Tim Russert, the dean of Sunday morning television, died Friday while taping voiceovers for Meet the Press, the program he hosted for 17 years. Russert suffered a heart attack during the early afternoon at the NBC bureau he ran in Washington D.C. Veteran NBC anchor Tom Brokaw announced the news shortly before 4 p.m. Eastern time.
Calling Russert "one of the premier political journalists and analysts of his time," Brokaw added: "This news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice."
Brokaw's words were echoed at rival networks. "Tim Russert was a great newsman who helped set the standard for political reporting and public affairs programming," said ABC News President David Westin. "His fine work made all of us better and benefited the nation as a result."
The 58-year-old Russert not only hosted Meet The Press and directed NBC's Washington bureau, he was a network vice president, a fixture in political coverage on both NBC and its corporate cousin MSNBC, and a regular presence on the MSNBC website. (He filed his final piece, a discussion of how Internet rumors are affecting the presdiential race, just hours before his death.)
But he started out not in journalism but politics. After graduating from law school, he worked on the New York campaigns of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo before joining NBC in 1984. "I didn't have any training," he admitted to Canada's National Post in a 2004 interview. "I had never done local television. Most people have rugged jaws; I have these cheeks. And I had never taken voice lessons or coach lessons or any of that kind of thing."
But his political background was his enormous strength as an interviewer. The same skills that made him a sharp political operative — prodigious background research, meticulous attention to detail, and a relentless determination to get the answer he wanted — made him a formidable foe for the politicians who came to Meet the Press expecting to spin things their way. Russert didn't invent the show or its format — Meet the Press, the longest-running program on television, had been around more than four decades before he took over — but he was better at it than anybody who came before him, and probably than anybody who will come after for a long, long time.
Before sitting down with a Meet the Press guest, Russert watched hours of videotape of speeches and other interviews. If the guest had written a book, Russert read it. If the guest had flipped a position, Russert was prepared to make him flop right back. No shouter, Russert was inevitably civil and even friendly to his guests — until the moment he slipped the stiletto into them.
When Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean was blustering on defense issues, Russert casually asked him how big the U.S. armed forces were. Dean didn't know. When independent presidential candidate Ross Perot launched one of his cracker-barrel tirades about cutting the federal budget, Russert made such arithmetical mincemeat of his numbers that Perot stopped giving interviews.
Not that Russert didn't have an occasional yen for the flippant. During a 2002 appearance on Meet he Press, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was dumbfounded when Russert pulled out a copy of National Review and held the cover headline — The Stud: Don Rumsfeld, America's New Pinup — up to the camera. "Sixty-nine years old, and you're America's stud?" he asked. "Come on," sputtered Rumsfeld. "Get on to something serious, Russert."
"On to Enron," replied Russert without batting an eye. "Thanks for the segue."