Tim Russert, perhaps the most influential political reporter in this age of television-driven politics, died Friday after he collapsed at work at NBC’s Washington, D.C., bureau. He was 58.
Russert, the bureau chief and host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” since 1991, helped transform TV coverage of American politics with his enthusiasm, his thorough questioning, and his love of the game. NBC attributed the death to a heart attack.
Russert’s death echoed across the political world Friday, and journalists and politicians said over and over that Russert was respected for both his forcefulness and his fairness. They all said the rest of the 2008 political season won’t be the same without him.
“Tim was a tough and hardworking newsman,” President Bush said in a statement. “He was always well-informed and thorough in his interviews. And he was as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it.”
He was, as NBC’s Tom Brokaw said Friday in announcing Russert’s death, a true child of Buffalo, N.Y., and it was that blue-collar connection that helped him translate political wars and campaign machinations into something understandable for the average viewer.
But maybe more than anything, it was his passion for politics and his personal connections throughout the American political world that helped change the Sunday political shows and the way TV covered politics.
Through the 1990s and into the 21st century, when cable news was becoming big business, and political talk became the cornerstone of TV news shows, it was Russert’s zeal and style that most influenced the coverage.
“He was a force of nature,” Howard Kurtz, a Washington Post and CNN reporter, said Friday on CNN. “He loved the game and revolutionized Sunday morning TV.”
Preparation was one of Russert’s strongest traits, and one of the reasons he was such a good interviewer. As politicians and journalists said in tribute, no guest came on “Meet the Press” without a strong fear of getting a smart, thorough grilling.
“It was the Washington equivalent of a bar fight,” former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett told CNN.
Russert was both a devout Catholic and a faithful Buffalo Bills fan – two qualities he was outspoken about on the air. He had a Jesuit education, a law degree and worked in Democratic politics for the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and for then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
He went to NBC in 1984 and made a name for himself when he arranged an appearance by Pope John Paul II on “Today” when the show broadcast from Rome.
Friends and colleagues remembered Russert as a man committed first to his family. And one of his proudest achievements was his 2004 book, “Big Russ and Me,” about his relationship with his father, who still lives in Buffalo. Russert wrote a second best-seller in 2006, “Wisdom of Our Fathers,” that was a follow-up based on letters he got in response to “Big Russ.”
He was married to Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair, and they had one son, Luke.