The Many Gifts of Tim Russert

Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief for NBC News and moderator of the top political talk show "Meet the Press," died suddenly on Friday at the NBC studios in Washington. Russert was 58. He is survived by his son Luke and wife Maureen Orth.
By David S. Broder
Saturday, June 14, 2008

When Tim Russert took over "Meet the Press" in 1991, he was already well known to political reporters as the shrewd, inventive and very funny flack for Pat Moynihan and Mario Cuomo -- a spokesman almost as quotable as those two marvelously gifted speakers.

We didn't know what kind of a journalist Tim would be -- or even whether he was serious about being one. It didn't take long to figure out that he would be one of the best -- and most fearless -- in the business.

When "Meet the Press" went to Texas in 1992 to interview Ross Perot, the wealthy businessman-turned-independent presidential candidate took strong offense to Russert's aggressive questions and threatened to walk out halfway through. Tim stared him down, and the interview ran its full course.

Sitting next to Tim many Sunday mornings on the NBC set, I had a close-up view of his mind at work -- testing, probing, moving on. His questioning was completely efficient but never officious. Both the viewers and the guests could tell he really liked the newsmakers he was interviewing.

I am generally a skeptic when it comes to the many people who jump from the political world into television or punditry. I almost always suspect some of them are just waiting to move back. But Tim was clearly smitten with his new world. He loved his NBC buddies, and he bragged on them. He loved talking to that big audience, sharing and showing off his political smarts.

He never would have left journalism. Nothing else gave him that kind of charge. But as soon as the camera lights went off at 10 a.m. on Sunday, he relaxed. Ali, the NBC butler, brought out the platters of shrimp and glasses of juice, and the reporters who had been on the roundtable (and sometimes the last interviewee) would join Tim and executive producer Betsy Fischer for a lengthy exchange of political gossip. When a birthday or anniversary was imminent, there would be cake. And at Christmas, a brass ensemble would play carols.

What the television audience did not know was how generous Tim was in his personal relationships. Family came first, but he took the time for friendships, and he nourished them. That is why his death yesterday leaves such a large void in this community.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company