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Tim Russert, 1950-2008: Gone Much Too Soon

Horrible news: Tim Russert has died suddenly of a heart attack at NBC's Washington bureau. Others are paying proper tribute to him as the host since 1991 of Meet the Press, on which he conducted the toughest interviews of politicians and officeholders on any interview show since he took over the program. My memories of Tim go back to the early 1980s, when Tim was on Pat Moynihan's Senate staff. He and Moynihan had much in common: They were both from working-class backgrounds, they both had roots in Upstate New York--Tim, as everyone knows, grew up in Buffalo, while Pat got his graduate degree at Syracuse and had a summer house in Delaware County--they both were staunch Democrats who nevertheless respected Ronald Reagan, they were both (at least on one side of their families) very, very Irish.

Tim didn't have particularly impressive credentials--no Ivy League, no law review. But Moynihan grasped early on that Tim had a brilliant, instinctive understanding of politics. He showed it in the run-up to Moynihan's 1982 re-election race. Reagan had carried New York and Republicans had won a majority in the Senate in 1980. In New York, the Republicans had hopes that Westchester Congressman Bruce Caputo--Italian, suburban, Vietnam veteran--could beat the one-term Democrat. But Tim did some opposition research and found out that Caputo had not served in Vietnam. He held it back and then leaked it, forcing Caputo out of the race, when it was too late for the Republicans to find a strong substitute.

From Moynihan's staff, Tim went on to be chief of staff for Gov. Mario Cuomo. I remember that I was lucky enough to stand beside him on the floor of the 1984 Democratic National Convention as Cuomo delivered his speech extolling America's immigrant heritage and recounting the hard work of his father. Looking back, I suspect that Tim must have encouraged Cuomo to do so, because Tim eventually wrote his own bestselling book, Big Russ and Me: Father and Son: Lessons of Life, a wonderful book about his father.

Later that year, Tim made the transition from political aide to NBC. He started off, as I recall, as Washington bureau chief as well as correspondent and developed an unparalleled number of sources. Naturally, questions were raised about his objectivity. But he quickly put them to rest. It was something of a surprise to many when he took over Meet the Press, but he reshaped the program in his own image, with his trademark quotations of his guests' previous statements and his hard-hitting questions. Tim was kind enough to have me on the program a few times to promote editions of The Almanac of American Politics, of which I have been principal coauthor.

Tim had such joie de vivre that it's hard to believe he's gone. He had a great sense of humor and was a gifted mimic. He was famous in the Moynihan office for his imitation of the senator, until eventually Moynihan confronted him and, mimicking his mimicry, said, "Me Moynihan; you Russert." Pat died in March 2003. Now, much too soon, they both are gone.

By Michael Barone

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