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Journalist Revitalized Washington Talk Shows
"Meet the Press" was languishing when Russert took it over in 1991. But he expanded the program to an hour, grabbed the ratings lead a decade ago and never relinquished it.
Russert won an Emmy in 2005 for his role in the coverage of Ronald Reagan's funeral, and this year Time magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential people.
Russert became so valuable to NBC -- "Meet the Press" is said to have annual profits of $50 million -- that executives signed him to an extraordinary 11-year contract that was to expire in 2012. Industry insiders estimate he was earning more than $5 million a year.
Despite his eventual wealth and house on Nantucket, Russert never seemed to forget the summers he spent emptying pails of spoiled food into a garbage truck. His patter was filled with average-Joe lingo and constant references to his beloved the Buffalo Bills. Russert viewed himself as a translator who made politics accessible to the average voter.
Russert wrote two best-selling books, "Big Russ & Me" and "Wisdom of Our Fathers," which brought fame to his working-class dad and enshrined Russert's reputation as a man of modest western New York roots.
At times he could be a lightning rod. Russert moderated a 2000 Senate debate between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, and drew criticism for pressing the then-first lady about her trustworthiness after she had blamed charges about her husband's infidelity on their political opponents.
While politicians in both parties praised Russert as a fair-minded inquisitor, some liberal critics complained that he reserved his toughest questions for Democrats.
Russert always gleaned the latest political intelligence, but he could be wrong on occasion. Asked about presidential candidate Howard Dean on "Today" on Jan. 6, 2004, Russert said: "Right now something would have to interfere with Howard Dean's movement towards the nomination. He clearly is on his way to it unless something untoward happens." Dean's White House campaign collapsed weeks later.
On Election Night 2006, NBC gave Russert an electronic version of the whiteboard he had made famous, but he became frustrated at its complexity and decided to stick with pen and paper.
Russert was ubiquitous during the primaries. "Nobody enjoyed covering 2008 more than Tim," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "How many times did I hear him say, 'It doesn't get any better than this.' "
CNBC's John Harwood said he and journalist Gerald Seib taped an appearance yesterday morning on Russert's MSNBC talk show, and that as they left, "Jerry observed that he didn't think Tim felt well."
One of the last people to see Russert alive was Michael Hart, a Comcast technician from Waldorf, who struck up a friendship and said the newsman delighted in getting Washington Wizards tickets for Hart's six children. Hart said they were laughing and joking as he set up cable service for Russert's son in a Georgetown apartment.
As they rode down in the elevator, Hart said, "we talked about the upcoming campaign. He said, 'Thank you for looking out for my family. Happy Father's Day.' He put both his hands on mine and I gave him a hug."
Staff writers Lois Romano and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.