WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tim Russert, a leading U.S. political correspondent and host of the NBC television network’s long-running “Meet the Press” talk show, died on Friday of a heart attack, the network said. He was 58.
NBC interrupted programming for a special report by former anchorman Tom Brokaw, who said Russert collapsed and died at work in NBC’s Washington bureau after returning from a trip to Italy with his family.
A network statement said he died of a sudden heart attack while pre-recording a segment for this Sundays “Meet the Press” program.
Brokaw told viewers 2008 “was one of the most important years in Tim’s life. ... He loved this political campaign. He worked to the point of exhaustion so many weeks.”
U.S. President George W. Bush and the two main candidates in November’s election to succeed him all praised Russert.
Russert, who took over “Meet the Press” in 1991 and oversaw a rise in the Sunday program’s popularity, was known for both tough questioning of American political figures and a cheerful television persona.
Now in its 60th year, “Meet the Press” is the longest-running program in the history of television, NBC said. Russert took over in December 1991. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world this year.
He was a political analyst for “NBC Nightly News” and the “Today” program, and anchored “The Tim Russert Show,” a weekly interview program on the CNBC cable-TV channel.
Brokaw lauded Russert for his best-selling books, “Big Russ and Me” about his childhood and his relationship with his father, and “The Wisdom of Our Fathers,” a book inspired by the many letters he received from children talking about their relationship with their fathers.
Democrats and Republicans lauded Russert’s work.
In a statement from Paris, the Republican Bush said: ”As the longest-serving host of the longest-running program in the history of television, he was an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades.
“Tim was a tough and hardworking 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, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said: “There wasn’t a better interviewer in television, not a more thoughtful analyst of our politics.”
Republican presidential candidate John 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Steve Gorman, Jeff Mason, Andy Sullivan and Tabassum Zakaria, Editing by Howard Goller