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'Meet the Press' remembers

The weekly show opens with a shot of Tim Russert's empty chair. His colleagues share memories.

June 16, 2008|Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Tom Brokaw opened Sunday's somber edition of "Meet the Press" by invoking a large wooden sign Tim Russert displayed in his office.

"It's going to be our mantra for this morning," Brokaw said. "It says, 'Thou shall not whine.' And if I can add, I think, anything to that, 'Thou shall not weep or cry this morning.' This is a celebration, a time to remember."

But that edict proved hard to observe as Russert's colleagues eulogized him on the NBC political talk show he moderated for nearly 17 years until his unexpected death from a heart attack Friday.

The program opened silently, with the camera focused on the darkened set and the moderator's empty chair. Brokaw and a gathering of Russert's friends sat in a semicircle in front of the stage, reminiscing about the man and his passion for political discourse.

"I can certainly comply with one-half of your request: I won't whine," columnist Mike Barnicle told Brokaw, grabbing the anchor's arm, his voice thick with emotion. "But I can't commit at this end of this program to not crying. . . . We will all continue, but it will never, ever be the same."

Throughout the weekend, Russert's shaken colleagues wrestled with the death of the prominent political analyst in a remarkably public forum that spotlighted their bewilderment and pain.

For three straight days, NBC News devoted its resources to memorializing him on the air. Within hours after Russert's collapse at the network's Washington bureau Friday afternoon, MSNBC turned over its programming to mourning him. Brokaw anchored a one-hour special about him that night on NBC, and the coverage continued on NBC and MSNBC throughout the weekend.

But it wasn't just his own employer that lionized Russert. CNN dedicated all of its Friday-night programming and a good part of Sunday to memorializing him -- a level of coverage more associated with the death of a president than a journalist -- and Fox News Channel reported on his death throughout the weekend.

All the Sunday talk shows included words of condolence to Russert's family: his father, also named Tim but popularly known as "Big Russ," a former sanitation worker in Buffalo, N.Y.; his son, Luke, who recently graduated from Boston College; and his wife, Maureen Orth, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine.

Thousands of viewers wrote spontaneously at the websites of NBC and other networks, expressing their sorrow. Typical was the note posted by an Ohio viewer using the name "Mahr" on the CNN website.

"People like me DID love [Tim Russert]," Mahr wrote, "because he was straightforward and direct; he was sharp-witted and genuine . . . he loved his country, he showed us how to value family, and he shared with us a smile and laugh every time; he was an 'everyman' that found a way to express our collective voice."

Russert achieved this intimacy through a buoyant, boyish personality that came across on air, through frequent references to his beloved Buffalo Bills and through his best-selling books -- "Big Russ and Me," about his relationship with his father, and "Wisdom of Our Fathers," based on the letters he received after the first book was published.

He was an observant Catholic educated in the Jesuit tradition who trained as a lawyer and brought that discipline to his work for "Meet the Press." Appearing Sunday on the show, PBS news host Gwen Ifill said she thought of the program as "the church of Tim" and Russert as kind of an "uber-priest" of politics.

Guests on the Sunday shows -- running the political gamut from former Democratic presidential contender John Edwards (on ABC's "This Week") to former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich (on CBS' "Face the Nation") -- praised the man whose tough questioning of White House contenders became known as the "Russert primary," a hurdle that all successful candidates had to clear.

What produced this enormous affection for a man who did not shy away from rigorous interviewing of the most confident and powerful figures?

The answers seem to be his decency; a personal story that included his climb from humble, working-class roots; and an insistence on asking tough -- but always civil -- questions.

Future historians, said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on "Meet the Press," will find Russert's interviews of politicians valuable because his questioning had a way of revealing "the temperament of these people." It showed, she said, "which people were able to acknowledge errors, which people ruffled under his questioning, which ones could share a laugh."

There was not much laughter at NBC this weekend.

"Our NBC family is, I have to say, still reeling," said a subdued Matt Lauer on Saturday morning as he hosted a two-hour edition of "Today" devoted to the Washington bureau chief. The program featured live testimonials from Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, and two of Russert's Sunday-morning competitors, CBS' Bob Schieffer and ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

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