WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tim Russert, who became a household name in American political discourse as host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday talk show, died on the job of a heart attack on Friday, the television network said. He was 58.
Russert, known for his tough interviews of many of the leading U.S. political figures of the past two decades, was the NBC News Washington bureau chief.
“He was an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades,” U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement issued in Paris, where the president was traveling.
Russert became a news subject himself in 2007, when he provided key testimony at the CIA leak trial of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
NBC interrupted its programming for a special report by former anchorman Tom Brokaw, who announced in a voice heavy with emotion that Russert had died at the network’s Washington bureau after returning from a trip to Italy with his family.
Russert was prerecording a segment for this Sunday’s “Meet the Press” program when he collapsed.
NBC said Dr. Michael Newman, Russert’s physician, determined that cholesterol plaque ruptured in an artery, causing blood flow to the heart to be blocked by a clot. The network said an autopsy shortly after his death showed he had an enlarged heart and significant coronary artery disease.
“I think I can invoke personal privilege to say this news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice. He will be missed as he was loved, greatly,” Brokaw said.
“Here was a guy who, in a really affable way, was able to do something that news anchors don’t really do: provide cogent, understandable, compelling analysis of really complex issues,” said Syracuse University media expert Robert Thompson.
It was as host of “Meet the Press” since 1991 that Russert became a leading voice in American politics by mixing his cheerful on-air persona with the tough questioning of political guests including Bush and leading personalities of the 2008 presidential campaign.
News of Russert’s death brought an outpouring of praise from political figures including Bush and the two main candidates in the November presidential election — Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.
“Tim was a tough and hard-working newsman. He was always well-informed and thorough in his interviews. And he was as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it,” Bush said.
Speaking to reporters in Columbus, Ohio, Obama said, “There wasn’t a better interviewer in television, not a more thoughtful analyst of our politics.”
McCain said: “Tim Russert was at the top of his profession. He was a man of honesty and integrity. He was hard, but he was always fair.”
Libby was charged with lying and obstructing a federal investigation into the leaking CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity after her husband criticized the Bush administration.
Libby said he had learned of Plame’s secret identity from Russert. But Russert testified he did not discuss Plame with Libby and offered the jury an account sharply at odds with Libby’s recorded testimony. Libby was ultimately convicted, but Bush commuted his sentence, sparing him from prison.
Russert joined NBC News in 1984. In April 1985, he supervised the live broadcasts of NBC’s Today show from Rome. In 1986 and 1987, Russert led NBC News’ weeklong broadcasts from South America, Australia and China. NBC is controlled by General Electric Co.
Russert was also a best-selling author. “Big Russ and Me,” described his childhood in Buffalo, New York, and his relationship with his father, who worked as a garbage collector. He also wrote “The Wisdom of Our Fathers,” inspired by letters he received from children talking about their relationship with their fathers.
Russert was a political analyst for “NBC Nightly News” and the “Today” morning show, and anchored “The Tim Russert Show,” a weekly interview program on the CNBC cable TV channel.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, Steve Holland, Steve Gorman, Jeff Mason, Andy Sullivan and Tabassum Zakaria; editing by Todd Eastham