By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008
An extraordinary outpouring of tributes to Tim Russert continued nonstop yesterday as ordinary people left flowers and notes at NBC's Washington bureau, the presidential candidates praised his fairness and his network planned a special edition of "Meet the Press" for this morning.
The moderator's chair, filled by Russert since Dec. 8, 1991, will be left empty to honor the 58-year-old political analyst who died of a heart attack Friday.
"We hope to do him proud," Betsy Fischer, Russert's longtime executive producer, said yesterday. "What I really want to get across is what Tim did for 'Meet the Press' -- where he took the show and how much it meant to him." She said she was touched by the fact that former staffers have been showing up to help, including a producer who flew in from California.
Tom Brokaw, the network's former anchor, will lead a discussion with such friends as commentator Mike Barnicle, political strategists James Carville and Mary Matalin, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, PBS's Gwen Ifill and Maria Shriver, California's first lady.
More than 13,000 messages were sent to the network's Web site yesterday ( Russert.Condolences@nbcuni.com). Others posted their thoughts on Facebook pages.
A memorial service will be held in Washington this week, but no details have been released. Buffalo, Russert's beloved home town, plans a candlelight vigil in a park named for the man who became NBC's Washington bureau chief.
On a special edition of "Today," Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said yesterday that in an interview before he spoke at the party's 2004 convention, Russert "suddenly pulls out a quote from a Cleveland Plain Dealer article that I had completely forgotten about" and tripped him up. "And it showed me he had the best research on television, but we also talked football afterwards. . . . He was never mean-spirited about it. You know, he would hold you accountable, but you always had a sense that he was fair, that he wasn't trying to make himself more important in the process."
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, who appeared on the show 52 times, said: "He was always fair. He was always tough. He always would send a little trepidation through me when I would see a quote thrown up on the screen, because he always did his homework."
Vice President Cheney said Russert "was never into 'gotcha' journalism. He'd ask you tough questions. He'd remind you of quotes you'd made previously in other settings or on earlier shows, so you never got away with anything going up vis-a-vis Tim, but the main thing was it wasn't just politics. It was substance."
Russert was a wealthy Washington pundit who touched a nerve among viewers, perhaps because he wrote a book about his father, "Big Russ," and talked about his blue-collar roots in Buffalo. That connection was highlighted by an impromptu shrine that took shape in front of NBC's Washington bureau on Nebraska Avenue NW.
Dozens of store-bought bouquets, candles, handwritten notes and a Buffalo Bills banner were piled near the studio entrance in tribute to a broadcaster who had become as familiar as family in many households.
"Dearest Tim, How can we have an election without you?" read one message, scrawled on the kind of whiteboard that Russert made famous with his on-the-fly election night analysis.
"God and politics, what a Sunday roundtable that will be," read another.
Courtenay Dunn was in tears as she viewed the sidewalk tributes. "It's amazing that it feels like losing a friend," said Dunn, a federal employee who said "Meet the Press" was among her favorite shows.
"I've been preoccupied with it ever since I heard. I think he must be the preeminent journalist of our time, as political commentator," Dunn said.
Russert was a board member for 13 years of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, which said yesterday that he had given or directed millions of dollars to the organization, without fanfare.
Fischer, who was with Russert when he collapsed at the bureau Friday, said he was about to record the words "Our issues this Sunday -- ." She accompanied him in an ambulance but said she knew before they reached Sibley Memorial Hospital that he wasn't going to make it.
"It was very quick," Fischer said. "It was pretty instantaneous. We couldn't get him back."
Staff writer Steve Hendrix contributed to this report.