Brokaw Steps In for Russert

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008

Tom Brokaw said yesterday he hopes to maintain "Meet the Press" as "the center of gravity" for political debate after agreeing to step in for the late Tim Russert through the presidential election.

"I'm hoping I'll be able to hold it to the high level Tim took it to and keep it in place for whoever is going to be the next host of 'Meet the Press,' " Brokaw said from his Montana ranch.

Brokaw, 68, who was NBC's evening news anchor for more than two decades, told news division president Steve Capus he would increase his role at the network as they shared a beer on the Amtrak ride back to New York after Russert's memorial service here Wednesday. No specifics were discussed--"we were emotionally drained," Capus said--until Brokaw called over the weekend and volunteered to moderate the top-rated Sunday talk show.

"Look, I've been around a long time," said Brokaw, who relinquished the anchor chair in 2004. "Steve needed some breathing space. Tim and I were in constant touch about 'Meet the Press' and who the guests were going to be. He elevated it, obviously, to a very high position. I was very proud of him."

NBC staffers have been grieving since Russert, the Washington bureau chief, died of a heart attack 10 days ago. But Capus also faced the dilemma of choosing a successor for the money-making program, most likely from a field of NBC correspondents such as David Gregory or MSNBC hosts such as Chris Matthews. Russert's 17-year tenure was defined by his aggressive interrogations and made "Meet the Press" the premier platform for politicians looking to prove their mettle.

"Anybody who goes in there is going to be judged against Tim, which is unfair," Capus said. "The only one who wouldn't be is Tom. This is a real comfort to the entire news division. It eases some of the burden of trying to figure out a long-term solution."

Given the intensity of the 2008 campaign, he said, "this is the most important time for us to have some stability there." Anchor Brian Williams substituted yesterday.

Brokaw's first appearance on "Meet the Press" was on Oct. 21, 1973, the morning after President Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor and the two top Justice Department officials resigned. Brokaw, then a White House correspondent, recalled moderator Lawrence Spivak telling him, "You're our leadoff questioner. It's very important to get it off to a fast start." Brokaw would not reveal his first question -- asking Nixon aide Melvin Laird why the president shouldn't resign or be impeached -- to preserve the spontaneity.

"Everyone brings a different style to it," Brokaw said. "The fundamental tenet of 'Meet the Press' is to hold people accountable for what they have said and kick-start the political dialogue for the next week. That was Tim's mission, and it will be my mission as well." He said he would commute to Washington on the weekends but also take the show on the road.

Brokaw teared up while moderating an hour-long tribute to Russert on the program a week ago. He said yesterday that he "didn't leap" at the opportunity because he had to work out some scheduling issues and first wanted to get through the difficult week of Russert's funeral. Brokaw has been serving as a part-time correspondent and commentator for NBC, as well as making documentaries.

Asked whether he might wind up liking the moderator's job well enough to keep it, Brokaw said: "That's a Tim question: 'Are you running? Are you interested in running?' "

Brokaw insisted he is not: "My job is to get us to the election and let Steve make a decision. I'm very happy to hand this off to the next generation of NBC News personnel."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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