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Remembrances Keep Rolling in From Russert Admirers

June 14, 2008

PHILADELPHIA _ NBC’s Tim Russert, 58, perhaps the most widely respected newsperson in all of television, collapsed and died of a heart attack while at work in Washington Friday afternoon.

Russert, a senior vice president at NBC, was the network’s Washington bureau chief and had been moderator of “Meet the Press” for more than 16 years.

Virtually every major American political figure since 1992 had weathered his intense questioning, and he had been an imposing NBC presence on dozens of election nights, where his whiteboard and scrawled explanatory numbers became a TV institution.

Remembrances rolled in from all quarters, from President Bush to Barbara Walters to the thousands of nobodies who posted on MSNBC’s message boards.

On Fox News, Chris Wallace put Russert’s place in perspective: “He was the king in Washington. He was the most important, influential reporter in Washington.”

“Tim will be sorely missed,” said Pennsylvania’s senior senator, Arlen Specter, who averaged an appearance a year on the political talk show that had the highest ratings and made the most news, and where appearances were a badge of honor no matter how uncomfortable the outcome.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Russert had a degree from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and was chief of staff to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and counselor in New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s office before joining NBC in 1984.

“His years as a Senate staffer and probing TV journalist gave him special insights on political and governmental issues,” Specter said.

Russert’s whiteboard from election night 2000, when the analyst repeated, “Florida, Florida, Florida,” is in the Smithsonian Institution. Even if other reporters could not get the tally right, “TV Guide” named that scene one of the 100 greatest moments in TV history. He is also credited with coining the red state/blue state designations for characterizing electoral politics, and this year, “Time” magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. No other journalist of any stripe made the list.

“The country will be in deep mourning,” ABC’s Barbara Walters said on competitor MSNBC, “and there aren’t too many journalists they’re (ever) going to be in mourning for.”

When Russert started at “Meet the Press,” which at 60 years is the longest-running show in TV history, it was second in ratings to ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley.” But Russert slowly guided it into first place. For the 2007-08 TV season, it has averaged nearly 70 percent more viewers than the 2.7 million or so each week who watch “This Week” and CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

A bluff rumple magnet, Russert had none of the slick reserve that characterizes most TV newsmen. But his powerful analytical decisiveness was unmatched.

“We now know who the Democratic nominee’s going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it,” he said on MSNBC on May 6 after the Indiana and North Carolina primaries.

His declaring Sen. Barack Obama the winner made news, even if it made Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign apoplectic. Unlike the back-and-forth Florida tallies put forth by his colleagues in 2000, it was absolutely correct.

On Friday, Clinton and her husband issued a statement that said, in part: “In seeking answers to tough questions, he helped inform the American people and make our democracy stronger.”

The presumptive presidential nominees also had kind words. “The pre-eminent political journalist of his generation,” said Sen. John McCain. Obama called Russert “somebody who cared about America, cared about the issues, cared about family.”

In a statement, the president said he and Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” by Russert’s death. “He was always well-informed and thorough in his interviews. And he was as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it.”

Former NBC News president Lawrence Grossman, who hired Russert, Friday told the New York Times that Russert “saved ‘Meet the Press,’ which had been in big trouble.”

In the heat of that rescue, in a 1995 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Russert said he spent eight to 10 hours preparing to question each guest. If the answers don’t make sense, he said, “I’ll stay with it. That’s where the information base kicks in. But this is the big leagues. If you can’t answer a tough question, you can’t make a tough decision.”

“He was always tough,” U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., said. “But … you got a chance to answer the question. He would throw it out there, and then you got a chance to either knock it out of the park or make a fool of yourself.”

Gov. Ed Rendell, on his way to an Obama fund-raiser Friday night at the Center City Sheraton in Philadelphia, said: “I thought that Tim Russert could be pretty tough and sometimes a little on the mean side to some of the people he interviewed. But I can tell you, one of his great contributions, I think, to American government is that he got a lot of people who weren’t normally interested in government and politics interested.”

Strikingly, while politicians and newshounds remembered Russert’s skills, many also remembered the man more fondly, a devout Roman Catholic, devoted to his wife, “Vanity Fair” writer Maureen Orth, and his son, Luke. Russert had just returned from a trip to Italy to celebrate Luke’s graduation from Boston College.

“I was stunned,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, who served with Russert on the board of the Gesu School, a Catholic elementary school in North Philadelphia. “He was an elite political reporter and a real nice guy.”

“A lot of us … have been through a lot together,” said Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign-affairs correspondent. On MSNBC, she said: “We’ve been through assassinations and attacks on our country and anthrax and loss and illness and all kinds of crises, and there was always one reliable person in our lives.

“People change at the network, and people change in the front office, but there has always been one Tim.”

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(Jonathan Storm is the Philadelphia Inquirer’s television critic. Philadelphia Inquirer staff writers Larry Eichel, Thomas Fitzgerald and Gail Shister contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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