NBC News' Tim Russert Dead at 58
First there was a gasp of disbelief, then grief spread across the country Friday afternoon at the news that Tim Russert, moderator of “Meet the Press,” had collapsed and died of a heart attack at the NBC News Washington bureau he had run for 20 years.
“Tim was our friend, our leader, our cheerleader, our teacher, my mentor,” red-eyed correspondent Andrea Mitchell said on MSNBC, as the NBC Universal-owned cable channel began coverage of the loss “Nightly News” anchor Brian Wil¬liams described from Afghanistan as “unfathomable.”
Mr. Russert, a political junkie and former political aide who truly knew Washington, D.C., from the inside out, had relished every twist and turn of the just-concluded long presidential primary season.
He had just returned from a trip to Italy. Writer wife Maureen Orth and their son, Luke, had remained in Italy but were scheduled to fly home Friday.
Mr. Russert, who was 58, was as well-known as an Irish Catholic family man as he was for his love of and knowledge of all things political and his dogged questioning of people in power. He had written two bestsellers, “Big Russ and Me” in 2004 and “Wisdom of Our Fathers” in 2006. Both were inspired by his father, who lives in Buffalo, N.Y., and was oft-mentioned on the air by Mr. Russert.
Former “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw said soberly on MSNBC after breaking the news to viewers: “I think I can invoke personal privilege to say that this news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice. He’ll be missed as he was loved: greatly.”
Mr. Russert had been a special counsel in the U.S. Senate to Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., from 1977-82 before going to work for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in the early ’80s.
But Ms. Mitchell credited Mr. Russert’s Jesuit schooling for teaching him how to ask the questions that “average people would want to know and also ask the questions that would stump the political figures.”
He and petite “Meet the Press” executive producer Betsy Fischer were known for their prodigious research in preparation for guests.
Ms. Mitchell, who had worked with Mr. Russert throughout his NBC News career, said of his probing questions that he wasn’t after “a gotcha moment,” but “what people needed to know about their political leaders.”
He began his NBC News career in New York in 1984, with duties that included the “Today” show. He was in charge of the live broadcasts of “Today” from Rome in 1985, where he arranged an appearance by Pope John Paul II, a first for American television.
Mr. Russert became as much an institution in Washington as “Meet the Press,” which is not only the longest-running program on television but has dominated the Sunday morning political and public affairs programming in the decade since David Brinkley relinquished his post on ABC’s “This Week” in 1997.
“He had great clarity and vision. He was like a quarterback who could see the whole field,” Mr. Brokaw said, adding that Mr. Russert kept his political opinions to himself.
Jeff Zucker, the former “Today” executive producer who became president and CEO of NBC Universal, had worked shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Russert in the news division. “We have lost a beloved member of our NBC Universal family and the news world has lost one of its finest,” he said. “The enormity of this loss cannot be overstated.”
As word spread about Mr. Russert’s death, mournful statements and recollections and prayers for his family poured in from people who had worked with him and competed against him.
“Tim was the best of our profession. He asked the best questions and then he listened for the answer,” Bob Schieffer, moderator of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said in a statement. “We became very close friends over the years. 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. I just loved Tim and I will miss him more than I can say.”
George Stephanopoulos, moderator of ABC’s “This Week,” said in a statement: “Tim loved everything about politics and journalism—because he believed in it. Every day he brought Washington home to his viewers and made all of us better.”
Cokie Roberts, who had co-hosted “This Week” with Sam Donaldson in between Mr. Brinkley and Mr. Stephanopoulos, said in her statement: “Tim Russert was a great competitor and a good friend. I am obviously shocked and dismayed by this news and extend my thoughts and prayers to his son, Luke—he was so proud of you—to his wife, Maureen, and to the rest of his family, especially his beloved father. Tim and I worked together on Catholic causes, and I will greatly miss him.”
Jim Griffin, the William Morris agent who had negotiated deals with Mr. Russert since his first days at NBC News, called him “probably the finest news executive I ever worked with.”
“Tim’s passing is a loss not only to his family and many friends, it is a loss to good journalism and to our country,” said Dan Rather, the former “CBS Evening News” anchor who now hosts a news program for HDNet, in a statement. “Tim had become an important part of our political process. He will be especially missed in this historic presidential election year.
“Tim Russert was a beacon of quality journalism. As an interviewer, he had few, if any, peers.”
(Editor: Baumann. Updated throughout at 6:45 p.m. West Coast.)