Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, died Friday of a sudden heart attack. He was 58.
Russert returned Thursday from a vacation in Italy with his wife, Maureen, and son, Luke. According to NBC colleague Tom Brokaw, who broke into coverage of the U.S. Open golf tournament to report the news, Russert collapsed in the NBC News bureau in Washington, D.C., while managing some audio footage.
The much-admired journalist also hosted a weekly self-named interview show on MSNBC and was a frequent correspondent and guest on such NBC News shows as Today and Hardball. He also famously co-hosted the network’s presidential election-night coverage, introducing the world to the “White Board” upon which he scribbled the most vital, salient facts for a nation waiting to see the result of the divisive 2000 vote between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“He had a passion for life,” Brokaw reported on MSNBC when asked about his longtime friend. “We cannot believe that he’s gone, that we’ve lost his voice and that this country has lost this premier political journalist and analyst, a man who has such passion for politics in part because he believed that politics are the DNA of this country.”
Timothy John Russert Jr., born May 7, 1950, gained that belief growing up in his beloved Buffalo, N.Y., to Irish-American Catholic parents who instilled in him the belief in faith and hard work. He graduated from John Carroll University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University and was admitted to the bar in New York and the District of Columbia.
Before joining NBC News, Russert served as counselor in New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's office in Albany from 1983-84 and was chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan from 1977-82.
Brokaw recalled how Russert had been the advance man for Moynihan on the senator’s trip to Buffalo. At the end of the trip, Brokaw said, “Moynihan said, ‘Why don’t you come back to Washington with me?’ Tim got on the plane and his life was changed forever.” Russert later went to work on New York Democrat Mario Cuomo's 1982 gubernatorial campaign.
In 1984, he was hired by NBC at their Washington bureau. He became Washington bureau chief four years later.
“I remember when he arrived here, I made a point of trying to get to know him,” Brokaw said. “I went down to Washington, heard those drop-dead imitations of his friend and mentor, Sen. Moynihan, and I thought, 'I’ve been in this business a long while. I’d never seen anybody brighter or more perceptive than this guy from Buffalo, N.Y.'"
He continued, “Tim, I always felt, became a great journalist because he crossed from one line into another and he knew how the system worked on the other side. He knew what the thinking was. I think he elevated broadcast political coverage because of the standards he had in terms of getting at what was essential in any campaign or position. He knew how to dive into a bill and see where the earmarks were or how it had been compromised in an effort to get it through.”
Russert was pulled into the Valerie Plame leak investigation when I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby claimed that it was Russert who told him of Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. Russert denied Libby’s allegations, telling Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald during Libby’s perjury trial: "If he had told me [Plame's identity], I would have asked him how he knew that, why he knew that, what is the relevance of that. And since [it was] a national security issue, my superiors [would] try to pursue it.”
And yet for all of his efforts and work, family came first for Russert. His best-selling memoir, Big Russ and Me, chronicled his early life and the lessons imparted by his father, a World War II veteran who drove a garbage truck by day and delivered papers for the Buffalo Evening News by night.
His other book, Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons, was released in 2005.
Russert is survived by his wife, Maureen Orth, who has been a special correspondent with Vanity Fair since 1983; and their son Luke. Russert and his wife met, Brokaw said, at a Democratic political convention in 1976.
He was beloved, NBC News anchor Brian Williams said, in part because “he was so aggressively unfancy and that quality really permeated all parts of his life. He never was dressed in anything more fancy than the same blue blazer and gold buttons. And he believed in transparency. He believed in letting people see how we do this.”
That, continued Williams, was the genesis of his famed White Board on election night. “It was better than any computer-generated graphics on that election night. It was the genesis of Tim’s belief that the viewer should know what we’re up to.”
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