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Journalist Revitalized Washington Talk Shows

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."

"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.

"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.

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