Tim Russert dies at 58

'Meet the Press' host and head of NBC's Washington bureau had earned the respect of colleagues and politicians alike

June 14, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Tim Russert, the hard-charging and fast-talking NBC journalist who was equally respected by politicians and journalists, died of a heart attack on the job yesterday, collapsing in the network's Washington bureau that he so capably led the past decade. Mr. Russert, who also served as host of Meet the Press, the longest-running Sunday-morning public-affairs show on TV, was 58.

The veteran newsman, who was recording voiceovers for Sunday's show when the attack occurred, was pronounced dead at Washington's Sibley Memorial Hospital after resuscitation efforts failed. Mr. Russert was being treated for coronary artery disease but had performed well on a stress test in April, according to Dr. Michael Newman, his physician.

Mr. Russert's death comes amid one of the most dramatic presidential campaigns in recent memory - a campaign made more understandable to millions of Americans by his tireless reporting, informed analysis and tough questioning of politicians and their handlers. Emblematic of the clear thinking and straight talk that the always-enthusiastic Mr. Russert brought to TV and politics is the simple, white wipe-off noteboard that he used on Election Night 2000 to steal the show from a wall of new technology and a sea of cable, Internet and network challengers.

Politicians, journalists and academics stressed the central role Mr. Russert had come to play in American political and media life during the past decade, and they attributed much of the one-time attorney's success to a work ethic shaped in the blue-collar neighborhoods of his beloved hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.

As news of Mr. Russert's death spread, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown ordered flags flown at half-staff, and NBC announced that longtime NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw would host a special edition of Meet the Press remembering Mr. Russert tomorrow morning.

"Tim was the best of our profession. He asked the best questions, and then he listened for the answer. We became very close friends over the years," said Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and host of Face the Nation. "He delighted in scooping me, and I felt the same way when I scooped him. When you slipped one past ol' Russert, you felt as though you had hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league."

Mr. Brokaw called his colleague "the true child of blue-collar Buffalo - who was always in touch with that ethos. ... Tim loved his family, his faith, his country and politics," Mr. Brokaw said.

Mr. Russert's son, Luke, had recently graduated from Boston College, and the family traveled to Italy to celebrate, an event Mr. Russert described as one of the highlights of his life.

"The death of Tim Russert leaves political journalism without its center of gravity," said Rich Hanley, professor of journalism and politics at Quinnipiac University. "In an age where shouting and assertions trump discourse and validation, Russert was the adult in the room who kept the focus on the story, on the things that mattered to Americans. The profession is greatly diminished by his sudden passing."

His on-air analysis May 6, the night of the Indiana primary, was typical of the influence Mr. Russert came to wield in national politics. With only partial results in hand, Mr. Russert correctly characterized Sen. Barack Obama as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The consensus among Washington analysts is that Mr. Russert's words took the wind out of Hillary Clinton's campaign in the same way that Walter Cronkite's 1968 denunciation of the Vietnam War was seen by President Lyndon B. Johnson to have shifted popular opinion against the war.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle praised the brand of journalism practiced by Mr. Russert.

"Tim Russert was a gentleman and giant, not just in politics and journalism, but in life," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said. "And through that life, he gave us all a model worth emulating. With a reasoned voice, a sharp mind and a fair hand, Tim took the measure of every Washington official and all those that sought to be one."

Mr. Obama said yesterday: "There wasn't a better interviewer in TV, not a more thoughtful analyst of our politics, and he was also one of the finest men I knew. Somebody who cared about America, cared about the issues, cared about family."

The presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, said: "Tim Russert was at the top of his profession. He was a man of honesty and integrity. He was hard, but he was always fair."

Mr. Russert's reach extended through much of popular culture. A mention of a book on Meet the Press or his MSNBC show could send it soaring in the sales rankings. And he was always there to help those colleagues he respected.

Former Sun political reporter and columnist Jack Germond recalled yesterday how Mr. Russert helped put him back on the map of TV political coverage after he left The Mc Laughlin Group in the late 1990s.

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