Five years ago Thursday longtime Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert died of a heart attack at age 58. His untimely death was a great loss for NBC News. In a special segment of Part 2 of the new Meet the Press eBook, our Senior Executive Producer Betsy Fischer Martin, who worked closely with Tim for 17 years, shares some personal memories and reflections on the man behind the Moderator's chair. You can read a preview of Betsy’s Producer’s Notebook below. And you can find more behind-the-scenes accounts of Meet the Press in the second volume of our eBook, “Meet the Press: 65 Years of History In the Making.” The interactive eBook will look at history through the lens of the world’s longest-running television program, including a video introduction and tour of the studio by Moderator David Gregory – as well as videos and photo slide-shows of newsmaking guests throughout the program’s history. The free eBook will be released later this month (more info here).
By Betsy Fischer Martin
Tim Russert was the longest serving moderator in the 65 year history of “Meet the Press.” Each Sunday for 17 years he quizzed leading political figures, enlightened audiences and informed the American public. His fascination with all things political was contagious and his on-the-mark analysis made him one of the most trusted names in television news. He changed TV news by perfecting a technique to hold politicians accountable by asking them tough questions and making them defend or explain their own past statements and positions. By simply displaying a quote on the screen, their remarks were sourced and cited for the viewer to see. Tim used to say, “If you can’t answer tough questions, you can’t make tough decisions.” And he made a stop at “Meet the Press” a prequisite for anybody aspiring to high office or a position of power. In 2003, the Associated Press dubbed this ticket-stamping exercise “the Russert Primary,” declaring Meet the Press an “integral part of the political process.”
On June 13, 2008 America lost a great journalist, NBC’s Washington Bureau lost a leader, Meet the Press lost its beloved longtime moderator--and I lost my mentor and good friend of 17 years. Much has been said and written about his incredible journalistic talents. Many pages of this e-book are a tribute to his hard work, preparation and the skilled questioning that catapulted Meet the Press to great heights. I wanted to share a bit about the man behind the interview desk, off-camera – what he was like to work with and learn from.
I first came to “Meet the Press” in 1991 as a 21-year-old college intern with absolutely no interest in pursuing a journalism career. All that changed quickly when I was officially bitten by the “journalism bug” thanks in no small part to the new moderator of “Meet the Press.” Tim’s enthusiasm about politics and campaigns was infectious and his willingness to teach me about the world of journalism gave me a new career path and a front row seat to history every Sunday morning. This passion for politics drew people to him. He could make even the most casual observer of politics feel a sense of excitement about a campaign, a new poll or even a newly released campaign fundraising report.
On election night 2000, that enthusiasm was on vivid display as he used a white dry-erase board from Staples to do the math on the Electoral College “score,” memorably boiling down the nail biter race to “Florida, Florida, Florida.” He was not a bells and whistles guy. He detested the busy and complex television graphics that seemed wallpapered over cable TV screens. Politics to him was not overly complicated. So learning about it and following it ought to be simple, too. As a producer, overseeing both the content and the look of the show, I used to hate it when he’d remark casually to someone, “The secret to ‘Meet the Press’ is simple: you get the top guest, ask them tough questions, and then just turn on the lights.” Of course there was nothing simple about getting a live national broadcast on the air each Sunday, lights and all, but he was often so focused on the interview he didn’t always fully appreciate everything that went in to the overall production. But what he unquestionably grasped was that communicating the facts and informing the public could be done smartly and without talking over the heads of viewers unfamiliar with Washington’s intricacies and acronyms. He was a firm believer that Americans were starved for a substantive conversation and his goal each week was to present just that. Other folks could worry about the “lights.”
After each Sunday’s program, his first phone call was usually to his dad, “Big Russ,” back home in Buffalo. Tim, having just completed a tough interview with a leading public official, would desperately want to know what his dad thought. Was the politician telling the truth? Did the guest seem genuine? Were his questions on the mark? He dubbed his no-nonsense, working class dad the “cheapest and most reliable focus-group around” for his knack at detecting whenever a politician was trying to dodge a question or pull one over on the viewers.
Tim fought for the underdog and he had no tolerance for entitlement, gamesmanship, elitism or whining. The large sign in front of his desk read “Thou Shalt Not Whine” and he meant it. As the Washington Bureau Chief, he expected hard work from those around him because he worked hard as well. By 9am in the morning, he’d already have read five or six newspapers and made several rounds of phone calls Capitol Hill and the White House. But he always wanted to know more. Often times his first words to me each morning were, “What do you know?” Tim did his homework. Preparation was key. He never once showed up for an interview unprepared and he believed that mastering both sides of an argument was the surest way to guarantee impartiality. He often called it “being an equal opportunity questioner.”
Tim, of course, was a human being with faults like the rest of us. But he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and what was fair and unfair. He was deeply loyal to those close to him. Even if I would make a mistake or something would go wrong, we’d talk about it and he’d end the conversation by saying, “onward and upward.” It was his way of saying, ‘learn from this, don’t dwell on it and know I am on your side.’ He took joy from the success of others and was always quick to help a close friend or colleague during tough times. During our “Meet the Press” tribute show to his life and legacy, I remarked that one of his favorite sayings was, “the best exercise for the human heart was to bend down and pick someone else up.”
Tim spent a lot of his life lifting up others in big and small ways. He was a dedicated volunteer, board member and supporter of the Boys and Girls Club. In keeping with his philosophy of giving back to others, he never forgot how much the Club did for his dad long ago when “Big Russ” was growing up in Buffalo. Tim’s work with the Club, so many years later, honored his father and helped other young people along the way. Many times on the show, he would set up a friendly wager with a guest or panelist about the outcome of an election with the loser on the hook for a donation to The Boys and Girls Club. I think James Carville was probably credited as a major donor during one election year!
Tim lived life large. Few things would get him more excited than finding the best local eating establishment in any small town -- and the more it resembled a “hole in the wall,” the better. When we’d travel to a political event, he was an early one-man incarnation of the today’s YELP app, asking local cab drivers, hotel employees, and random people on the street “where’s the best Italian around here” or “where’s the best Tex-Mex?” Once culinary perfection was found, chances are he’d remember the precise location and be sure to make a return visit on his next trip.
He also loved political history. Presidential libraries and historical markers were a magnet even if we just had a few spare hours in a new city. One of my favorite “field trips” with Tim was a spin around the city of Indianapolis just one month before he died in May of 2008. We were in town to do an interview with presidential candidate Barack Obama and we took a break from intense show prep to spend a Saturday afternoon visiting the “Landmark for Peace" memorial at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Now, Tim was probably the furthest thing from an art aficionado but a chance email from a museum employee grabbed my attention earlier in the week. She wrote to say that there was a Hyacinthe Rigaud painting on display in the museum of a French nobleman that bore an uncanny resemblance to Tim. Seeing reports that Meet the Press was coming to Indianapolis, she invited us to come take a look for ourselves. I thought Tim would get a kick out of the whole thing, so I convinced him to make a quick stop at the museum and sure enough, the painting did not disappoint!
One month later his big, fun-loving and generous heart stopped. He is missed by so many journalists who had the honor and privilege of working with him, so many young people who learned from him and so many Americans who loved watching him do what he loved most each Sunday. “Meet the Press” lives on and his contributions to its history will never be forgotten. I know he’d be the first to raise a bottle of his favorite Rolling Rock beer to its 65th anniversary.