The tough but disarming TV journalist who grilled the power elite
When Tim Russert took over NBC’s Meet the Press in 1991, it was the longest running show on TV, but it was suffering from a lackluster format and an indifferent audience. Russert, combining tough, informed questions with a gregarious, down-to-earth charm, turned the program into a must-see news event. Meet the Press now averages nearly 70 percent more viewers than its competition, ABC’s This Week and CBS’ Face the Nation, and is considered a rite of passage for any politician trying to prove his or her mettle. Russert’s sudden death last week of a heart attack—the result of an enlarged heart and coronary artery disease—stunned politicians, journalists, and viewers alike, all of whom had grown used to spending part of their Sundays with him.
For someone so closely identified with the Washington establishment, said The Buffalo News, Russert never forgot his decidedly blue-collar roots. He was born to a close-knit Irish-American Catholic family in South Buffalo, N.Y.; his father, whom Russert would celebrate in his best-seller Big Russ & Me, drove a garbage truck. Russert “worked more than a dozen jobs to finance his education, among them newspaper carrier, office clerk, warehouseman, cab driver, bartender, short-order cook, and substitute teacher.” He graduated from Cleveland’s John Carroll University—the first member of his family to go to college—and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. “He always seemed to have one foot planted in school and another in politics, working in Democratic campaigns along the way,” serving most notably as upstate coordinator for the 1976 Senate campaign of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. At 29 he became Sen. Moynihan’s chief of staff.
Russert’s five years on Capitol Hill were “the formative experience in his life,” said the Los Angeles Times. “Moynihan’s office was a seething pool of intellectual contention”—passionate Catholic activists who could quote everyone from medieval theologian Duns Scotus to Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day, young Jewish intellectuals, and guys who just loved rough-and-tumble New York politics. “Russert presided over all with unshakable aplomb.” In 1982 he joined New York Gov.-elect Mario Cuomo as an advisor, proving so effective that in 1984, presidential contender Gary Hart reportedly yelled, “Get me a Russert!” That year
NBC News president Lawrence Grossman, impressed by Russert’s grasp of politics, recruited him as his assistant; in 1988 Russert became the network’s Washington bureau chief. His amusing byplay on conference calls got him a spot as a commentator on the Today show, and in 1991 he inherited from Garrick Utley the job of moderating Meet the Press.
At that point, “the program was all but choking on its own dignity,” said The Washington Post, “having long since become an institution but a decidedly stuffy one.” One of the first things Russert did was call the show’s founder, 91-year-old Lawrence Spivak, for advice. “It’s simple,” Spivak replied. “Learn as much as you can about your guests’ positions on the issues, then take the other side.” Russert did just that. For 17 years, he would interrogate his guests with singular determination, pointing out inconsistencies and otherwise thoroughly grilling them. “One of his trademarks was using a subject’s own words—blown up and posted on the screen—to exact a newsworthy response.”
The experience could be grueling, said The New Yorker. Following one interview, John McCain remarked, “I hadn’t had so much fun since my last interrogation in prison camp.” Russert was unapologetic. “This is the big leagues,” he said. “If you can’t answer a tough question, you can’t make a tough decision.” At the same time, “he was always careful to withdraw at a certain point, the better not to cross the line between tough and hostile in the public’s eye.” As Meet the Press’ ratings climbed, appearing on the program could be a make-or-break proposition for those in power, or those aspiring to be. Russert’s unique gift “was to employ his bluff, nice-guy, good-son Irish Catholic upstate persona” to force politicians to answer questions they preferred not to—such as when he grilled Vice President Dick Cheney on Cheney’s earlier claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Bearish and thick-faced, with devilishly pointed eyebrows, he often joked that he was “not just another pretty face,” and he personalized the show by larding it with average-guy patter, references to his father, and exhortations of “Go Bills!” in honor of his hometown football team.
Russert truly reveled in his work, said The Philadelphia Inquirer. He spent between eight and 10 hours preparing for each interview and would often sign off on staff memos by writing, “Go get ’em.” Russert not only hosted Meet the Press, he was a familiar presence on other NBC news shows as well as on its sister cable network, MSNBC, always explaining issues and controversies to viewers in simple, concrete terms. On election night 2000, he memorably summed up the prevailing confusion by repeating three words he had scrawled on a whiteboard: “Florida Florida Florida.” TV Guide named that move one of the 100 greatest moments in TV history; the board itself today resides in the Smithsonian. Russert has also been credited with devising the designations of “red state” and “blue state” to characterize Republican and Democratic strongholds, “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.” Among his many honors were an Emmy in 2005 for his coverage of Ronald Reagan’s funeral, and 47 honorary degrees.
Russert had his detractors, said The New York Times. Liberal blogger Arianna Huffington called him a “conventional wisdom zombie,” and recently he had drawn particular criticism “for his sharp—some said disproportionately sharp—questioning of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination.” But he was an equal opportunity interrogator, and the outpouring of sorrow at his unexpected passing from liberals and conservatives alike attested to his amazingly broad appeal. “White House staff members interrupted President Bush while he dined with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France at the