Tim Russert, NBC political analyst, dies

News division 'will not be the same,' Tom Brokaw says

NEW YORK -- Under the leadership of the tough-but-fair Tim Russert, "Meet the Press" became the go-to interview stop for Washington power players and up-and-comers.

A "Meet the Press" appearance was anything but fluff. Politicians knew that it was a potential minefield, with a heavily prepared Russert ready and willing to challenge. What happened on the show had the potential to last several news cycles past the Sunday morning where Russert ruled for almost a decade.

Russert, 58, died Friday afternoon after collapsing in NBC News' Washington bureau, while recording segments for "Meet the Press." Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he died at a Washington hospital. He had just returned from a trip to Italy with his wife, journalist Maureen Orth, and his son, Luke, to celebrate Luke's graduation last month from Boston College. He had spent the morning taping "Tim Russert," his MSNBC show, and was working on this Sunday’s "Meet the Press."

Under its longest-serving moderator, who came aboard in December 1991, "Meet the Press" hard-hitting but also a place for decency in a television landscape that has often become partisan.

"He didn’t try to trip people up," said friend and "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. "Unlike many interviewers, he actually listened to the answers people gave, and then he would ask a followup and then he would get the news. He was just about as good as you could get."

No one avoided the spotlight, knowing that Russert would be tough and uncover the truth. He was known for his persistence, often aided by audio and visual clips that challenged politicians. Russert spent many hours on homework, making sure that he was ready for whatever would happen either on "Meet the Press" or as co-moderator of NBC's debates.

"What I've tried to bring to the program more than anything else is preparation, being as prepared or more prepared than the guests that appear," Russert told The Hollywood Reporter in April 2006. "Be persistent but be civil. There's an expectation on 'Meet the Press,' whether you're Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, that you'll be asked the tough questions."

And there were plenty of tough questions, politely but insistently delivered.

"'Meet the Press' became probably the most serious gauntlet that a public figure had to run to establish himself as qualified, as able, as adept," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Russert represented probably the toughest interview on network television."

Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia said that Russert was "an outsized presence" in every election campaign.

"He was relentless. Politicians really did fear him beause he was just dogged. He wouldn’t let them get away with their usual BS," Sabato said.

The Buffalo, N.Y., native traveled along way from his working-class roots, through law school and into politics on the staffs of two well-known Democratic pols before landing at NBC News in 1984 and quickly becoming one of the network's treasures. He made "Meet the Press" not only top-rated but also the must-see interview and analysis show, as well as the face of its political coverage for nearly two decades.

"This news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice," former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw said Friday afternoon in a special report announcing the passing. "He'll be missed as he was loved, greatly."

NBC News and Washington overall were stunned by Russert's death at a time when he was the centerpiece of the network's political coverage and a keenly acute observer of the nation's political scene in what is the biggest presidential campaign in decades. He had been on the air constantly -- "to the point of exhaustion so many weeks," as Brokaw recounted Friday afternoon -- in the hotly contested presidential campaign that began in earnest with the Iowa caucus Jan. 3.

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker said the company was heartbroken.

"We have lost a beloved member of our NBC Universal family, and the news world has lost one of its finest," Zucker said. "The enormity of this loss cannot be overstated."

A special edition of "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Father’s Day, would be anchored by Brokaw and be fully a tribute to its longest-serving moderator. Russert had interviewed President Clinton and President George W. Bush at the White House, scored a live interview with Pope John Paul II for NBC's "Today" in 1985, and was famous for his white board that totaled electoral votes on Election Night.

And Russert was much more than just his job, which he did so well. Russert's memoir of his father, "Big Russ and Me," topped the charts in 2004. He was a rabid Buffalo Bills fan and adopted the Washington Nationals, the recently arrived baseball team where he had season tickets.

"He was a great, great journalist," said CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who like Russert was a native of Buffalo. "More importantly, he was just a terrific guy ... He’s a guy who loved life and he appreciated everything he had because he remembered where he was from."

Blitzer said that it was sad that Russert, who honored his father and took seriously his own role to Luke, died two days before Father’s Day.

"On the Eve of Father’s Day he’s not going to be around for his son, for his own father," Blitzer told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday night.

Russert was also a strong Catholic, who took his faith seriously. Russert and Blitzer were the only two journalists and part of a small group tapped for a private audience at Catholic University of America to meet with Pope Benedict XVI when he visited Washington in mid-April. Russert carried rosaries and other stuff he hoped the pope would bless, and turned to Blitzer and said: "Can you believe it, two kids from Buffalo, meeting with the Pope!"

Added Blitzer admiringly on Friday night: "He was like a little boy."