Bill Monroe, TV journalist and 'Meet the Press' host, dies at 90

Bill Monroe spent nine years in the 1970s and '80s on the talk show.
Bill Monroe spent nine years in the 1970s and '80s on the talk show. (Reni Photos)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 10:21 PM

Bill Monroe, a journalist best known for his nine-year tenure as moderator of the public-affairs talk show "Meet the Press" during the 1970s and '80s, died Feb. 17 at the ManorCare nursing home in Potomac. He was 90 and had complications from hypertension.

Starting on NBC-TV in 1947, "Meet the Press" is one of the longest-running programs in American broadcast history and a staple for many Sunday-morning viewers. Mr. Monroe had long worked for NBC News in Washington and had appeared as a panelist on "Meet the Press" before being tapped in 1975 as its moderator.

He succeeded Lawrence Spivak, the program's co-creator, and was later followed by journalists such as Marvin Kalb, Garrick Utley and Tim Russert, who led the show for 17 years until his death in 2008.

In tone, Mr. Monroe's "Meet the Press" was said to resemble a sedate news conference or congressional hearing - in stark contrast with the high-volume, argumentative talk shows that became increasingly commonplace in the 1980s and beyond.

As moderator, Mr. Monroe led panelists in interviewing public figures from the worlds of economics, politics and international affairs. He was known as a "forceful but fair questioner," according to Time magazine; Newsday television critic Verne Gay called him "highly respected but not highly feared."

The show sometimes broke news under Mr. Monroe, as when President Jimmy Carter announced on the program that the United States would boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

One of the more memorable moments of Mr. Monroe's "Meet the Press" tenure had less to do with policy discussions than with the impromptu comedy of live television.

He was interviewing then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on a satellite broadcast when Begin's earpiece malfunctioned. The prime minister was given a replacement that allowed him to hear producers' behind-the-scenes chatter.

As the interview drew to a close, Begin heard a voice bark a command meant for Mr. Monroe: "Say goodbye." Begin, confused, repeated the statement as if asking a question: "Say goodbye?"

Begin "was a bit annoyed," said Betty Dukert, the program's former executive producer. "Bill laughed about it forever."

In 1981, ABC launched a competing Sunday talk show, "This Week With David Brinkley." Its popularity soon overtook that of "Meet the Press," and the leadership at NBC decided to try a new, two-moderator format.

Mr. Monroe left the program in 1984, and Kalb and Roger Mudd took over as a team.

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