WASHINGTON - Tim Russert, a political lifer who made a TV career of his passion with unrelenting questioning of the powerful and influential, died of a heart attack Friday in the midst of a presidential campaign he'd covered with trademark intensity. Praise poured in from the biggest names in politics, some recalling their own meltdown moments on his hot seat.
Russert, 58, was a political operative before he was a journalist. He joined NBC a quarter century ago and ended up as the longest-tenured host of the Sunday talk show "Meet the Press." He was an election-night fixture, with his whiteboard and scribbled figures, and was moderator for numerous political debates. He wrote two best-selling books, including the much-loved "Big Russ and Me" about his relationship with his father.
President Bush, informed of Russert's death while at dinner in Paris, saluted him as "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." NBC interrupted its regular programming with news of Russert's death and continued for several hours of coverage without commercial break. The network announced that Tom Brokaw would anchor a special edition of "Meet the Press" on Sunday, dedicated to Russert.
Competitors and friends jumped in with superlative praise and sad recognition of the loss of a key voice during a historic presidential election year. Known as a family man as well, he had been named Father of the Year by parenting organizations. Familiar NBC faces such as Brokaw, Andrea Mitchell and Brian Williams took turns mourning his loss.
"Our hearts are broken," said Mitchell, who appeared emotional at times as she recalled her longtime colleague.
CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer, Russert's competitor on "Face the Nation," said the two men delighted in scooping each other.
"When you slipped one past 'ol Russert, you felt as though you had hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league," he said. "I just loved Tim and I will miss him more than I can say." In a blog post CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric wrote, "He was a big teddy bear of a guy. But he was also a pit bull of an interviewer. He always held people’s feet to the fire, often using their past words with great effect to reveal a flip-flop or hypocrisy. While he was incredibly tenacious, he always did it with great humanity and respect
Russert, of Buffalo, N.Y., took the helm of the Sunday news show in December 1991 and turned it into the nation's most widely watched program of its type. His signature trait there was an unrelenting style of questioning that made some politicians reluctant to appear, yet confident that they could claim extra credibility if they survived his grilling intact.
Russert developed a style that was unique and effective, commonly confronting his guests with past quotes that differed from their current positions and staying on a single point until he received an answer, writes CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs. He was also a senior vice president at NBC, and this year, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Russert had Buffalo's blue collar roots, a Jesuit education, a law degree and a Democratic pedigree that came from his turn as an aide to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. One of his books, "Big Russ and Me," was about his relationship with his father, who was a garbage collector.
The young Russert helped him haul garbage during the summers and his father helped him as the source of his values and the source of one of his greatest ideas, reports CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger. On election night in 2000, he made history by tracking one of the closest elections ever on plane white boards. It was, Russert said, inspired by his father who gave him advice every reporter if not every politician follows: keep it simple.
"He taught be more by the quiet eloquence of his hard work, his basic decency, his intense loyalty. He taught me the true lessons of life," Russert said in 2007. He was married to Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair Magazine. The couple had one son, Luke. According to MSNBC.com, Russert met his wife at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
Praise flowed quickly from those who knew Russert across the television interview room.
"It was Tim's great gift to combine civility with tough-minded, relentless probing of a public figure's ideas and policies," said CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield said. "He rarely if ever let the canned talking points go unchallenged. He invented the technique of putting the subject's words on the table, and insisting on pushing the guest into attempting to square the circle. He was as good as it gets."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Russert was "the best in the business at keeping his interview subjects honest."
"There wasn't a better interviewer in television," Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential contender, told reporters in Ohio.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's rival for the White House, hailed Russert as the "pre-eminent journalist of his generation."