Tim Russert dies at 58

The Baltimore Sun

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.

"The first call I had was from Tim to be on Meet the Press the next Sunday," Germond said. "And when my first book came out, the first call I had was to come on the program. My book went up to 26 on the Amazon list in about three hours."

Indicative of how hard Mr. Russert worked and how he sometimes seemed to be everywhere in the media, yesterday morning he appeared on Baltimore's WBAL radio station talking politics to promote Sunday's Meet the Press. Along with his expertise and enterprise, such city-by-city efforts played a key role in driving Meet the Press to the top in ratings.

Born Timothy John Russert Jr. in Buffalo on May 7, 1950, he graduated from Canisius High School and John Carroll University - both Jesuit intuitions. Later in life, Mr. Russert often credited the Jesuits with shaping and sharpening his intellect.

He went on to earn a law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and was a member of the bar in New York and Washington, D.C.

NBC anchorman Brian Williams cited that training in the law yesterday as a key to Mr. Russert's finely honed style of interviewing.

After graduating from law school, Mr. Russert went into New York state and national politics. He started in 1976 by working on the Senate campaign of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1982, he served as an adviser to Mario Cuomo in his run for governor.

Mr. Russert joined NBC News as a vice president in 1984 and became host of Meet the Press in 1991. The show was then in third place among the three network Sunday morning programs in popularity. In recent years, driven by his aggressive questioning of guests and stellar critique of the political landscape, the show has become the most popular public affairs program on Sunday morning TV.

In addition to serving as host of Meet the Press and as NBC's Washington bureau chief, Mr. Russert also held the title of senior vice president for news at the time of his death.

Another sense of the place Mr. Russert held in American media life was the way in which the 24/7 cable channels kicked into overdrive on the news of his death, with national leaders and the cream of the Washington press corps lining up to celebrate Mr. Russert's life and career.

On CNN, former Clinton White House aide James Carville, a friend of the journalist, recounted how Mr. Russert had been back to Buffalo this week to help move his father, a retired city worker known as Big Russ, to an extended-care facility. (Big Russ and Me was Mr. Russert's best-seller about his relationship with his father in lunch-bucket Buffalo.) "He said it was the hardest day he ever had," Mr. Carville said. NBC and MSNBC colleagues spoke of Mr. Russert's core Catholic beliefs and ability to inspire.

Some analysts wondered what effect Mr. Russert's death would have on the political coverage at NBC and MSNBC during one of the most contested presidential elections in recent history.

As at rivals CNN and Fox News, MSNBC's ratings have been much higher during the presidential primary season.

While the tight race between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama is given much of the credit for engaging the electorate and leading to higher ratings for all the cable channels, Mr. Russert's informed presence played a major role in the success of MSNBC.

Mr. Russert is survived by his wife, journalist Maureen Orth, and their son.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Paul West and David Nitkin contributed to this article.

TIM RUSSERT TIMELINE

1950: Born in Buffalo, N.Y.

1972: Graduates from John Carroll University with a political science degree.

1976: Earns a law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University.

1977: Joins the staff of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

1982: Becomes special counselor to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

1984: Joins NBC News as vice president.

1988: Is named Washington bureau chief for NBC News.

1991: Takes over as host of NBC's Meet the Press.

2004: Publishes Big Russ and Me, his memoir of growing up with his hard-working and beloved father in Buffalo.

2004: Wins an Emmy for his role in the coverage of President Ronald Reagan's funeral.

Online

Find a photo gallery and a link to WBAL Radio's last interview with Tim Russert at baltimoresun.com/russert.

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