In Memoriam: Tim Russert

By James Barrington

Tim Russert

James Barrington remembers veteran NBC commentator Tim Russert, 1950-2008: Moderator on NBC's Meet the Press; anchor; Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief, NBC News, who passed away on June 13, 2008.

When news shows stop production in New York to come out of Washington; when flags fly at half staff; when Mayors, Governors and members of the Senate and the Congress, as well as former Presidents, the Vice President and the Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates also stop their schedules to all come together; and when anchors from all the main US television networks also attend; the event must be special, and so it was - sadly, the funeral of NBC Anchor Tim Russert, who died, aged 58, on Friday 13 June 2008.

Above: Entertainment Tonight coverage of the funeral.

Russert was the Anchor of NBC's Meet the Press, the Sunday morning political analysis show, and collapsed at 1.30pm following an apparent heart attack in the audio booth of NBC's Washington bureau. Attempts to revive him failed and Russert was pronounced dead by 2.33pm Washington time. Former network anchor Tom Brokaw broke into the network with a special report. Brokaw was emotional at times as he told of Russert's passing.

Meanwhile NBC's current anchor Brian Williams prepared a 2-hour commercial-free news special on Russert. Immediately ABC, Fox, CBS, CNN and others broke into their shows to announce the event: the report also featured on the BBC.

Such wide respect had Russert that politicians, networks, and even the President united in paying homage, the media reporting through the day the events at NBC, with rival networks carrying the NBC footage.

Russert hailed from the tough Buffalo area of NY, and never forgot his roots - he was never allowed to: his father worked two jobs to put him through college. Russert was a supporter of the Buffalo Bills, and a man of the people, the media, and politics. He lived for his wife and only child Luke, and his father, Russ, now 85.

Russert joined NBC after working for Democrat Senator Patrick Moynihan, and quickly rose through the reporting ranks to become NBC's Senior Vice President - News and Washington Bureau Chief. His Sunday morning stint of 17 years on Meet the Press regained NBC's reputation for politics and once again turned viewing figures on a Sunday back to NBC. He was awarded 48 doctorates across the USA, and was a twice best selling author. Tim Russert also won an Emmy for his coverage of President Reagan's funeral.

A workaholic with a dedicated love of politics, Russert worked tirelessly all week for his 90 minute broadcast with enormous amounts of research, and he expected the same dedication in return from his guests.

The affable host would grill politicians with fairness: many feared his questions, all loved his dry Irish Catholic wit. Politicians would be haunted by Russert, week in week out: he would research questions and when a politician denied ever saying something, Russert would simply roll the tape…

'Respect' is not a word politicians often use for the media, but it applied to Russert in good measure, and despite his Democrat background, he was just as ruthless with a Democratic politician as he was with a Republican.

He was NBC's God on election nights, and he became famous for a small whiteboard on which he wrote “FLORIDA FLORIDA FLORIDA”, referring to the Bush/Gore election for President. He was predicting Florida would go down to the wire on his whiteboard, before the network's graphics could catch up. He was NBC's election coverage. TV Guide described it as one of the 'greatest 100 moments in the history of TV'. Russert again accurately predicted the final battleground of the presidential elections of 2004: "Ohio, Ohio, Ohio".

As the 2008 Presidential political race began, Russert was in his element, describing the Democratic race as the most exciting for the last 40 years, even moderating the Clinton/Obama debates.

Tim Russert was looking towards the Republican/Democratic showdown race for the White House, and last predicted the battleground states of the 2008 presidential election would be New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, saying, "If Democrats can win three of those four, they can lose Ohio and Florida, and win the presidency. Only time will tell just how accurate Russert was.

NBC described Russert as irreplaceable - indeed, the NBC family was rocked to the foundations, and the tremors were felt by other networks, politicians and public. Meet The Press is the longest running show in the history of television, and Russert had been the host for the last 17 years.

As the US networks ran with the Russert story for days, NBC prepared for its Sunday Meet the Press without Tim. As the NBC theme opened on that Sunday, the moderator's chair was empty, and no guests sat around the huge American oak table.

Former NBC Anchor Tom Brokaw, along with many guests, sat in front of the table on simple chairs, Brokaw breaking down as politicians, and syndicated newspaper columnists reflected on Russerts career. And as the show concluded, the tape rolled with Tim Russert's favourite closing line, "If it's Sunday - It's Meet the Press". After the camera faded to black, Luke Russert went to his father's chair on the set, touched it and stood there, the entire crew broke down and cried (also see interview footage below).

Russert leaves behind his wife Maureen, son Luke, 22, and father Russ, 85 - and a generation of memories for NBC.

Luke Russert interviewed on the Today programme (June 16), along with the programme's tribute to Tim.

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Article ©2008 James Barrington

Compilation ©2008 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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