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Tim Russert of 'Meet the Press' dies suddenly; tributes pour in

June 13, 2008 | 12:40 pm

"I know what the conservatives think, what the liberals think, what the Democrats think, what the Republicans think. And I try to master both sides of an issue to a point where I'm totally confused as to what I think."--Tim Russert, 2004.

Tim Russert, the longtime host of NBC's "Meet the Press," died suddenly this afternoon, his family said.

Among the top tier of American television political journalists, Russert, 58, was also the author of the best-selling father-son memoir, "U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (L) (D-IL) speaks to host Tim Russert during a live taping of 'Meet the Press' May 4, 2008 in Indianapolis, IndianaBig Russ and Me" in 2004, and "Wisdom of Our Fathers" in 2006. He died while recording voice-overs for this weekend's show, according to MSNBC. Russert was also NBC's Washington bureau chief.

There will be a lot of assessments over the next few days of Russert's role and influence. But his personal style and informal delivery helped loosen up the Sunday morning talks shows.

His passion for politics helped enliven interviews, and his role as a reporter got him a turn in the witness seat at the perjury trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

He also was easily approached, and talked occasionally of fellow Buffalonians -- or at least Bills football fans -- buying him  drinks when they encountered him. In the run up to the Iowa caucuses this year, he could be seen going going over notes while grabbing a late-night supper at the hotel bar, or in the back of room where a candidate was talking, trying to absorb what he could from the moment.

NBC News former anchor Tom Brokaw made the announcement on-air, calling it his "sad duty." (See video below.)

President George Bush got word of the death while dining at the Elysee Palace, hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "He was of course shocked and saddened," said Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, adding that the president and First Lady just wanted to express their "strong sympathies for Tim’s family, his friends, and of course the whole NBC family."

Later, Bush said: "Laura and I are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Tim Russert. Those of us who knew and worked with Tim, his many friends, and the millions of Americans who loyally followed his career on the air will all miss him. As the longest-serving host of the longest-running program in the history of television, he was an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades.

"Tim was a tough and hardworking newsman. He was always well-informed and thorough in his interviews. And he was as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it. Most important, Tim was a proud son and father, and Laura and I offer our deepest sympathies to his wife Maureen, his son Luke, and the entire Russert family. We will keep them in our prayers."

The suddenness of his death deepened the sense of shock, and stunned reactions have been pouring forth:

John McCain: "I am very saddened by Tim Russert's sudden death. Cindy and I extend our thoughts and prayers to the Russert family as they cope with this shocking loss and remember the life and legacy of a loving father, husband and the preeminent political journalist of his generation.

"He was truly a great American who loved his family, his friends, his Buffalo Bills, and everything about politics and America. He was just a terrific guy. I was proud to call him a friend, and in the coming days, we will pay tribute to a life whose contributions to us all will long endure."

Barack Obama: "I’ve known Tim Russert since I first spoke at the convention in 2004. He’s somebody who, over time, I came to consider not only a journalist but a friend. There wasn’t a better interviewer in TV, not a more thoughtful analyst of our politics, and he was also one of the finest men I knew.

"Somebody who cared about America, cared about the issues, cared about family. I am grief-stricken with the loss and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family. And I hope that, even though Tim is irreplaceable, that the standard that he set in his professional life and his family life are standards that we all carry with us in our own lives."

To read more appreciations, click on the Read More line below.

Russert, a large, avuncular man, was also proud of his roots in Buffalo,  N.Y.,  often invoking his love for the Buffalo Bills in his broadcasts. But he also was a serious observer of national and international politics since taking over the "Meet the Press" anchor seat in December 1991.

He won a slew of awards, according to the official biography on the program's website:

"In 2005, he was awarded an Emmy for his role in the coverage of the funeral of President Reagan.  He is the recipient of the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement.

Tim Russert host of NBC's Meet the Press dies of a massive heart attack at work

His Election 2000 Meet the Press interviews with George W. Bush and Al Gore won the Radio and Television Correspondents’ highest honor, the Joan S. Barone Award and the Annenberg Center’s Walter Cronkite Award.

Russert’s March 2000 interview of Sen. John McCain shared the 2001 Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence in Television Journalism. 

He is also the recipient of the John Peter Zenger Award, the American Legion Journalism Award, the Veterans of Foreign Wars News Media Award, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Journalism Award, the Allen H. Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism, the David Brinkley Award for Excellence in Communication, the Catholic Academy for Communication’s Gabriel Award, and inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.

Russert had a background in politics before he moved into broadcast journalism. In 1976, he worked on Daniel Patrick Moynihan's successful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, then was a special counsel in the Senate until 1982, when he went to work on Mario Cuomo’s campaign for governor of New York. After Cuomo won, Russert worked in the governor’s office in Albany from 1983-1984.

A graduate of Buffalo's Canisius High School and John Carroll University then in Cleveland, he earned his law degree at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. He was a member of the bar in both New York and Washington, D.C.

MSNBC listed his survivors as his wife, Maureen Orth, a Vanity Fair writer, and a son, Luke. (For a news video and more tributes from public and media figures, click on the Read more line below.)

-- Scott Martelle

Photo: AJ Mast / Getty Images

Journalists and media

Steve Capus, NBC News president: "This is a loss for the entire nation. Everyone at NBC News is in shock and absolutely devastated. He was our respected colleague, mentor, and dear friend.  Words can not express our heartbreak. Our thoughts and prayers are with Maureen, Luke, Big Russ and all of Tim’s family."

Charlie Gibson, anchor of ABC's "World News": "Tim projected vitality -- always excited about the stories he covered and intrigued by the people he interviewed.  That's what made him so good, and his passing so hard to absorb.  His competitors -- just like his co-workers -- held Tim in the highest of regard."

Dan Rather
, former CBS "Evening News" anchor: "Tim's passing is a loss not only to his family and many friends, it is a loss to good journalism and to our country. Tim, first and foremost, was devout in his faith and deeply devoted to his family. He loved his country with a passion and became a classic example of the ideal American journalist. Tim had become an important part of our political process. He will be especially missed in this historic presidential election year. Tim Russert was a beacon of quality journalism. At a time when quality journalism is in increasingly short supply, Tim Russert was a leader for what is best in American journalism. He was tough but fair, pulled no punches, played no favorites. As an interviewer, he had few, if any, peers."

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain talking to Tim Russert on Meet the Press

Cokie Roberts, NPR and ABC News: "Tim Russert Was a great competitor and a good friend. I am obviously shocked and dismayed by this news and extend my thoughts and prayers to his son Luke -- he was so proud of you -- to his wife Maureen and to the rest of his family; especially his beloved father. Tim and I worked together on Catholic causes, and I will greatly miss him."

Diane Sawyer, co-anchor of ABC News' "Good Morning America": "No one could see Tim in a room and not smile. He brought so much joy and curiosity and sheer vitality to all our lives. As a journalist, he would set out like a great explorer. You couldn't wait to see what he discovered every day in the new world. He was a defining American newsman. Love of country, love of family poured through him--onto the screen, into the work, into stories at dinner, into the little chuckle that reminded us -- aren't we lucky to be here in this big life."

Bob Schieffer
, CBS News' chief Washington correspondent and anchor of "Face the Nation":  "Tim was the best of our profession.  He asked the best questions and then he listened for the answer. We became very close friends over the years.  He delighted in scooping me and I felt the same way when I scooped him. 

"When you slipped one past ol’ Russert, you felt as though you had hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league. I just loved Tim and I will miss him more than I can say, and my heart goes out to his son, Luke, and his wife, Maureen."

George Stephanopoulos, ABC News' "This Week": "Tim loved everything about politics and journalism -- because he believed in it.  Every day he brought Washington home to his viewers and made all of us better.  My thoughts and prayers are with his family -- especially Maureen, Luke and his father Russ."

David Westin
, president of ABC News: "Tim Russert was a great newsman who helped set the standard for political reporting and public affairs programming. His fine work made all of us better and benefited the Nation as a result. Tim was also a great friend to so many of us. But above all, Tim was a man devoted to his family. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and everyone at NBC News at this devastating time."

Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal: "We are heartbroken at the sudden passing of Tim Russert. We have lost a beloved member of our NBC Universal family and the news world has lost one of its finest. The enormity of this loss cannot be overstated. More than a journalist, Tim was a remarkable family man. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Maureen, their son, Luke, and Tim’s entire extended family.

Political figures

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., D- Del.: "Tim Russert was a man of tremendous honor and integrity, with a great love of politics and a deep commitment to our country. Anyone who spent time around Tim could feel immediately the love he had for his family. Our nation lost a pillar of journalism today, but above all else, we lost a good and decent man."

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg: "I was shocked and saddened to learn about the death of Tim Russert. I knew him as most Americans did - as a political commentator, an accomplished author, and without a doubt, one of the most influential journalists of our time. I also knew him on a more personal level as a man of incredible character, substance, and wit. I can only imagine the pain that his family must be feeling right now - and I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Maureen, and his son, Luke, who interned here at City Hall last year. Tim didn't just report on American politics - he played an active role in protecting the freedoms we hold so dear: free press, fair elections, and vigorous debate. He was a champion for honesty and truth, and he'll be dearly missed."

Sen. Barbara Boxer: "My heart goes out to Tim Russert’s entire family and friends, including his work family at NBC News -- I know they are all shocked and heartbroken by this loss. Tim was a one-of-a-kind journalist -- while he was very tough and never showed any favoritism, he was also respectful and compassionate, and he exhibited great love for his family and country.  Personally, I will miss Tim’s incredible insights and observations, and the joy that he felt for politics and public affairs. For anyone who is interested in politics, deeply or even in a passing way, it will be impossible to forget Tim Russert.

Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton: "We were stunned and deeply saddened to hear of the passing today of Tim Russert. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Maureen, his son Luke, his father who we all have come to know as Big Russ, his extended family and all of his many friends and colleagues at NBC who have suffered a tremendous loss. Always true to his proud Buffalo roots, Tim had a love of public service and a dedication to journalism that rightfully earned him the respect and admiration of not only his colleagues but also those of us who had the privilege to go toe to toe with him.  In seeking answers to tough questions, he helped inform the American people and make our democracy stronger.  We join his friends, fans and loved ones in mourning his loss and celebrating his remarkable contribution to our nation. "

Howard Dean
, chair of the Democratic National Committee: "Today we lost one of the true giants of American journalism and a tremendous public servant. Tim Russert will be remembered for many things.  A committed family man, devout Catholic, devout sports fan, author, mentor. A tough interviewer, Tim delivered the news with authority, in a plain-spoken way that made the great issues of our day accessible to everyone. His love of politics and our country came through in his relentless pursuit of the truth and in the quality of his work as a journalist. On this sad day, our thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones."

Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, chair of the Republican National Committee: "On behalf of the members and staff of the Republican Party, I extend our thoughts and prayers to the family and colleagues of Tim Russert.  His sudden death is a loss that will be felt throughout the journalism and political worlds.  His reputation for fairness, accuracy and hard work earned him biMass senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerrypartisan respect.  He will be missed."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.: "Today’s awful news about Tim Russert’s sudden passing is a swift kick for everyone who knew, respected, and loved Tim and had the honor of sharing his company. It's hard to describe the shock. Tim was the best political newsman of his generation, and he was a trailblazer in the unique way he brought his personal love of politics, honed by Moynihan and Cuomo, right into our living rooms every Sunday. Tim was at once brilliant and insightful while always approachable, always accessible, and always your next door neighbor and your friend who was there to referee the debates of the big issues of our time. He relished that role and he excelled at it, as any one would who believed in the tenets of Jesuit education. He loved to hold the big guys accountable and in the original, intelligent, studied way he did it he emerged as the biggest guy of all. It is impossible to overstate how much Tim was inseparable from American politics. When I decided to announce for President, the only place to do it was on ‘Meet the Press.’  It is impossible to imagine political life without him as our guide every Sunday. But it is even more difficult to find the words to express our sympathy for Maureen, Luke, his father Big Russ, and Tim's family at NBC. Tim, Maureen, and their family will remain in our thoughts and prayers a long, long time."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio: "Tim Russert established new standards for incisive, analytical reporting. In a time of 24-hour news cycles and their clipped attention spans, Tim Russert could be counted on to go deep into a subject matter and make it readily understandable to masses of people. His death is a loss not only for the journalism profession which he ennobled with his presence, but it is a loss for the nation which will miss his commitment to making journalism a force for truth and justice. My deepest condolences go out to the Russert Family and to his family at NBC."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.: "Tim was one of the outstanding journalists of this generation. He had a well earned reputation for integrity and fairness. I can personally attest to that.

For those of us who had the privilege of appearing on 'Meet the Press,' Sunday mornings will never be the same."

Maria Shriver: "Tim Russert was one of my closest friends and he was like a brother to me.  He was not only a professional confidant but a personal one.  He was always the first person to call me whenever anything happened with my family.  And he always called me just to check in and see how I was doing and to encourage me. My heart goes out to his son Luke, his wife Maureen, his father, sister and entire family. They were his joy in life; family and faith were everything to him. He was one of a kind to me and I was lucky enough to have had him as a best friend."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Maria and I were deeply saddened to learn about the death of Tim Russert. Tim was an American icon in the world of political journalism who could relate to everybody. His insightful commentary and tough but fair interviews helped millions of Americans better understand our political system. It is hard to imagine a presidential election without Tim and his trademark graphics and questions on 'Meet the Press.' American politics and journalism will never be the same without him. But Tim was not only one of the top journalists of his generation; he was a close friend, a warm and generous person and a wonderful family man. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Maureen, his son, Luke and his entire family."

Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio: “My wife Janet and I are extremely saddened to hear about Tim Russert’s untimely passing and would like to express our heartfelt sympathy to Tim’s wife Maureen and son Luke. Tim’s genuine decency, humor and objective evaluation of news and politics made him one of the most beloved members of the American media. He had a special knack for asking the tough questions on the minds of Americans, and did so with a kindness and warmth that truly connected him with both his guests and his viewers. Tim left an indelible mark on our lives and will truly be missed."

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