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Tim Russert, 1950 - 2008

Everyman of TV politics

Influential NBC moderator collapses while preparing for Sunday's 'Meet the Press.'

June 14, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York

Tim Russert, the longest-serving moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press" and the lion of the Washington press corps, died of a sudden heart attack Friday.

He was 58.

Russert had returned early from a family trip to Italy and was working at NBC's Washington bureau, recording voice-overs for Sunday's show, when he collapsed Friday afternoon. His wife, Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair, and their son, Luke, were still in Italy, where they had been celebrating Luke's graduation from Boston College.

"This news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice," longtime NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said on MSNBC as he reported the news in a special report. "He will be missed -- as he was loved -- greatly."

"We cannot believe that he's gone, that we've lost his voice and that the country has lost this preeminent journalist," he added.

Russert's physician, Michael A. Newman, told MSNBC on Friday night that cholesterol plaque ruptured in an artery, causing sudden coronary thrombosis. An autopsy also revealed that Russert had an enlarged heart.

Shellshocked NBC News employees struggled with their emotions as they covered the death of the veteran political journalist, who had been a near-ubiquitous presence on MSNBC this year as he reported on the 2008 presidential campaign.

Speaking on MSNBC from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where he is on assignment, anchor Brian Williams described Russert's death as "an unfathomable loss."

President Bush released a statement calling Russert "an institution," and condolences poured in from across the political establishment, over which the newsman exerted huge influence. As NBC News' Washington bureau chief, Russert shaped the network's political coverage, and his Sunday morning talk show helped frame the agenda for the coming week's news cycle.

His pronouncement last month that Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would be the Democratic nominee heralded the end of the primary race, much to the dismay of the campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

On “Meet the Press,” which he had moderated since December 1991, Russert drew powerful guests who subjected themselves to his probing, as well as his practice of forcing them to confront their past statements, displayed on-screen.

"For almost a generation, he became the single most authoritative commentator on politics -- an accomplishment that will be hard for anyone to match any time soon," said Tom Goldstein, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley who knew Russert when they were both aides to New York politicians nearly 30 years ago.

On Sunday, Brokaw will host a special edition of "Meet the Press" that will serve as a retrospective of Russert's life.

Russert was an unlikely check on the politically powerful: the son of a sanitation worker who grew up in working-class Buffalo, N.Y., the first of his family to get a college degree.

"He didn't look like your average anchorman," CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said. "He didn't have the hair or the looks. He was just a smart guy, and he cut through all the b.s."

Despite his encyclopedic knowledge of political history, Russert had an accessible, everyman approach on the air, famously scribbling "Florida, Florida, Florida" on a whiteboard early during the 2000 election night.

Friends said Russert was nearly giddy about covering this year's presidential race and its historic dimensions, working strenuous hours to keep up with the flood of news.

"I have never seen Tim more excited than he was about this campaign," said CBS' Bob Schieffer. "He just fed on it."

Timothy John Russert Jr. was born in Buffalo on May 7, 1950. His father worked two jobs, as a sanitation worker and a driver for the Buffalo News, to support the family. (In 2004, Russert published a book about his relationship with his father, "Big Russ and Me," one of two New York Times bestsellers he wrote).

Those who knew him said Russert's upbringing in heavily Irish, blue-collar South Buffalo left the newsman with a common touch that he never lost.

"Tim always would tell everybody that when he asked a question of a guest on 'Meet the Press,' he liked to think he asked a question that the guys at the American Legion would ask or understand," said Washington-based comedian Mark Russell, a fellow Buffalonian who graduated from the same Jesuit high school as Russert.

Russert studied political science at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school in Cleveland, before obtaining a law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

He got his start in politics as a young field organizer for the 1976 Senate campaign of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). After working as Moynihan's chief of staff in the Senate, he signed on to Mario Cuomo's 1982 Democratic campaign for governor of New York and stayed with Cuomo as a counselor for two years.

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