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.
He was NBC’s Washington bureau chief.
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.
Williams called him "aggressively unfancy."
"Our hearts are broken," said Mitchell, who appeared emotional at times as she recalled her longtime colleague.
Bob Schieffer, Russert’s competitor on CBS’ "Face the Nation," said the two men delighted in scooping each other.
"When you slipped one past ol’ Russert," he said, "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."
Russert had been recording voiceovers for this Sunday’s "Meet The Press" when he was stricken, NBC said. Russert’s internist, Michael A. Newman, said cholesterol plaque had ruptured in an artery, causing sudden coronary thrombosis. Resuscitation was begun immediately and continued at Sibley Memorial Hospital, to no avail.
Newman said an autopsy showed that Russert had an enlarged heart, NBC reported. Russert had been diagnosed with asymptomatic coronary artery disease, which he was controlling with medication and exercise, the doctor said.
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 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.
"I can say from experience that joining Tim on "Meet the Press" was one of the greatest tests any public official could face," said Rep. John Boehner, House Republican leader. "Regardless of party affiliation, he demanded that you be straight with him and with the American people who were watching."
Russert 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.
He 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.
Lawmakers from both parties lined up to sing his praises after his sudden death.
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."
Carl P. Leubsdorf, president of the Gridiron Club, an organization of journalists, said, "It was a measure of the degree to which Tim Russert was respected in the journalistic world that he was the first broadcaster elected to membership in the Gridiron Club after the rules were changed in 2004 to end our century-old restriction to print journalists."
Said longtime colleague Brokaw, the former NBC anchor: "He’ll be missed as he was loved — greatly."
He had dozens of honorary college degrees, and numerous professional awards. He won an Emmy for his role in the coverage of President Ronald Reagan’s funeral in 2004.
Russert was married to Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine. The couple had one son, Luke.