'America's most influential journalist' dies

By Leonard Doyle
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:36

The man widely viewed as America's most influential political journalist, Tim Russert, the probing host of NBC's Meet the Press, died suddenly yesterday.

Russert, who was 58, suffered a coronary embolism while working at the NBC Washington bureau. The consummate Washington insider, Time magazine had named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

As host of Meet the Press since 1991, Russert turned it into the most widely respected programme of the type on US television. Now in its 60th year, Meet the Press is a weekly trial by fire for the politically ambitious, and is the longest-running programme in the history of television. Anyone hoping to be president of the United States, had first to run its gauntlet.

He was "one of the premiere political journalists and analysts of his time," said Tom Brokaw, the former longtime anchor of NBC Nightly News, who announced his colleague's death. The Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz said he had "revolutionised Sunday morning television and infused journalism with his passion for politics".

The two men battling to be the next president of the US led the tributes to Russert. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, said: "There wasn't a better interviewer on television, 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."

The Republican candidate John McCain called him "a truly a great American".

President George Bush, who is visiting Europe, also joined Hillary and Bill Clinton and numerous other political leaders in recognising his contribution to broadcasting. From his working class roots in Buffalo, New York, Russert had risen to become NBC's Washington bureau chief. With a genial but unrelenting line of questioning that could make the most hardened politician squirm, he was the undisputed king of political journalism in the US.

He frequently rattled candidates by demonstrating an intimate knowledge of their positions across the issues. With a twinkle in his eye he would reveal to Sunday morning viewers how a candidate had flip-flopped, while his victim sweated it out under the studio lights.

He also led the coverage of the presidential election campaign and called the primary race for Mr Obama on 6 May, the night of the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, declaring: "We now know who the Democratic nominee's going to be, and no one's going to dispute it."

The pronouncement was treated as a major news event in itself and The New York Times reported that his instant analysis effectively blocked Mrs Clinton's campaign from portraying her narrow victory in Indiana as an upset. The steam quickly went out of her presidential campaign.

Russert's interview technique was much admired and studied by his rivals. "Plotting his interviews out like chess matches, he deploys aggressive openings, subtle feints, artfully constructed traps, and lightning offenses to crack the politicians' phony veneer and reveal the genuine veneer beneath," one commented.

As well as his Sunday morning programme, Russert was moderator for numerous political debates among presidential candidates. He also wrote two best-selling books.

Before becoming a political journalist in the 1980s, he was an insider in New York politics. He was chief of staff to the legendary New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and helped secure Mario Cuomo's election as governor of New York in 1982.

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