Tim Russert Remembered Fondly by Colleagues Tim Russert, moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, died suddenly of a heart attack on Friday. For more on Russert's life and legacy, Farai Chideya speaks with two people who knew him well: Michele Norris and Gwen Ifill.
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Tim Russert Remembered Fondly by Colleagues

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Tim Russert Remembered Fondly by Colleagues

Tim Russert Remembered Fondly by Colleagues

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From NPR News, this is News & Notes, I'm Farai Chideya.

Tim Russert, the longtime host of "Meet the Press," passed away Friday. He died of a heart attack at the NBC studios in Washington, D.C. His colleague Tom Brokaw announced the news to a stunned array of journalists, politicians and fans. Joining me now to remember his life and work is Michele Norris. She is the host of All Things Considered, here on NPR. You have also seen a lot of her this electoral season on "Meet the Press." Also with us is Gwen Ifill. She is the moderator and managing editor of the PBS show "Washington Week." Michele, Gwen, thanks for joining us.

Ms. GWEN IFILL (Moderator and Managing Editor, "Washington Week"): Thanks, Farai.

MICHELE NORRIS: Good to be with you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So I want to start off by asking each of you, how did you meet Tim Russert? Gwen first.

Ms. IFILL: I would say I met Tim Russert 20 years ago, covering my very first presidential campaign, and he had just taken over as bureau chief for NBC News in Washington. At the time he hadn't had a lot of journalism experience, in fact none, and when took over, there were lot of arched eyebrows about whether he was up to this job and whether he deserved it, and whether he had appropriate journalism background. I didn't get to know him really well until I went - I started doing "Meet the Press" when I was working for the New York Times as an occasional panelist.

And then he wooed me to come to work full-time for him at NBC, covering politics, covering congress, covering campaigns, and basically talked me out of my cushy job at the New York Times and over to NBC News, where he promised that I would be able to do the job I wanted to do, and he kept every single promise he made to me. So we became friends, he became my mentor, he became my boss, and he became just my cut buddy to talk political gossip with. So I'm missing him a lot today.

CHIDEYA: Before I get to you, Michele, Gwen, we have heard that he's mentored several people of color, including Suzanne Malveaux, who is now of CNN. What do you think he found in you and Suzanne and the other people he mentored that he really wanted to do, not just for you, but for journalism?

Ms. IFILL: He found people who could tell him things he didn't know. He was a proud Irish Catholic son of Buffalo, New York, with his blue-collar roots, which have been widely documented. But he understood that he didn't know about other people's experiences, and it wasn't like he walked in and said, tell me about black people. It was that he knew if he surrounded himself with enough different kinds of voices who might see something different than he would see in a set of circumstances, that he would learn something new. And he was always kind of excited just to hear something put in a different way, or someone bring a different approach or say, or if - he loved you if it seemed like you also from a lower-middle-class or poor background that you could bond over your sameness as much as your difference. So I always found him to be - his curiosity to be the driving force which led him to bring different kinds of voices into our coverage.

CHIDEYA: Michele, you bravely went on All Things Considered to talk about Russert just hours after he had past away. And for people who were not, perhaps, as big political junkies as we are, explain why this man - who was a named to Time's list of the 100 most influential people world-wide - but why was he so influential?

NORRIS: I think he was influential because of who he was when he sat on that chair on Sunday Morning, and the kind of questions that he asked, and the respect and the integrity that he brought to that process. But I think there was something else, that he was - you know, Gwen noted that he came from Irish working-class roots, he never forgot who he was. And if you - I just remember running into him, for instance, traveling back and forth on the shuttle, between New York and Washington, D.C., and if you were late for a flight, woe to you if you were walking down the hallway with Tim, because he was stopped every fifteen seconds. And he made time for everyone. He came across not in anyway that was grand, but as someone who was very much the common man, someone that people could relate to. And I think he tried very hard to take the political process and make sure that it was understood by the folks who were sitting around in union halls and in bars and in classrooms back home, in Buffalo, where he came from.

CHIDEYA: I actually want to play a little bit of you, from an appearance that you made on "Meet the Press" in March. You are talking about Barack Obama and the controversial remarks of the reverend Jeremiah Wright.

(Soundbite of "Meet the Press", March, 2008)

NORRIS: The sort of fire from the pulpit is not something that is unusual in an African-American church, that is some, and in fact in many churches in America. So what you are dealing with in these statements is in part the words, but also in the way that they were delivered. And you are right in noting that that is very different from what Barack Obama hears, but it's not altogether different from what many people are hearing at this moment in churches all across America.

CHIDEYA: What allowed you to go on that show and speak not only, you know, in a journalistic tone that might had been more distant, but a journalistic tone that was more friendly or personal, I guess. I'm not sure how to…

NORRIS: To break it down?

CHIDEYA: To break it down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: To break it down, sister girl, to break it down. You know, what was it about this show that allowed you to be your full self?

NORRIS: It was Tim. And Gwen has had these moments also, because I have had experiences watching her on Sunday Morning, where she starts to say something and everybody else in the room sort of sits back in their chair and just watches, because they are not sure that they have anything to contribute on this point. It is what Gwen said…

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: …that Tim had a way of - he knew what he didn't know, and he surrounded himself with people who could bring a new perspective to the table. And part of it was that it was a conversation, it wasn't an inquisition. Sitting at Tim's table felt like you were almost at his dining room table in his home or something. He really did want to hear from you, and he cherished the fact that you brought something different to the table, that you part of different experience.

And in that moment - following up on that clip - David Broder and David Gregory were also on that program, and David Broder scratched his head and said, you know, but I just don't understand how a guy like Barack Obama could, you know, could go to a church that was presided over week in and week out by this man who speaks like this. And normally that would have been a cue for the moderator, for Tim, to jump in and take over the conversation. And in that moment Tim turned to me and without saying anything said, you are on board, you know, this is your time to explain this…

Ms. IFILL: And the other thing…

NORRIS: And he…

Ms. IFILL: Go ahead.

NORRIS: He knew when to step forward and he knew when to step back.

Ms. IFILL: And the other thing, Farai, is that it was a safe place to go. If you are a straight-ahead reporter, like Michele and I, we are not pundits, we are not people who tell you what you ought to think, we are not, you know, grandiose opinion-meisters. So we knew that was a safe place where we would go, Tim wouldn't, like, point his finger at us and ask us to make predictions about what are you going to do next, and, he wouldn't do any of that, he would treat - he could take pains to treat us as reporters who were bringing information to the table, not pundits who are just popping off based on what they had read in the paper five minutes before. He knew there was a place for that. In fact, he told people he knew that some people have that job, and he had a different job. And if you tried to get Tim to say what he thought, he would change the subject faster than a speeding bullet.

CHIDEYA: I was at a barbecue this weekend, and someone said to me, you know, I'm essentially - and I'm paraphrasing here - I'm tired of people just saying nice things about Tim Russert. I feel like political journalists who were in the center like him are not though enough on the politicians. Gwen, what would you say to that?

Ms. IFILL: I say they didn't watch "Meet the Press." Because, yeah, there - sure there are a lot of people out there who are more interested in telling you their opinions than in drilling the people who hold the levers of power, but I never saw anybody grill a politician like Tim Russert. I don't think any politician or everyone on "Meet the Press" ever felt like they were treated with a soft hand. And he had enough time that he would grill, and it was a great frustration to his producers, because they'd say, you have ten minutes Tim, and Tim was gone for 14 if indeed he was getting the answer.

Sure, there are a lot of shortcomings in what we do, in our business, and my great fear and grief is that that is going to be a bitter shortcoming with Tim's loss, because I think he absolutely goes down with the reputation of being someone who really grilled, who was really tough. I know it can seem from the a distance - and I am aware of this myself because of my personal connection with Tim -, that we can go overboard in praising someone, but I don't think it's too much to say. I know this from all of my friends who work at NBC news bureau, all the journalists I know who have ever been on "Meet the Press" that their feeling was today this real gap in how we're going to cover this campaign without someone who's job it is to hold down, to be the ballast, to hold down the middle without telling you what to think or expressing opinion or doing the quick whip around, just really boring in. And that's what Tim did.

NORRIS: You know, I just have to add something there, Farai. Tim also taught us something. Gwen and I both interviewed people in what we do. We both, you know, sit at a table also and question people about their jobs, their policies. And one of the things that Tim taught us was is, you can be tough and still exhibit grace, you know, when people criticize and raised these kind of comments you they're saying, well he wasn't tough enough, he didn't grill them, he didn't bore down hard enough on people.

I would invite them to sit down and watch his interview with President Bush, where he asked a simple question, was this a war of choice or a war of necessity? I would ask them to sit down and look at his interview with David Duke, where when David Duke said, I'm not running on race, I'm running on the economy, and he asked a series of respectful questions, measured questions. He didn't necessarily bore down or beat him up, but he made clear that David Duke said he was running on economic issues, but actually knew very little about the economic issues that actually touched the lives of people in Louisiana.

CHIDEYA: When you think about this election, which is - to call it unprecedented would be an understatement. How do you think this is going to change the coming months we have of coverage until the moment when all is said and done? Michele first.

NORRIS: You mean how I think Tim's passing will change this?

CHIDEYA: Yes. Yes.

NORRIS: You know, NBC has, boy, they have a tough choice to make, you know, in deciding who actually sits in that chair. But Tim left a legacy that many people will look to inside NBC and out of NBC. And the one thing - you I know, again I'm not going to make predictions because that's not generally what I do, but I will say this. I will miss - I just miss him in general, but I'll miss the way he asked questions, I'll also miss the joy that he brought to the process.

This was someone who was as enthusiastic about this election as anyone I have ever met. He'd You know, you'd sit at his table and when you'd they'd go to commercial break he'd look at you, he'd turn to you and he'd say, can you believe what's going on? And I mean, you saw that if you watched him on Sunday mornings. You say saw that if you watched him in the course of the cable coverage, you saw that if you watched him in the "Today Show" coverage. And he reminded us every day that we have the best jobs in America. We sit at the front seat of history, and boy I'll miss him for that.


Ms. IFILL: The other think is, I'm not - know we've all lived long enough to know that no one person is the only person who can do a job. I mean, it's always alarming how quickly the water closes over your head once you step out of the tub. That's a terrible metaphor, but you know where I'm going. I think that it's possible that Tim, I don't think he'll be replaced, but that somebody will step in and will ask the right questions. And this campaign is too consequential and there are too many important issues to get to for the questions not to be asked. They will be asked, but not quite the same way. And Michele is right. You know, right now, every media industry, every part of the media industry is under siege. We just heard today that McClatchy Newspapers is cutting back 10 percent, hundreds and hundreds of jobs at their newspapers around the country. That is hundreds and hundreds of people re who aren't doing it the same, so I worry about what happens from there without Tim.

CHIDEYA: All right, ladies. Thank you so much.

NORRIS: Thank you, Farai.

Ms. IFILL: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking with Michele Norris of NPR's All Things Considered and Gwen Ifill of the PBS show "Washington Week" about Tim Russert.

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