fueled the operative's legend.
The following year he changed careers, becoming an assistant to the NBC News president, and soon booked Pope John Paul II for an interview on "Today." Russert took over the Washington bureau in 1988, and became a "Today" commentator almost by accident, when NBC executives, amused by his political banter during daily conference calls, decided to put him on the air.