Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and moderator of Meet the Press, collapsed and died June 13 while preparing for his Sunday Meet the Press broadcast. He was 58.
Russert had returned the day before, following a vacation in Italy with his wife, Maureen, and son Luke. According to NBC colleague Tom Brokaw, Russert collapsed in the NBC News Bureau in Washington while managing some audio footage.
The much-admired journalist, inducted in 2006 to the B&C Hall of Fame, also hosted a weekly self-named interview show on MSNBC, and was a frequent correspondent and guest on NBC News shows such as Today and Hardball. He also famously co-hosted the network’s presidential election night coverage, introducing the world to the decidedly low-tech “white board” upon which he scribbled salient facts for a nation waiting to see the result of the divisive 2000 election.
“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 perspective 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 to 1984, and was chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan from 1977 to 1982.
Brokaw recalled how Russert had been the advance man for Moynihan on the senator’s trip to Buffalo. At the end of the trip, said Brokaw, “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 Cuomo’s 1982 gubernatorial campaign.
In 1984, he was hired by NBC for its Washington Bureau, and became its 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 that drop-dead imitation 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.
“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.”
One less-than-pleasant incident occurred when Russert was pulled into the Valerie Plame leak investigation.I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby claimed that it was Russert who told him of Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. Russert denied it, telling Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald: “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.”
That plain-spoken explanation exemplified Russert’s style. And yet for all his efforts and work, family came first. His best-selling autobiography, 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, said NBC News anchor Brian Williams, 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.”
Additional reporting by Marisa Guthrie
Editor’s Note: Russert died just prior to B&C’s print deadline. For much more on Russert’s career, go to www.broadcastingcable.com.