When Tim Russert died of a heart attack last week at the age of 58, fate’s timing seemed nearly as cruel as the fact itself. It meant that Russert—the author of two hugely successful books about fatherhood—would miss Father’s Day, and it meant that, as the preeminent political interviewer and commentator of his time, he would miss potentially the most momentous presidential election since 1980 if not 1968. Russert’s estimation of politics was high enough to assume the best of those he grilled; when the tributes began pouring in, the one thing every political figure who had been on the other side of his desk noted in wonder was how Russert always let his guest finish a sentence—as though he cared more about the answer than about the question. Russert’s understanding of the electoral map was as incisive as a Rove or Carville, and for many the most indelible image of him was from the early hours of the 2000 contest when, in the face of the most sophisticated technology that television journalism could muster, he scrawled on a white drawing board “Florida Florida Florida,” his prediction of where the race would be decided later that night. (He similarly predicted Ohio Ohio Ohio in 2004.) So authoritative a voice was Russert’s that when he declared Barack Obama the winner of the Democratic nomination one primary night in early May, a month before Hillary Clinton conceded, the conclusion became the media consensus. Before coming to NBC and then taking over Meet the Press at the end of 1991, Russert worked for New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo, but though his background was as a working-class Democrat, Republican guests on the long-running Sunday-morning program knew they would get as fair a shake as anyone, and Democratic guests knew he would cut them no special slack. Beyond the journalism community that found Russert’s loss incalculable, Russert’s death was a shock to the country at large in part for how premature it was and in part because in an often ruthless business Russert was an old-fashioned guy, as defined by authentic commitments to faith and family and hometown Buffalo Bills football as by his rough-and-tumble role of history’s referee. He was married to Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, with whom he had a son.
Photograph by MSNBC