- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tim Russert, the unflappable moderator of TV’s “Meet the Press” whose exhaustively researched queries made many a politician sweat and kept Washington’s elite tuned in Sunday mornings, died Friday of a heart attack.

Mr. Russert, 58, fell ill while preparing for Sunday’s show at NBC’s Washington offices in Northwest. Emergency workers attempted rescuscitation and rushed him to Sibley Hospital nearby, where he was pronounced dead.

The son of a World War II veteran is survived by his wife, Maureen Orth, a journalist for Vanity Fair magazine, and a son, Luke. Besides his political-interviewing skills, widely praised Friday as the best in the business, he was beloved for his zest for family, faith and sports.

On Thursday evening, Mr. Russert had returned home early from a vacation with his wife and son in Rome, where they had been celebrating Luke’s graduation from Boston College. Mr. Russert’s father, Tim, known as “Big Russ,” also survives him.

His death came just two days before Father’s Day, which colleagues said only made his death more tragic and poignant, because he was as well-known for writing a best-selling book about his dad and fatherhood, “Big Russ and Me,” as he was for his political journalism. Some of the tens of thousands of letters people wrote to him about their own fathers in response became his second best-seller “Wisdom of Our Fathers.”

“I don’t know of anybody who has made people appreciate their fathers or their relationship with their sons more than Tim,” said Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director.

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Mr. Russert was also described as the “father figure” of NBC’s Washington bureau, where he played an executive role as bureau chief in addition to hosting “Meet the Press” and a weekly interview show on MSNBC.

“Our hearts are breaking,” said Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s chief foreign-affairs correspondent who often appeared emotional during the hours of coverage NBC devoted to the unexpected death.

MSNBC cited Mr. Russert’s doctor as saying that cholesterol plaque had ruptured in an artery, causing the sudden heart attack. According to Dr. Michael Newman, Mr. Russert had been diagnosed with a heart-artery disease, but there were no symptoms and the disease was well-controlled with medication and exercise. An autopsy also revealed an enlarged heart, Dr. Newman said.

President Bush, at a Paris dinner hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was informed by aides minutes before the news became public in the U.S.

Mr. Bush was “shocked and saddened,” a spokeswoman said, and the president issued a statement less than an hour later.

“As the longest-serving host of the longest-running program in the history of television, he was an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades. Tim was a tough and hardworking newsman,” Mr. Bush said. “Most important, Tim was a proud son and father.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who is recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor, paid tribute to Mr. Russert.

“Tim Russert was a gentleman and giant, not just in politics and journalism, but in life. And through that life, he gave us all a model worth emulating,” Mr. Kennedy said in a statement released by his Senate office. “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. He was a great journalist and an even better friend.”

Mr. Russert, after obtaining a law degree from Cleveland State University, went to work on Capitol Hill. He joined Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1976 campaign and became a top aide to the New York Democrat over the next six years. In 1982, he worked to help elect Democrat Mario Cuomo governor of New York.

In 1984, he went to NBC News, and in 1991 was named host of “Meet the Press,” which is currently in its 60th year and the longest-running show in TV history.

Mr. Russert’s show had become regarded as the premiere hour on Sunday morning’s talk shows, and Mr. Russert himself was revered by journalists and feared by politicians for his exhaustively researched questions.

“It became the gold standard of … any kind of broadcast journalism,” Mrs. Mitchell said.

Bob Schieffer, who was host on CBS’ rival show, “Face the Nation,” said that “when you slipped one past ol’ Russert, you felt as though you had hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league. I just loved Tim and I will miss him more than I can say.”

His favorite tactic was to find quotes in the public record, read it aloud to politicians or public figures, and press them on any inconsistencies or contradictions.

“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,” said Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who said he was “grief-stricken” by Mr. Russert’s death.

“Joining Tim on ‘Meet the Press’ was one of the greatest tests any public official could face,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

A native son of Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Russert was a passionate sports fan, usually mentioning the Buffalo Bills at the end of “Meet the Press” during football season and holding season tickets to baseball’s Washington Nationals and basketball’s Washington Wizards.

He was also known for his devout Catholic faith - “Big Russ and Me” chronicled his boyhood in a mostly Irish working-class neighborhood and his Jesuit education at Canisius High School. In 1985, he helped arrange the first American TV interview of Pope John Paul II.

“There are a lot of people, when you taste success, you can forget the old things like your faith … and the love of God that filled you up at one time. He wasn’t like that,” said former Reagan administration speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

His religion, said Newsweek Washington correspondent Howard Fineman, “kept him grounded in this city where too many people pursue false gods.”

Mr. Todd, who collaborated closely with Mr. Russert since joining NBC in 2007, said his mentor’s relationship with his son, Luke, always came before work.

“If you’re in his office, and Luke calls, everything drops, everything drops,” Mr. Todd said.

Mr. Russert’s death began to trickle out in e-mails to reporters just before 3:30 p.m., and at 3:39 p.m., NBC’s Tom Brokaw, the former host of the nightly news broadcast, appeared on air and announced Mr. Russert’s death.

“This news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice,” Mr. Brokaw said. Mr. Brokaw will play host for Sunday’s “Meet the Press” episode, which will be dedicated to Mr. Russert.

The mayor of Buffalo ordered all flags in Mr. Russert’s hometown to be flown at half-staff, and statements commemorating the journalist and family man rolled in from all corners of the political spectrum.

He was “the pre-eminent political journalist of his generation,” said Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, called him “an American institution and the Explainer in Chief of our political life.”

His death is “an enormous loss for American journalism and for the civil, yet direct, discourse that is so important to our democracy,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Rahm Emmanuel of Illinois.

“Even though he had reached the professional pinnacle of the political news world, you always knew and he always knew that he was just a kid from Buffalo, and he never forgot it,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger labeled him “an American icon in the world of political journalism.” And Maria Shriver, Mr. Schwarzenegger’s wife and a former NBC reporter, paid personal tribute to Mr. Russert.

“Tim Russert was one of my closest friends, and he was like a brother to me,” Mrs. Shriver said. “My heart goes out to his son Luke, his wife Maureen, his father, sister and entire family. They were his joy in life. Family and faith were everything to him.”

“Tim Russert understood and loved politics and respected politicians — that separated him from many who write and study political decision-making. He never lost his enthusiasm for the art and craft of politics — he never became cynical. He was sui generis — one of a kind,” said Donna E. Shalala, University of Miami president and former Health and Human Services secretary.

“Tim was a true patriot and his loss is going to be a big void in the news gathering of the federal government. He was an outstanding person, fun to be around and extremely knowledgeable about modern-day events. It’s a terrible loss,” said Tommy G. Thompson, former Health and Human Services secretary, now a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, an independent senior adviser at Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

— Donald Lambro, Cheryl Wetzstein, Sean Lengell, Amy Fagan, Ralph Z. Hallow, Joseph Curl and Gary Emerling contributed to this report.


Moderator, NBC’s “Meet the Press”

BORN: May 7, 1950, in Buffalo, N.Y.

EXPERIENCE: Moderator, NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” 1991-2008; Washington bureau chief, NBC News, 1988-2008; reporter, NBC News, 1984-88; counselor, New York governor’s office in Albany, N.Y., 1983-84; special counsel, U.S. Senate, 1977-82.

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree, John Carroll University, 1972; law degree, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, 1976.

FAMILY: Wife, Maureen Orth; son, Luke.

OTHER: In 2005, he was awarded an Emmy for his role in the coverage of the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Russert’s two books - “Big Russ and Me” in 2004, which focused on his relationship with his father, and “Wisdom of Our Fathers” in 2006 - were New York Times No. 1 best-sellers.

QUOTE: “I know what the conservatives think, what the liberals think, what the Democrats think, what the Republicans think and I try to master both sides of an issue to a point where I’m totally confused as to what I think.” - Mr. Russert, in a 2004 interview with CNN.

Sources: Associated Press and Reuters news agency

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