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Tim Russert | 1950-2008

Political journalist Tim Russert dies at 58

A host of pundits had predicted it for weeks. But somehow, Hillary Rodham Clinton's quest for the Democratic presidential nomination didn't truly seem doomed until May 6, when Tim Russert told the world Barack Obama would win the race.

About 16 years before, Mr. Russert made the same call for Clinton's husband, a scrappy governor from Arkansas. Mr. Russert also correctly called Florida as a battleground state in 2000 and coined the terms "red state" and "blue state" to explain America's ideological divide.

In Washington, Mr. Russert's word was strong — when he spoke, the political establishment listened.

On Friday, that voice was stilled forever when the 58-year-old died after collapsing at NBC News' Washington offices while recording voiceovers for Sunday's edition of Meet the Press. Though paramedics rushed him to Sibley Memorial Hospital, Mr. Russert died of a sudden heart attack.

As the longest-running host of the longest-running program on TV, Mr. Russert stood as television's undisputed king of political news — also serving as an NBC News vice president, the company's Washington bureau chief and host of a self-named CNBC interview program.

But longtime protege and friend Gwen Ifill, now host of PBS's Washington Week, remembered Mr. Russert as the man who insisted she leave the New York Times to become a TV journalist.

"It was a dare … he basically goaded me into trying something new," said Ifill, who worked for Mr. Russert at NBC from 1994 to 1999, when he helped her leave a contract early to take over Washington Week. "From Tim, I learned it was possible to be first and right, thorough and polite. … Tim commanded the field because everybody knew when they came on his show, they would get a fair shake."

Rise at NBC News

Born Timothy John Russert Jr. in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Russert earned a law degree before working on campaigns for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo in New York. By 1984, he was working at NBC News, becoming Washington bureau chief in 1988. In 1991 he took over hosting Meet the Press, a 60-year-old show that stands as TV's longest-running program.

"NBC had a reputation for being a lot less aggressive and sleepier than CBS News years ago, but Tim injected strong competitiveness among all of us," said Connie Chung, who worked as a reporter and anchor at NBC when Mr. Russert joined the network.

Chung noted how his skills as a lawyer and former political operative served his interview style, which compared a politician's past quotes to current statements.

"I think all of us became devotees of Meet the Press, because we knew we were going to get the definitive interview," she said. "He'd put on the screen these words that the interviewee was probably horrified to see in black and white."

The accolades, memories and anecdotes about Mr. Russert's life and work filled cable TV news and network newscasts Friday, as everyone from Barbara Walters and President Bush to presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama issued statements or offered interviews.

NBC scheduled an hourlong tribute in prime time Friday; retired NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw is expected to host Meet the Press on Sunday.

There was talk about Mr. Russert's devotion to his wife, Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, and their son, Luke. And there were also words on his bond with his still-living dad and namesake, known as Big Russ, which inspired his two best-selling books, Big Russ and Me in 2004 and Wisdom of Our Fathers in 2006.

"What we do in television is impermanent … but what is lasting are those books he wrote," said Inside Edition host Deborah Norville, who worked at NBC from 1987 to 1991. "Those books spoke to the essence of what Tim said was important: the lessons he learned from his father."

Indeed, Mr. Russert credited his father for sparking his drive to explain complex political moves simply, especially while reporting on Florida's landmark presidential election recount in 2000.

"I started writing, in bold print on the back of a legal pad, the names of the states that were still being contested," Mr. Russert wrote in Big Russ and Me. "As I added new states and crossed out others, and held up my homemade chart to the camera, I could almost see my dad nodding his head and saying, 'Now I understand.' "

Mr. Russert figured in Florida political history in other ways, moderating a classic 2002 debate between Gov. Jeb Bush and challenger Bill McBride. His insistent questions to McBride proved a turning point in the election.

Florida connection

In a 1994 Russert-led debate between Bush and then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, Chiles touted his experience over his younger challenger by noting "the old he-coon walks just before the light of day." The saying puzzled many observers, but Chiles was called the "he coon" until he died.

Gov. Charlie Crist noted Mr. Russert's importance in a statement: "I respected and admired him for his contributions, not only as a member of the press, but as a son and a father."

When asked in 2000 why TV's biggest political journalist would moderate a debate between Florida Senate candidates Bill Nelson, Bill McCollum and Willie Logan, Mr. Russert gave a reporter's classic answer.

"One of the people involved in this debate is going to be in the U.S. Senate," he said. "Getting to know them now makes it easier to cover them in an effective way later."

Still, while fans fretted over the state of political journalism post-Russert, Ifill felt a different loss: "He was probably the best political journalist I ever met. … But he was also the best friend."

Times files, the Associated Press and Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Tim Russert

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

Experience: Moderator, NBC News' Meet the Press, 1991-2008; with NBC News since 1984; counselor, New York Governor's Office, 1983-84; special counsel, U.S. Senate, 1977-82.

Education: Bachelor's degree, John Carroll University; law degree, Cleveland State University.

Family: Wife, Maureen Orth; son, Luke

Associated Press

Political journalist Tim Russert dies at 58 06/13/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 14, 2008 11:19pm]
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