In Depth

'Meet the Press' Bids Russert Farewell

A long, nationally televised wake for Tim Russert concluded Sunday morning with a poignantly joyful commemorative edition of “Meet the Press,” the top-rated political forum he moderated for 17 years.

Mr. Russert had been preparing for Sunday’s show on Friday afternoon when he collapsed and died of a heart attack at the NBC News Washington, D.C. bureau, where he had been chief since 1991.

Former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw, who had the sad task of announcing Mr. Russert’s death Friday on MSNBC, steered the conversation Sunday morning on “Meet the Press.”

The program opened with the camera trained on Mr. Russert’s empty chair, a chair from which he had conducted hundreds of agenda-setting interviews over the course of becoming the longest-sitting moderator of the longest-running show on television.

Mr. Brokaw’s presence over the course of an emotional weekend lent a grace note of calm, and viewers could actually say “thanks for the memories” that Mr. Brokaw helped draw out of his guests.

With him Sunday: political-opposite husband and wife James Carville and Mary Matalin; MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle; “Meet the Press” executive producer Betsy Fischer, who had been an intern when Mr. Russert joined the show; historian Doris Kerns Goodwin; Gwen Ifill, the former NBC News correspondent who remained an occasional guest on the “Press” roundtable segments; and NBC News correspondent turned first lady of California Maria Shriver, via satellite from Sun Valley, Idaho.

At the outset, Mr. Brokaw spoke of the wooden board in Mr. Russert’s office that read: “Thou shall not whine.”

Sunday, Mr. Brokaw added, “Thou shall not weep.”

He all but ran afoul of his own edict at the end of the hour when he choked up as he talked about Mr. Russert’s working-class roots and his often-voiced believe that America was the greatest country in the world.

But by then there had been a lot of smiles as the long-time friends of Mr. Russert covered familiar ground with welcome new stories. There had even had been a few laughs, the loudest when the conversation turned to the fact that while Mr. Russert was well-known as a good and constant friend to many, he also was sometimes moved never to forgive or forget.

“He could see from a hundred yards away a small critical comment made about him in some newspaper or some magazine, and he had that strong Irish gene. Never forgive, never forget,” Mr. Brokaw said.

“He wasn’t thin-skinned,” Mr. Barnicle said.

“Then how would you describe it?” Mr. Brokaw asked.

“He was observant. He was very aware of everything,” Mr. Barnicle said. “Tim had a pen and a piece of paper and he took names, and numbers, and eventually … that number would come up in the Rolodex or in the gun sight and then ‘boom.’ ”

Ms. Ifill, now moderator and managing editor of public broadcasting’s “Washington Week,” recalled first turning down an invitation to appear last year on “Meet the Press” the day that the hour was to be devoted to a discussion of issues raised by Don Imus’ cavalier racial slur about the Rutgers women’s basketball team.

Mr. Russert had been a regular on Mr. Imus show that was simulcast on MSNBC and radio until the radio man lost both.

“I don’t know that’s a good idea because what I have to say, Tim might not like,” Ms. Ifill said then to Ms. Fischer. “Then Tim called and said, No, no. You need to come and say what it is you believe. And he allowed me to come into his ‘house’ and do this.”

A clip from that show reminded viewers that Ms. Ifill had said then that “there has been radio silence from a lot of people who’ve done this program, who could have spoken up and said ‘I find this offensive’ or ‘I didn’t know.’ These people didn’t speak up, Tim. We didn’t hear that much from you.”

There were tales told of Mr. Russert’s “beyond shameless” boosterism for the sports teams he and his father “Big Russ” cheered from his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., and his adopted hometown of Boston, where Luke, the adored son of Mr. Russert and Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, had recently finished college.

There was a mention that Bruce Springsteen, of whom Mr. Russert was a joyous long-time fan, had dedicated “Thunder Road” to him at a European concert Saturday.

There were clips of Mr. Russert asking politicians whether they were running for president – “Meet the Press” and Mr. Russert’s carefully researched questions were known as “the Russert primary.”

“This was where you separated the men from the boys,” Ms. Matalin said.

After the lone commercial break Sunday morning, talk turned to how Mr. Russert proudly introduced Sister Lucille, one of the pivotal teachers of his Catholic schooling and kept up with the people who were important to him. Mr. Brokaw’s mother, who gave Mr. Russert’s book in a place of honor atop her TV set, was always “Grandma Jean.”

“There were no strangers in Tim’s life,” Mr. Barnicle said.

Mr. Russert will never be better remembered than he was Sunday morning on the show that will never have a better moderator.

The last frame of “Meet the Press” listed his favorite charities as Catholic Charities USA and the Boys & Girls Club of America.

For TVWeek's full coverage on Mr. Russert, including news and memorials,click here.

(Editor: Baumann)