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Tim Russert, 'Meet the Press' moderator, dies at 58

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, a powerhouse of broadcast journalism who made interviewing both an art form and a contact sport on NBC's "Meet the Press,'' died today at age 58 of a heart attack after collapsing at the network's Washington bureau.

Russert's death reverberated through the worlds of journalism and politics, two arenas where his passion matched his expertise. His preparation and tenacity on "Meet the Press'' made that show must-viewing inside the Beltway and beyond, and "the Russert Primary'' was considered a test that presidential candidates had to pass to be considered serious contenders.

Yet however rugged the exchanges, Russert invariably ended with the same gentlemanly refrain: "Thank you for sharing your views.'' Paradoxical though it seemed, Russert was both feared and liked in Washington, where he was NBC's bureau chief. That was reflected in the bipartisan tributes that poured forth today after Russert's death.

President Bush called Russert a "tough and hardworking newsman,'' who was "as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it.'' Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain called Russert "the preeminent political journalist of his generation'' and "a terrific guy,'' while presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama called Russert "irreplaceable'' and "one of the finest men I knew.''

Former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton, whose supporters often took issue with Russert's treatment of both, said in a joint statement: "Tim had a love of public service and a dedication to journalism that rightfully earned him the respect and admiration of not only his colleagues but also those of us who had the privilege to go toe to toe with him.'' Senator Edward M. Kennedy alluded to the high stakes a go-round with Russert: could have for a political career: "With a reasoned voice, a sharp mind, and a fair hand, Tim took the measure of every Washington official and those that sought to be one.''

According to NBC, Russert was recording voiceovers for Sunday's broadcast of "Meet the Press'' when he collapsed. NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust said in an e-mail tonight that Russert died of a "sudden heart attack."

Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw announced the news on the air shortly after 3:30 p.m. Brokaw said Russert had just returned from a trip to Italy with his wife, Maureen Orth, and son, Luke, to celebrate Luke's recent graduation from Boston College.

Russert was a ubiquitous figure on television; the sight of him puzzling out the 2000 election on a whiteboard remains an indelible image of that tumultuous contest. His labors on behalf of NBC were no less prodigious in the current presidential campaign. On the day of a typical primary, a viewer could see and hear Russert just after 7 a.m. on NBC's "Today'' show, all through the night on MSNBC, sometimes till after midnight, and there he would be at 7 a.m. the next morning on "Today'' again. "He worked to the point of exhaustion so many weeks,'' Brokaw said.

Former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle _ a longtime friend of Russert's whose 15-year-old son, Tim, is named after the newsman _ happened to be in the NBC bureau today because he had been asked to guest-host MSBNC's "Hardball.'' He stopped in for a visit with Russert, after which he went to another office to prepare for "Hardball.'' Suddenly an intern rushed in with the news that Russert had collapsed and was being taken to the hospital.

"Tim was uniquely without a mean bone in his body,'' Barnicle said Friday night. "He had a joy about him that was nearly unmatched. At the end of the day or the end of the week, there was a part of him that would pinch himself: 'Can you believe I'm allowed to do this show?' ''

Russert was the author of two best-selling books, "Big Russ'' and "The Wisdom of our Fathers,'' both written in collaboration with William Novak of Newton. Novak said Russert was easygoing and jovial off the air, though the newsman once jokingly adopted his aggressive on-air demeanor to grill Novak's young son, Lev, about whether he had a girlfriend.

Russert attended his son's graduation from Boston College in May. On that day, recalled BC spokesman Jack Dunn today, a TV reporter asked whether Russert was willing to comment on the news that Senator Edward M. Kennedy had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Russert politely demurred, saying: "Today I just want to be a dad.''

Russert was shaped by his own father, known as "Big Russ,'' and by his childhood in Buffalo. The city remained his emotional touchstone for his entire life. "He's better able than anybody I know to live in two worlds,'' former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw told the Globe in 1997. "He has a house in a tony neighborhood in Washington, and his heart's in Buffalo.'' Byron Brown, the mayor of Buffalo, today ordered all flags at city buildings to lowered to half-staff in Russert's honor.

Russert began his career in politics, working for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Governor Mario Cuomo, before being hired by NBC News in 1984. When he was named host of "Meet the Press'' in 1991, Russert called the show's founder, Lawrence E. Spivak, then 91, and asked for advice. Spivak replied: "It's simple. Learn as much as you can about your guests' positions on the issues, and then take the other side. If you do that faithfully every Sunday, you'll always have balance.''

Many guests squirmed on "Meet the Press'' when Russert confronted them with a contradiction between what they had just told them and what they had said in the past. He was no less relentless in debates. In 2002, Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O'Brien suffered political damage when Russert, moderating a debate between O'Brien and Republican Mitt Romney, asked about her support for lowering the age of consent for abortion from 18 to 16. Russert pointed out that a 16-year-old could not legally get a tattoo in Masschusetts, to which O'Brien responded: "Would you like to see my tattoo?''

Afterwards, one of O'Brien's crestfallen supporters said that a candidate should not "lose a debate to the moderator.'' Yet candidates and spinmeisters alike often did seem to lose to Russert _ a fact that irked some politicians and their supporters, who accused him of being too aggressive. During the current presidential campaign, that accusation was leveled at Russert by supporters of Hillary Clinton, especially after a debate between Clinton and Obama in Cleveland in February.

To Thomas Patterson, a professor of government and the press at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Russert's contribution was "in an age of changing journalism, to stick with the old style, in a sense, with the old substantive content.'' Noting that during Russert's tenure "Meet the Press'' was the only Sunday morning interview show that consistently made news, Patterson said it was "as close as journalists in these days had to a bully pulpit.''

Susan Milligan and Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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