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THE SITUATION ROOM
Tim Russert Dies of Heart Attack
Aired June 13, 2008 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
The breaking news, very sad news. Our friend, our colleague, Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief of NBC News, the long time host of "Meet The Press," has unfortunately died, just a little while ago here in Washington.
He was at work at the NBC studios when he had a heart attack and he was unable to recover from that and he passed away.
Our deepest, deepest condolences to his family, to his wife Maureen, to his son Luke, Big Russ, in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, his father, and the entire Russert family and to all of our friends and colleagues at NBC News.
A very, very sad day. Tim Russert, born in Buffalo, New York in 1950. He was only 58 years old, but had reached the pinnacle of his profession in recent years. He was at his best game right now. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack and passed away.
We heard him on local radio this morning at 7:50 a.m. and he sounded great, sounded like Tim Russert. But that's what happened.
Our colleagues are here with us.
Our former Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno, is here; Gloria Borger; Bill Schneider -- all close personal friends of Tim Russert.
You worked very closely with him when you were the bureau chief here at CNN and he was the NBC News bureau chief.
FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: The news bureau chief. I have to say I'm just stunned about this. And I want to also express my condolences to Tim's family, his extended family at NBC and everybody he worked with and interviewed.
Tim was just a remarkable journalist, as you pointed out. But as a bureau chief, he also provided an overarching editorial hand. I think that's probably what most people don't realize.
I was at meetings with him at the White House, the Pentagon and elsewhere. What he would represent in a very forceful, but respectful way, always, the interests of journalism, the free flow of information. He lived, he breathed, he ate this stuff. Politics was in his blood. It's what he did best. Tim had over four dozen or so honorary degrees from colleges and universities from around the country. He was repeatedly acknowledged, as one of the most, if not the most, influential journalist in Washington.
Just a remarkable guy who could track the story, interview people in the way that we've come to see on "Meet The Press" and helped to, as I say, shape the overall direction and strategy of the entire NBC bureau here in Washington and the network beyond that.
BLITZER: And, Gloria, a lot of people don't appreciate, don't realize that the journalistic community here in Washington, very competitive. Certainly, we all are. But we're also friends and we know each other. You used to work at CBS News, but you've gotten to know -- you got to know Tim Russert over the years and his wife Maureen Orth.
GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And his son, Luke Russert. And so my condolences go out to that family.
You know, one thing people might not know about Tim is the devoted father that he was. Luke Russert went to school with both of my sons. And there wasn't a sporting event that Tim missed. His son is the apple of his eye. And so in addition to being a journalist's journalist, this -- Tim is just truly a family man and family always came first. And I'd never -- I could always run into Tim no matter what story it was and he'd say how are your boys, how are your boys?
That's the kind of person Tim Russert was.
BLITZER: He loved to take Luke to the basketball games...
BLITZER: ...the Wizards games, the baseball games, the Washington Nationals. He was a great, great sports fan. As well.
Here's how Tom Brokaw, the former anchor at NBC News, broke the news on NBC just a few moments ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: I'm Tom Brokaw, NBC News. And it is my sad duty to report this afternoon that my friend and colleague, Tim Russert, moderator of "Meet The Press" and NBC's Washington bureau chief, collapsed and died early this afternoon while at work at the NBC News bureau in Washington.
Tim had just returned from a family trip to Italy with his wife Maureen Orth, the writer, and his son Luke. They were celebrating Luke's graduation from Boston College just this spring.
Tim, of course, has been the host of "Meet The Press" longer than any other person in that long-running television broadcast. And he has been a very familiar face on this network and throughout the world of political journalism, as one of the premier political analysts and journalists of his time.
Tim, 58-years-old, grew up in Buffalo. And he wrote a number one best-selling "New York Times" book called "Big Russ and Me" about his childhood and especially about his relationship with his father, "Big Russ". That was followed by another number one "New York Times" best- seller called "The Wisdom of Our Fathers." that book was inspired by the many letters that he received from other children talking about their relationship with their fathers.
This was one of the most important years in Tim's life for so many reasons. He loved this political campaign. He worked to the point of exhaustion so many weeks, not just on "Meet The Press," but on MSNBC and with our colleague, Brian Williams, of course, during the debates and on special coverage on NBC Nightly News.
Tim was a true child of Buffalo and the blue collar roots in which he was raised. For all of his success, he was always in touch with the ethos of that community. Just last week, he was back in Buffalo moving his father from his home to another facility. His father now in his late 80s.
"Big Russ," it goes without saying, our heart goes out to him and all members of Tim's family. Tim loved his family, his faith, his country, politics. He loved the Buffalo Bills, the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals. He, of course, had season tickets to that team when they moved to Washington.
We'll have additional details throughout the evening here on NBC News and MSNBC, of course. Brian Williams will have continuing coverage.
But to repeat, our beloved colleague, one of the premier journalists of our time, Tim Russert, died this afternoon after collapsing at work at the NBC News bureau in Washington, D.C. .
And I think I can invoke personal privilege to say that this news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice. He'll be missed, as he was loved, greatly.
I'm Tom Brokaw, NBC News, in New York.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Perfectly said by Tom Brokaw, the former NBC News anchor.
I want to bring James Carville in on the phone. James was very, very friendly with...
BLITZER: ...James Carville worked together with Luke Carville on a radio -- a sports talk show on XM Radio.
James, this is such a sad moment. Such a shock for all of us who've known Tim Russert for so many years.
But I'm anxious to get your thoughts, as one of his best friends here in Washington. JAMES CARVILLE, FRIEND OF TIM RUSSERT: I mean it's just utter shock. Listen, I have nothing but admiration for listening to Tom Brokaw, who I know is in utter shock, to do a professional job like he did. And I'm -- it's just -- it's obviously where -- my wife and I are in a complete state of shock. This is, you know, one of the most influential people in politics in my lifetime, somebody that I've talked to on the phone every day. I mean I'm -- it's just -- it's a shocking thing. It's hard for me to comprehend, to be honest with you.
BLITZER: Was there any evidence that he had some serious medical ailments, any heart problems, as far as you know, James?
Because I used to see the two of you sitting at -- early on the lower -- one of the good seats at the Wizards games all the time.
BLITZER: You were always having a good -- did you have -- ever have any indication...
CARVILLE: I should know. In fact...
BLITZER: ...that he had any medical problems?
CARVILLE: No. And we went to the -- we sat together. We had our seats together at the Wizards game. We have our seats together at the Nationals game and the last home stand, we were -- I mean the last home stand. I guess I'm being a little discombobulated here. I guess it was Memorial Day weekend. After that, we were at the game together. And I had -- he had just gone to Europe to see Luke, who was over there, his son, who I do a radio show with.
I'm completely -- if I sound like -- if I sound a little incoherent, it's because I am. I'm not as professional a journalist as Tom Brokaw is.
BLITZER: No. It's totally understanding. You guys were really, really strong, good friends. And, you know, Tim had this incredible personality that made people feel comfortable. We spent some time together only a few weeks ago when Pope Benedict XVI was here in Washington. And, as you know, he's a devout Catholic.
CARVILLE: Very devout.
BLITZER: Regularly attended church, was so excited to meet His Holiness. Came to that little photo opportunity -- that opportunity we had to shake hands with the pontiff. I'm telling you, when I saw him in that room with the president of Catholic University, who invited us, he was like a little boy -- a little kid that was just so, so pumped.
CARVILLE: I don't think Tim ever -- I mean that was what I loved about him. He was always a little kid. I mean he was -- when, you know, the Wizards were in the play-offs a couple of years ago and we won that first round, man, it was unbelievable. Or when Dillerman (ph) hit the home run opening night with the Nats -- I mean, when people see him on television, they think of this sort of professional, tough journalist in pursuit of a senator or presidential candidate. You know, the truth is, is that you hit it exactly right, Wolf. If he met the pope or he went to a ball game or if it was Luke graduating from college, he had a -- and that's what -- that's why -- and I just loved the guy.
He was -- he had enthusiasm about all of the things that life brings to you -- the Buffalo Bills. I mean -- and I talked to him this week. He said he had a terrible week. He had to put his father in an extended care facility. He said it was the hardest day he ever had.
BLITZER: You know, whenever I saw him, the subject...
CARVILLE: I talked to him on the phone every day. I mean it's like, I don't know -- it's so difficult to comprehend. And, I mean, I know other people have -- I'm old enough to have had some of these things happen to me before. But this is very, very difficult.
BLITZER: It's hard to believe, because he was always there. And, as I said, even today, he was on the radio and -- WTOP Radio, the local all news station, this morning. Every Friday morning he would do a little hit there to promote "Meet The Press" on Sunday, give a little political analysis. He was one hardworking journalist.
And, as you point out, James, I think that's because of the upbringing he had as a real blue collar, working class kid growing up in the South Side of Buffalo. He knew his roots. And even though he had reached, really, the peak of journalism here in the nation's capital, he never forgot where he came from. And he was always passionate about that.
CARVILLE: Absolutely. And I think he never forgot that his dad, you know, in those cold Buffalo mornings, was, you know, worked for the sanitation department, was on the back of that truck and, you know, emptying cans. And I think -- he mentioned that all the time. And he said, you know what I do is really not that hard. He had an unbelievable sense of pride in his work, pride in his church, pride in his hometown, you know, pride in his network. He was a -- you know, he was a prideful guy. But he was also -- he had a -- he always had a kind of a childlike enthusiasm about the world (INAUDIBLE) things. It was just a -- it sounds trite, but he was just an amazing guy and, you know, just as a guy, as somebody to have as a friend, just an amazing, amazing person.
And, you know, the void and -- you know, you speak to somebody -- literally about the only day that I generally wouldn't call him would be like on Friday, because I knew he was like getting ready for the show.
CARVILLE: But it's -- you know, I mean Washington, I know that, you know, everybody comes through here. But this is -- for me, this is -- you know, he was just such a part of -- a part of my life here.
BLITZER: I know he was. And our condolences to you, too, as one of his best friends in Washington.
BLITZER: James, I want you to stand by, if you can.
I want to bring in our colleague, Howard Kurtz of "The Washington Post" and CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" -- Howie, you obviously got to know Tim Russert right here well over these many years. And when we say he was the best of the best, we mean it. We don't just mean it because he died today. But he really was one of the outstanding journalists here in Washington.
HOWARD KURTZ, CNN'S "RELIABLE SOURCES": Wolf, this guy was absolutely a force of nature, through the force of his personality, through his insatiable desire to talk about and report on and gossip about politics, he really transformed NBC's political coverage. I think he revolutionized Sunday morning television when he took over that show, "Meet The Press," in 1991.
When politicians -- I mean there are many fine Sunday shows on, including yours. But when politicians go on "Meet The Press" because of its mass audience -- presidential candidates, presidents, incumbent presidents -- it was an event to see how Russert could do with his interrogation-style approach. And he just loved the game. And I think that came across.
Of course, he had been part of the game when he worked for Democratic politicians and crossed over to the journalism side. And I think that came across both in his hard work and just anybody who ever watched him on the tube could see that this was somebody who was fully engaged in the art of covering politics.
BLITZER: And to give us a little perspective on the vacuum, the void that's going to be created now by Tim Russert's death, give us some of that perspective.
KURTZ: Well, you know, not only was he about as high profile as you could get, Wolf, in the television world, as NBC's Washington bureau chief, as "Meet The Press" moderator, as a frequent moderator on "The Today Show" and "Nightly News" and the whole panoply of programs, but this was a guy whose clout was such that when he went on the air -- remember this, it was after midnight last month, on primary night, the North Carolina primary and the Indiana primary and the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And he said -- he didn't mince any words. He didn't say it appears to be. He said essentially Barack Obama has sewed up this nomination.
That was an event. That was an earthquake. It changed the way, I think, a lot of other people reported on the results of those primaries. And that is the kind of -- he just had the kind of stature, given that he had played the game at such a high level on both sides of the divide, the political divide and the journalistic divide, that there just aren't many like him to step in and fill that void.
BLITZER: "Time" magazine, our sister publication, Howie, only a few weeks ago, named him among the most 100 most important people -- influential people in the world. That was a great honor. I remember when he was given that honor by "Time" magazine, only a few weeks ago, at a gala -- a black tie dinner in New York City.
At the time, I saw the list and I think he may have been the only television journalist -- maybe the only journalist on that list, by "Time" magazine.
There's the Web site from our -- from "Time" magazine when he was given that hugely important award.
KURTZ: He was so embedded, really, in the Washington culture that it was Tim Russert's testimony at the "Scooter" Libby trial that sent Vice President Cheney's former aide -- top aide -- to a conviction, not jail, because he was -- the sentence was commuted by President Bush. Because "Scooter" Libby had called Russert to complain about something and then claimed they talked about Valerie Plame and Russert said that they did not.
But the real shame of this, I mean, in addition to the human toll for those of us who worked with him or against him or just respected the hell out of Tim Russert, is not just the loss to his friends and family and colleagues at the age of 58, but he was at the absolute top of his game. I think in this campaign, more than any other, he just seemed to be ubiquitous. It's a great race. He loved covering this race. And it's not like -- you know, a lot of very good, very talented Washington and other journalists pass from the scene. But Tim Russert really was irreplaceable because, as I say, of the sheer force of his personality.
BLITZER: I had him on "LATE EDITION," my Sunday show, whenever his new books would come out. Back in 2004, his best-seller, "Big Russ and Me." We talked about his father. We talked about his roots growing up in Buffalo, New York. And then 2006, "Wisdom of our Fathers," another best-seller that he released. And people don't appreciate, necessarily, how important those books were and the prominence, the nature, how well received they were by the book publishing book -- the buying community out there.
KURTZ: And I think that was absolutely part of the key to his appeal. You know, here he became extraordinarily famous and successful and the multi-million dollar contract and all of that. But as you and James were talking a moment ago, he was a son of Buffalo. His father was a sanitation worker. He didn't really forget his roots. And when he would cover politics and talk about politics and interrogate politicians, he would do so with the average guy in mind. I mean almost like a politician who has the common touch, Tim Russert, you know, the ultimate insider in some ways, knew how to translate the arcane game of politics to people like he grew up with -- with his dad.
And, you know, he's a guy who didn't -- wasn't born with a silver spoon. He had to raise money to put himself through college and through law school. The fact that he was a lawyer, I think, helped with his skills interrogating public figures. And so, you know, it's cliche to say oh, he never forgot the roots. A lot of people do, they become really successful. I don't think Tim Russert did. And I think somehow, on the screen, when you watched him, that came across.
BLITZER: And whenever I would run into him, Buffalo was a subject close to his heart, as we all know, but a subject close to my heart, as well. He may have grown up on the South Side. I grew up on the North Side of Buffalo and, you know, two Buffalo boys -- we were staying there at Catholic University standing, getting ready to shake hands with Pope Benedict XVI. And he looked at me he said, "Can you imagine, Wolf, two kids from Buffalo about to meet the pope?"
And it was a pretty amazing thought, when you think about it, when you think about the roots, the background that he had growing up in Buffalo. And it was a moving experience, a moving moment for all of us, as we look back and we reflect on the life and times of Tim Russert.
This is a sad, sad day.
KURTZ: And one more quick thought, Wolf, and that is...
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: And I want to welcome our viewers here to THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're following the breaking news -- Tim Russert, 58 years old, the long time Washington bureau chief of NBC News, the host of "Meet The Press," unfortunately has passed away. He died only a little while ago in the bureau, NBC News bureau.
This is how his friend and colleague Tom Brokaw made the announcement on NBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BROKAW: I'm Tom Brokaw, NBC News.
And it is my sad duty to report this afternoon that my friend and colleague Tim Russert, the moderator of "Meet the Press" and NBC's Washington bureau chief, collapsed and died early this afternoon while at work at the NBC News bureau.
Tim had just returned from a family trip to (AUDIO GAP) Maureen Orth, the writer, and his son Luke.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. We're going to fix that tape and clean it up for you.
But the -- you appreciate the bottom line. Unfortunately, very sad news to report, that Tim Russert has passed away.
Suffered a heart attack while working at the NBC News Washington bureau, and unfortunately passed away. They could not revive him after that heart attack. Must have been a massive heart attack, indeed. And our deepest condolences go out to his wife Maureen, his son Luke, his father, Big Russ in Buffalo, New York, who only in the past few days, Tim was in Buffalo moving him to another facility there, an elderly man in his late 80s.
I want to bring back some of the people who work here at CNN who know -- who knew Tim Russert very well. And Bill Schneider is here with us, as well.
We were talking earlier, Bill, about his roots in politics before he made that transition to journalism. And you knew him when he worked for the late Senator Moynihan.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. He was the head of Moynihan's office.
I came to Washington the first time in the late 1970s on a fellowship, and I was assigned to Senator Moynihan's office. And Tim Russert was a wonder to behold.
The first experience I ever had with Tim was on the telephone. I was in California and he called me. He took issue with something I had said to a press interviewer.
He wasn't in journalism. I wasn't in journalism. He was a Senate staffer. I had a fellowship to work in the Senate.
And he took me to task because he said, you know, when you come to Washington, you have to understand how Washington works. There are certain things you can and can't say to the press. It was my first lesson in the ways of Washington.
I came here, and then for another year in Moynihan's office, which was a teeming cauldron of conflicts and feelings and ideologies -- he had left-wingers, he had right-wingers, none of them could get along. Everybody got along with Tim Russert.
He was then and always remained a consummate politician. And I mean that in the good sense of the word.
He knew how to relate to everyone. He could talk to Jewish intellectuals. He could talk to political activists on the right and on the left because, believe me, they were all there in that office.
And I have many, many great memories of Tim Russert. For instance, at a Christmas party, giving everyone on the staff a present and making exactly the right comment to each person. It was politically very astute. He knew exactly what to say to everybody.
He was really a master at the game. That came out later when he became a journalist, when he transformed "Meet the Press."
I always said, you know, there must be something genetic that makes him a great politician. I thought maybe it was Irish. But I don't want to stereotype.
He was just very, very talented at this. And he will be missed as a journalist. This campaign will not be the same without him.
Imagine, no more Tim Russert interviews on "Meet the Press." Every politician went with trepidation before him to answer his questions. I asked him once, what was the secret that made him such a great interviewer? He said, "It's very simple, homework."
He did his homework.
BLITZER: That's right. He read the transcripts of earlier interviews. He underlined. He worked really hard at it. It doesn't come easy, as all of us who work in this business know.
He graduated from Canisius High School, a Catholic school in Buffalo, New York. Went on to John Carroll University in Cleveland, and then the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
He was a lawyer. Went to work for Mario Cuomo when he was governor of New York before he went to work for Senator Moynihan. So he did have that political background. He understood politics. He understood where these politicians were coming from.
You want to make another point?
SCHNEIDER: I was just going to say that he -- when I say he was a great politician, what I mean by that is he knew everyone's interests. He understood what each person wanted and needed, and he was able to relate to that.
I saw it unfold in his office day after day after day. That's what a good politician does. They understand what each person in the room wants.
BORGER: And you know, Wolf, he made the transition. It's not easy to go from politics to being a journalist. And he became Washington bureau chief and took over "Meet the Press."
And, you know, whenever he would interview Moynihan, he would always say, you know, I worked for Senator Moynihan 10 years ago, 12 years ago, you know, whatever it was. He always -- he was very careful, because people knew his past political affiliation.
It's not -- it's not easy. And he managed to gain such credibility over a very short period of time when he took over "Meet the Press."
SESNO: Let me talk about how he did this interview business, because he really did not just transform "Meet the Press," but he transformed Sunday talk in many ways. I think to some extent it was a combination of his love for politics, his incredible personality, and his being a lawyer, because he not only listened, but the kind of homework that Bill was mentioning that he did, he would go back and he would find what someone had said, what their position was, and he didn't just make a glancing reference to it in a question. He documented.
People recognize it now. It goes up on the screen as the graphic. He'd read the comment or play the tape back.
And it was meant not to rub someone's face in it, but to hold them to account. And I think that's what Tim was all about.
I did a conversation with Tim at a university about a year ago. And he talked about sort of the art of the interview and what he was trying to do and what he brought to that process, which was a passion for the topic, a genuine curiosity about the person, but also a sense that that person was there to be held accountable for not just what they currently said and did and believed, but what they said and did and believed in the past.
And tying that together in the way that he did, with that sense of respect but still firmness, with firmness, you know, drove that program. And I can't tell you the number of press secretaries -- I'm sure you've talked to them , too -- and this is nothing about "LATE EDITION," which you did, which I did, but what Tim did.
People prepared differently for Tim Russert. Politicians, if they had news to make when they went on with Tim, they knew that that would be picked up, and they knew that Tim would hone in on it. They also knew that they were going to have their feet held to the fire in a very big way.
BLITZER: All right.
We've got Bill Bennett on the phone, also a friend of Tim Russert's, our CNN contributor, the former secretary of -- actually, we don't have Bill Bennett on the phone, but we will reconnect with Bill Bennett.
You know, what he's always said, Tim Russert, what he always said in looking at a potential guest is, I want to ask the guest if -- let's say the guest was a Democrat, questions a Republican would ask that Democrat and vice versa.
SESNO: He played devil's advocate.
BLITZER: The tough questions. And sometimes people misunderstood that as being a partisan.
SESNO: Well, he took a lot of heat from the Clinton campaign and elsewhere because they believed that he was not fair, that he brought an edge and bias.
BLITZER: Most recently during the primary season.
SESNO: I just don't think that's the case. And I think you are quite right. That's what he said.
And looking a the that, you know, I teach over at George Washington University. We talk about journalism. We look at an effective interview. We teach Tim Russert. OK? I mean, he was a model.
BORGER: Well, he also -- he also really taught me just from watching him that there's a beginning, a middle and an end of an interview. And maybe it came from his legal training, but you could watch a Tim Russert interview progress as you would watch a lawyer progress, as he'd be doing a legal brief.
And don't forget, also, it wasn't just "Meet the Press." Tim had another show on cable which was a different kind of interview show. He would very often interview authors about their books, and it was very expansive. And you got to see a little different kind of Tim Russert in that show, when he would talk to people, and you'd get his sense of his love of politics.
BLITZER: All right.
We have got Bill Bennett. We've reconnected with Bill.
This is a sad day, Bill, for all of us, those of us who have known him personally, as well as those who just watched him on television for so many years. But give us your thoughts.
BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I mean, Tim was as you know, Wolf, among the best. You really did -- as Frank was saying, you really did have to prepare for that Sunday show. And I'd often miss church to do so.
It was the Washington seminar equivalent of a bar fight. I mean, it was tough. You always knew you were going to get it.
I remember once Tim said -- all right, that was one of the first times I was on with him. He said, we're both Irish, we're both Catholic, we both like the Buffalo Bills, but this isn't any picnic.
So, you know, wonderful humor and tremendous tenacity. He really dug in on questions. And, you know, it became the place, one of the places where people went if they wanted to make a big announcement. And it was a place you went to test your argument, because it was also tested. If not by the guest, certainly by Tim.
And as Gloria said, Tim Russert's show on the cable was wonderful place to go and a more relaxed atmosphere. You got more of the easygoing Irishman on that show talking about your book in a more relaxed way.
BLITZER: Stand by, Bill, because Cokie Roberts, our colleague from ABC News, is joining us on the phone, as well.
Cokie, you obviously have known Tim. You knew Tim for a very long time, and Maureen Orth, the writer, his wife, the family. It's a sad day, indeed, for all of us.
COKIE ROBERTS, JOURNALIST: It is so sad, Wolf. I mean, it's just shockingly sad.
And I feel terrible for his son, Luke, of whom he was so incredibly proud. And his father. You know, to lose a child is a terrible thing. And he, of course, was so fond of his father. And to be in that position is just an awful, awful moment. BLITZER: A very sad moment.
What was it like, Cokie, to compete with Tim Russert?
ROBERTS: It was horrible. I mean, he was -- he was a terrific competitor. And he would never let up as a competitor.
But it was -- it also made everybody else better, because he never allowed you to get lazy. And it was about -- it was about getting the best interview and getting the best guest. It was never about you.
So, Tim and I remained good friends. We worked together on some Catholic causes, where he was very helpful. And we always had a good time together.
BLITZER: I was telling our viewers, Cokie, I saw him recently when the two of us were honored to have a small little audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
Talk about his faith. As you say, he was a devout Catholic.
ROBERTS: Well, it was terribly important part of his life.
He had been raised at Canisius in Buffalo, a very fine school, which really allowed him to go on to the kind of college education that put him in a different place from the generation before him. And he -- it meant a great deal to him have had that kind of opportunity and that -- and that preparation. And he always stayed close to the faith.
And in fact, we would joke about Sunday mornings because with both of us working on Sunday morning, we would have to figure out, what was the best time to go to church? He tended to go on Saturday evening. I tended to go after the program on Sunday because I sometimes felt there was some atonement necessary. But he did -- he -- it was -- it was a key part of who he was and what he cared about.
BLITZER: And Gloria was telling us just a little while ago about the relationship he had with his son Luke, who's just graduated only in recent days from Boston College. And he had one child, he and Maureen, one child. And they were very devoted, as all of us know, to Luke. But this father/son relationship, like his relationship with his father -- and wrote about it in his book, "Big Russ and Me" -- it was really a powerful, powerful driving force in his life.
ROBERTS: Terribly important. Terribly important in both directions, with both generations. And as I say, that is why I'm thinking so much about each of those -- those Russerts, those Russert men right now, because I think that it's just so hard on both of them.
BLITZER: It's so sad.
Cokie, thank you very much.
I had a chance to speak with Tim Russert not that long ago when he joined me on the set for "LATE EDITION." I'm going to play a little clip of what we talked about that day.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TIM RUSSERT, NBC WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Hillary Clinton, the front-runner on the Democratic side, she'll raise $60 million in her reelection bid in New York State, spend $20 million, and have a kitty of $40 million for the presidential race. But John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Mark Warner, Tom Vilsack, Bill Richardson, Evan Bayh, they're not going away. Russ Feingold. One of them believe s that there is going to be an alternative to the front- runner, an alternative to Hillary, and they want to position themselves for that role.
On the Republican side, I see John McCain, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George Allen of Virginia kind of in the top tier, waiting to see if Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, is going to get in. And then Governor Huckabee, Senator Brownback, others contending. I think eight to 10 candidates in each party running for president of the United States.
BLITZER: That's great for us.
RUSSERT: Every Sunday morning.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Tim Russert joining me. He used to come on "LATE EDITION" when he had a new book that would come out, and he was always available.
There was a small fraternity of anchors who hosted that Sunday morning talk show circuit, and he was very, very proud to be among them. And, you know, I remember once when all of us, when all of us came together for one of my shows, back in the old days, when is we did a show called "INSIDE POLITICS WEEKEND," and he was just thrilled to be part of that Sunday morning talk show circuit, which was so important to him and so important to a lot of the people out there who just had some time on a Sunday morning to relax, have a cup of coffee, go to church, have a little breakfast, and watch some serious public affairs programming.
Bill Schneider, you wanted to make a point.
SCHNEIDER: Just this: you know, he was always a bit self- conscious of the fact that he didn't go to an Ivy League school. Wasn't elite-educated. Didn't have a Ph.D. He had a law degree, of course, and went to very good universities. But you know, he could match wits -- and I saw him do this -- with some of the intellectual giants of our age.
He worked for Pat Moynihan. There was no greater intellect in the United States Senate probably in the last century than Pat Moynihan.
BLITZER: A former Harvard professor. SCHNEIDER: Yes, a former Harvard professor. And, you know, Moynihan would talk to him and Tim Russert would immediately, you know, counter what Moynihan was saying. They could have a spirited argument. They could match intellect point by point.
He worked for Mario Cuomo. Mario Cuomo is a learned, deeply intellectual figure.
Tim Russert was not intimidated by them. He could match them every point along the way.
I enjoyed talking with him. He used to called me doctor because I have a Ph.D. He didn't, and he thought that would emphasize the difference. But, you know, I couldn't compete with him when it had anything to do with politics. He had a great, instinctive knowledge, and learning, actually, about the political history of this country and about what politics is all about. And that is nothing to be sneezed at.
BLITZER: Frank Sesno was our Washington bureau chief, and so there was a small little circle, community, of bureau chiefs, television bureau chiefs. All of you guys used to have to work very, very closely together for pools, for all of sorts of assignments.
SESNO: When we would go up -- I remember a meeting we had at the White House some years ago when we were trying to negotiate access to the president, what they were going to do with the press room, how accessible the press secretary was going to be. And it was, you know, just the very few of us in the office of the press secretary.
And Tim stood up, you know, as we all did. But Tim with special passion and special appreciation for what was at stake here. And said, look, you know, this is about getting information out there. We need to have this access. Here's why we need to have the access. And he broke no dissent.
Can I just say one thing in response to what Bill said? You know, when Tim took over "Meet the Press," the format of the show was meeting the press. The guest would go on and sit in front of a group of journalists and like...
BORGER: Like us.
SESNO: Yes, like us. Only not. And it was sort of a televised mini press conference.
Tim became such a presence and such a powerful force of an interview that it gradually became, you know, "Meet the Russert." But the other part of it is, because he came in from politics, I remember very distinctively at the time a lot of rumbling about the revolving door, and could somebody come out of politics, and would they be fair, and would they be, you know, a straight interviewer?
And I think one of the real tributes to Tim was that he really was, because he listened and because he incorporated all that intellect and all that political experience into interviewing whomever he was sitting across from. It was an extraordinary thing, and he never lost his passion for that.
BLITZER: James Carville, our CNN contributor and close friend of Tim Russert, is back with us on the phone.
I know you wanted to make a few more points about your good friend Tim Russert, James. Tell us what's on your mind.
CARVILLE: Well, I mean, I just -- you know, right now, I'm just trying to digest everything because it's, you know, A, somebody that I love talking about sports with, about politics. And I think that Bill Schneider and Frank and all those guys are dead on.
He had a real, real -- he loved politics. And he was amused by it. And as well as I knew him, he would get amused when I would try to spin it.
And he had a very good detector of what was coming in or coming out. But, you know, I think his real skill was, he would talk to everybody and he would absorb everything from a conversation that he had. And sometimes he would mention something and, you know, not often but sometimes it would pop up on Sunday morning. He said -- somebody else made an interesting point.
I think he was a real sponge when it came to information and to what was going on in a political role around him. And, I mean, that was a real secret to the success.
He talked to a lot of people. He read a lot, he absorbed a lot, and he was able to condense it on Sunday morning. And it was -- it was just brilliant in that way.
I mean, in this political campaign, I mean, obviously, you know, we've all lost a friend and everything else but, I mean, you know, there's some coverage that's not going to happen in this race. Some of these candidates are not going to be questioned as sharply as they need to be.
I mean, in some extent -- and I don't want to over-exaggerate this -- this is a real loss for the country. And I think that's the point I'd like to make, is it's not just that James Carville lost a friend or Wolf Blitzer lost a neighbor. The country has really lost an unbelievably valuable political resource here.
BLITZER: And the tributes are only now, James, beginning to come in. And we'll be getting a lot more of them, clearly.
Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has just issued a statement. Let me read it to you.
"I was greatly saddened to learn of Tim Russert's untimely death. Tim was a warm and gracious family man with a great zest for life and an unsurpassed passion for his work. His rise from working-class roots to become a well-respected leader in political journalism is an inspiration to many. Tim asked the tough questions the right way and was the best in the business at keeping his interview subjects honest." Harry Reid winds up by saying, "My thoughts are with his family."
Only the first of what are going to be a lot of statements coming in, in praise of Tim Russert.
And Gloria, let's get back to Tim Russert the man, because your two boys and his son, as you were telling us, they all grew up together.
BORGER: Yes, they grew up playing baseball together. They went to school together. They still remain -- they still remain friends, even though they have gone to different colleges.
But the point I want to make about Tim is he was -- he was a dad first. I mean, this is somebody, when I was at a baseball game, Tim Russert, no matter how busy he was, he was there an hour before I was to watch his son play baseball. And always asked me about my boys.
And, you know, I think of Tim Russert in terms of politics. Remember the old ad, E.F. Hutton -- "When E.F. Hutton talks, everybody listens." That's Tim. That is clearly Tim.
But when he saw me all the time, aside from asking about my kids, he'd also say, "What do you know?" First time, he'd say, "What do you know, Gloria? What do you know? What do you know?"
Because as James was saying, he was just always gathering information, because there was no such thing as useless information to Tim Russert. And so, a great journalist. But most of all, in addition to his incredible professional legacy is the personal legacy of -- as a husband and a dad to Luke and to Maureen, his wife. And I can only imagine what they're feeling now -- Wolf.
BLITZER: NBC is saying that he was recording voiceovers for "Meet the Press" in the tracking booth, as we say here in the business, when he collapsed suddenly. Only within the past hour or two, and was rushed to a hospital. Unfortunately, he passed away.
He and his family had recently returned from Italy, where they celebrated the graduation of their on Luke from Boston College.
We have just received a statement in from President Bush. Let me read it to our viewers.
"Laurie and I are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Tim Russert. Those of us who knew and worked with Tim, his many friends and the millions of Americans who loyally followed is career on the air, will all miss him."
The president says, "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." "Most important," the president says, "Tim was a proud son and father, and Laura and I offer our deepest sympathies to his wife Maureen, his son Luke, and the entire Russert family. We will keep them in our prayers."
That statement from President Bush just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM.
You know, it is interesting, Frank Sesno. At least once, but sometimes twice a year, the president would invite the TV anchors, the hosts of the Sunday talk shows, in for lunch at the White House. Usually before a State of the Union Address or some other occasion.
Tim was always there. I was invited, as well, together with the other Sunday morning talk show hosts, the anchors for the news networks.
And you know, I always found that Tim was -- you know, was there and he was very visible, and his presence was certainly felt. But you know what? It wasn't the time in those sessions for him to badger the president, or the vice president, for that matter, who always would come to these luncheons, or other top aides. He was there just sort of absorbing what was going on, and he would often leave it to some of the other anchors to go ahead and ask the tough questions.
I remember Peter Jennings, when he was around, he was always there, and his presence was felt. Dan Rather, obviously, was -- his presence was always felt during those kinds of sessions.
But Tim was just there, he enjoyed it. And I sensed that he felt when he walked into the White House, you know, here I am. Can you believe it? This kid from the South side of Buffalo is in the White House.
Let me bring in Tony Snow, the former White House press secretary, who's joining us right now.
Tony, you were at those sessions when the president would invite the Washington anchors, the hosts of the Sunday talk shows in for those luncheons. And you can appreciate what I'm saying about Tim Russert's presence during those luncheons.
TONY SNOW, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, absolutely, Wolf. I did it not only as one of those anchors, but obviously as a White House employee.
The thing about Tim was, you're right, he went there as a student. He'd push his glasses up over the eyebrows and he'd take lots of notes. And from time to time people would come in there and they would try to show off a little bit. But, you know, sooner or later it occurred to everybody, look, we've got big shows. Why don't we just take advantage of talking to the president?
I think he had enormous respect for the institution. He had enormous respect for the White House. But the most important thing was, he just had this volcanic gusto. You know, he absolutely loved the business of politics, would have a great big laugh about stuff that he thought was funny or outrageous. And he had this ability to be starkly analytical and at the same time, the guy next door that you always wanted to see when you came back home.
BLITZER: Tony, how are you doing? I know you haven't been feeling all that great lately. When's going on?
SNOW: Got a little case of laryngitis right now, Wolf, but still fighting off an intestinal blockage. When it's cleared up, I'm back on the air.
BLITZER: Well, we look forward to having you on the air sooner rather than later. And good luck to you.
Tony Snow is joining us.
Larry King is join ugh us on the phone right now.
Larry, over the years you got to know Tim Russert rather well yourself.
LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": I sure did, Wolf. I know him 25 years, maybe longer. I go back a long way with Tim.
Used to go to Oriole games with him. He's an enormous baseball fan. Was an enormous -- it's hard to say was. He was an enormous baseball fan, as is his kid.
There was no one like Tim Russert, wouldn't you agree, Wolf?
BLITZER: He was an amazing -- an amazing person on so many different levels, as a journalist, as a father, as a writer, as a Catholic, as a kid from Buffalo, Larry.
KING: Your town.
BLITZER: Yes. You can appreciate, you know, he was just such a remarkable guy.
KING: He was. He was -- and I think Tony Snow said it so well. He had the ability to walk with kings and to walk with the guy picking up your laundry.
He was -- he was Tim the Irish guy. The two brilliant books about him and his father -- he was on our show. I know he did you, too. There's just a human quality to him that makes it so hard to believe.
And having dealt with heart disease, he didn't smoke. He was 58 years old. Maybe a little overweight. Not a ton overweight. His father still lives. So I don't see the genes.
This is one of the puzzles of this number one killer, and now it took one of our favorite people.
BLITZER: We are showing, Larry, pictures -- we're showing Larry some pictures from when he was on "LARRY KING LIVE" and you invited me to join you for that discussion to talk about growing up in Buffalo, his book. We obviously got into politics, as well.
And I can say, you know, honestly, Larry, that, you know, there aren't a lot of people in this business that you compete with that you genuinely, genuinely like as much as a Tim Russert. I'm sure you will agree with me.
KING: I'm sure he's going to be a big hole to fill at "Meet the Press." I can't think of who will get that spot.
You got any ideas who's going...
BLITZER: No idea.
KING: I wouldn't want it.
BLITZER: I know. It's going to be very, very tough shoes to fill, whoever NBC News picks for that, because he was unique in so many ways. And as Gloria and as Frank Sesno, Bill Schneider were all saying, you know, he made sure he did his homework, and he spent a lot of time preparing for these major interviews, especially when he had a newsmaker on for a whole hour. You know, he was thoroughly prepared for those grillings.
KING: Boy, did he. We are going to do a whole tribute to him tonight as you're doing now, Wolf. But this is going to be a long time getting over.
BLITZER: Yes. All right, Larry. We'll see you tonight.
KING: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll look forward to it. Unfortunately, under the circumstances, I wish you were doing something else.
But certainly we appreciate Larry King's decision to go ahead and do an hour on Tim Russert, a remarkable, remarkable journalist.
For viewers who may just be tuning in right now, approaching the bottom of the hour, we are here in THE SITUATION ROOM and we're following the breaking news that Tim Russert, the longstanding bureau chief of NBC News, the host of "Meet the Press," suffered a heart attack earlier, within the past hour or two, and unfortunately collapsed and died. He was not able to be revived.
Tim Russert only 58 years old. Born back in 1950 in Buffalo, New York. Grew up in Buffalo.
Went to work as a lawyer. Went to work for Governor Mario Cuomo first, then Senator Moynihan. Eventually went to work for NBC, where he was in the legal department, but his political briefings were so good, they said to him, you know, maybe you should go to Washington, and eventually became the NBC News Washington bureau chief.
And later, after he was briefing all the top NBC News executives and they heard his political analysis, they put him on the air. He started doing analysis and commentary, and then eventually became, back in 1991, I believe, the host of "Meet the Press," has done an -- and did a real amazing job ever since.
I want to play Tom Brokaw's announcement on NBC just a little while ago telling the world about the death of Tim Russert.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BROKAW: I'm Tom Brokaw, NBC News.
And it is my sad duty to report this afternoon that my friend and colleague Tim Russert, moderator of "Meet the Press" and NBC's Washington bureau chief, collapsed and died early this afternoon, while at work at the NBC News bureau in Washington.
Tim had just returned from a family trip to Italy with his wife, Maureen Orth, the writer, and his son, Luke. They were celebrating Luke's graduation from Boston College just this spring.
Tim, of course, has been the host of "Meet the Press" longer than any other person in that long-running television broadcast.
And he has been a very familiar face on this network and throughout the world of political journalism as one of the premier political analysts and journalists of his time.
Tim, 58-years-old, grew up in Buffalo. And he wrote a number-one bestselling "The New York Times" book called "Big Russ and Me" about his childhood and especially about his relationship with his father, Big Russ.
That was followed by another number-one "New York Times" bestseller called "The Wisdom of Our Fathers." That book was inspired by the many letter that he received from other children talking about their relationship with their fathers.
This was one of the most important years in Tim's life, for so many reasons. He loved this political campaign. He worked to the point of exhaustion so many weeks, not just on "Meet the Press," but on MSNBC and with our colleague Brian Williams, of course, during the debates, and on special coverage on "NBC Nightly News."
Tim was a true child of Buffalo and the blue-collar roots in which he was raised. For all of the success, he was always in touch with the ethos of that community. Just last week, he was back in Buffalo, moving his father from his home to another facility, his father now in his late 80s.
Big Russ, it goes without saying, our heart goes out to him and all members of Tim's family. Tim loved his family, his faith, his country, politics. He loved the Buffalo Bills, the New York Yankees, and the Washington Nationals.
He, of course, had season tickets to that team when they moved to Washington.
We will have additional details throughout the evening here on NBC News and MSNBC, of course. Brian Williams will have continuing coverage.
But, to repeat, our beloved colleague, one of the premier journalists of our time, Tim Russert, died this afternoon after collapsing at work at the NBC News bureau in Washington, D.C.
And I think I can invoke personal privilege to say that this news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice. He will be missed as he was loved, greatly.
I'm Tom Brokaw, NBC News, in New York.
BLITZER: And Jeff Zucker, the NBC CEO, issued a statement, saying: "We are heartbroken at the sudden passing of Tim Russert. We have lost a beloved member of our NBC Universal family. And the news world has lost one of its finest. The enormity of this loss cannot be overstated. More than a journalist, Tim was a remarkable family man. Our thoughts and prayers with his wife, Maureen, their son, Luke, and Tim's entire extended family."
The tributes are coming in. The statements are coming in, the condolences.
Dana Bash is covering the McCain camp.
I understand, Dana, that Senator McCain has issued a statement?
DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
Senator McCain, actually, he left here in New Jersey. He was here campaigning today. He's now back in Washington. And just to show you the impact of Tim Russert and, of course, his death on the political world, John McCain actually spoke to cameras upon arrival.
We are going to get that in a little while, but, in the meantime, his campaign (AUDIO GAP) statement.
And I'll read it to you. According to Senator McCain, here's what he said: "I am very saddened by Tim Russert's sudden death. Cindy and I extend our thoughts and prayers to the Russert family as they cope with this shocking loss, and remember the life and legacy of a loving father, husband and the preeminent political journalist of his generation. He was truly a great American who loved his family, his friends, his Buffalo Bills, and everything about politics and America. He was just a terrific guy. I was proud to call him a friend. And, in the coming days, we will pay tribute to a life whose contributions to us all will long endure" -- that from Senator John McCain.
And we expect to have a statement from Barack Obama, the Democratic presumptive nominee, in short order as well.
Obviously, this statement from this politician just speaks to what you and all of our colleagues have been talking about for the past little while, just about the kind of impact that he had on politics and on these politicians who went before him with trepidation, but knowing it was sort of a rite of passage.
Some people I know around town, we used to called it the temple of Russert. That was what "Meet the Press" was for politicians to go to, because they felt like that they had to go in order to really be taken seriously, to sit there, take it, take the tough questions.
And, clearly, John McCain is making clear that that was one of the reasons why he respected him, but also because he, just like many politicians, for many, many years got to know him on a personal level. And so you heard a lot of the same tributes of his love of family, love of sports from John McCain as you have heard from others over the past hour or so, Wolf.
BLITZER: And he loved his church as well, Dana. He was a devoted, devout Catholic.
I have a picture I want to show our viewers only a few weeks ago. Father David O'Connell, the president of the Catholic University of America here in Washington, just sent us this picture. There he is, Tim Russert, shaking hands with Pope Benedict XVI at Catholic University. Father David O'Connell is right next to -- right in between. If you look behind, you can see me, as I was at that -- I was invited to that event as well. It
was a small gathering, a small group. And I was privileged, I was truly honored to be invited to that session.
But you know what? As excited as I was, Frank Sesno, he was so much more. I'm not Catholic. He is Catholic. And he had all of his little rosaries. He was just like a little kid about to meet Pope Benedict XVI. And you can appreciate the sense of joy, the sense of pride he had that Father O'Connell had invited him to have this opportunity.
SESNO: I'm reminded of an event that I watched him create, really, at Mary Washington University not terribly long ago, where he was talking to the students there.
And he had that same kind of passion and enthusiasm and almost this sort of cherubic grin. In that case, he was talking about politics and how police fit into history, and what these kids should do, and how they should view the world, and how they should ask questions.
And he had this sort of -- look, I wasn't close friends with Tim. I didn't socialize with him. I worked alongside him or competed with him. And I watched him in these settings. And I have studied and watched his interviewing. But he brought that sense of almost wonderment, really, to so many of the things he did.
BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux, our correspondent, used to work at NBC News, and her boss was Tim Russert. She's on the phone joining us now.
Suzanne, what was it like to work for Tim Russert? SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I really just want to offer my condolences first to his family and all the people at NBC, who I know are really very, very sad at this moment.
He was my mentor. He was what he we call a rabbi in this business. And I worked at Channel 4 on the second floor at WRC. And, of course, NBC is on the first floor. And when I first met him, he came bouncing up to me. And he said, "Hey, kiddo, I have got this great opportunity for you."
And he recruited me to -- to come and join NBC. MSNBC was just starting. And I was in his office. And it was really the big sell. He was talking about how exciting and how much fun it would be to cover politics and to be all over the city. He really had an incredibly big heart. He was always full of enthusiasm. It was just contagious.
And I would sit in his office. And I learned a great deal from Tim Russert, in terms of just being prepared for the interview. He was very, very endearing. Every -- I don't miss a single Sunday, sitting down taking notes from his show and reading and just learning so much from his style.
And, even after leaving NBC, he still bounces up to me and says, "I'm so proud of you, kiddo."
And it was just really a very special relationship.
BLITZER: And I know how sad you are.
All of us are really sad. And it's hard to believe -- I can't believe it myself -- that Tim Russert has died, died from a heart attack, and is not going to be around anymore. We're not going to see him on "The Today Show." We're not going to see him on "Meet the Press." We're not going to see him on "NBC Nightly News." How sad is that.
David Axelrod is joining us. He's one of the top advisers to Senator Barack Obama.
He's in -- I assume, David, you are in Chicago. Is that right?
DAVID AXELROD, CHIEF OBAMA CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: Yes. Yes, Wolf. I'm here.
BLITZER: Tell us what's going through your mind, as someone who obviously, over these many years, got to know Tim Russert as well?
AXELROD: Well, I'm devastated, like everyone else. I just couldn't believe it. I mean, here's a guy who was so vibrant and full of life.
I mean, if you're in the political business or in government, I mean, this guy was sort of the gold standard. And what was so infectious about him was that enthusiasm. He loved the process. You know, he loved not just the process of getting elected, but he was so into the policy elements of it. And he understood how the two intersected in a way no one else did.
I talked to him just a few days ago, and he was talking about the general election campaign, and he was just brimming with enthusiasm. He said, "This is going to be one for the books." And it's just unthinkable that he won't be here to chronicle that election.
The other thing, Wolf -- and I think others have touched on this -- is he was just a very decent and caring person. I have a child who has a chronic illness. My wife started a foundation to do research. Tim came out and spoke at a foundation dinner, spent time with my child and some of her peers. And every single time I saw him after that, his first question was, "How's Lauren doing?"
And, you know, so we're not just mourning the loss of a giant in the field of politics and reporting journalism; we're mourning the loss of an incredibly generous, and warm, and caring human being. And that's what I'm thinking about tonight.
And like Suzanne, I want to extend my sympathy and my thoughts to his family. I just can't imagine their shock and sense of loss right now.
BLITZER: Yes. No, we showed our viewers, as you were talking, David, a picture of Tim Russert. He was wearing a black tie, and it was actually white tie, I think, in that picture, but we saw his wife, Maureen Orth, who was walking down with him.
We're showing a picture now from one of the debates, when Barack Obama was there and Tim Russert was at the debate. This is not one of the debates, one of his conversations.
What was it like helping to prepare a presidential candidate to go on "Meet the Press"?
AXELROD: Look, I will tell you, there's no more rigorous exercise than "Meet the Press." There's nothing more than chilling than watching Tim walk into those interviews with two thick folders under his arm, because you know that he's done his homework and that everything there is to know, he knows, and he's going to challenge you on everything that you deserve to be challenged on.
And so, you know, you always spend a little extra time preparing for Tim's show. And, you know, he would always ask beforehand, "Is he ready? Is he ready?" Because you knew he was going to be put through -- your candidate is going to be put through the paces on that show, but that was a great service to the American people.
And I think, as a candidate, you felt a sense of accomplishment when you spent an hour with Tim. And I think Barack Obama enjoyed those sessions, because Tim, as I said, had a passion not just for the politics, but for the policy and really drilled deep.
And Barack enjoyed those discussions. I talked to him a few minutes ago, and I know he talked to the news media, and he was really feeling this loss. I think he respected Tim as a professional. And, as I said a minute ago, I think he can't imagine that this process is going to go on without him.
BLITZER: What else did he say? Because I'm sure, like all of us, he was in shock when he heard this news, because none of us obviously expected it. There was no evidence that he had any medical problems or anything like that. It wasn't as if this was something in the works; it was just sudden, a heart attack.
And he was tracking a script for "Meet the Press" in the tracking booth, in the audio center there at NBC News here in Washington, not far away from the American University, as you know, where that bureau is. And he died. So Senator Obama must have been in shock.
AXELROD: Well, you know, we -- there are a lot of weighty issues in this election and there's so much to talk about. But I think all of us today only have one thing on our minds, which is Tim and his family, and this impossible reality that he's no longer going to be on the scene.
I mean, we all kind of turn our television sets on, on Sunday, because you know you're going to learn something valuable watching Tim.
And I think that Senator Obama's come to know him through these interchanges and really respected him, really respected him and liked him. And he was very, very sad, very sad about this news.
BLITZER: And Gloria Borger was telling us, you know, when he would do a long interview with a major guest like Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain, or any other major newsmaker, they would start off relatively easy, but then get up the steam towards the middle and the end.
And then there would be some really -- "I want to play for you," he would say, or, "I want to put up on the screen some comment you made a few years back," and it would be a tough statement, and then give the guest a chance to respond.
But you know what? He always ended it with a soft landing. He always got back to some statement about the Buffalo Bills or something else.
BLITZER: And that was just a nature of an interview with Tim Russert.
AXELROD: Well, the great thing about Tim was he asked hard questions, but he also gave you the chance to answer. And he didn't -- you know, it was tough, but it was fair.
And I know that Senator Obama always felt that -- you know, he felt that he got the time and the space to deal with complicated questions in the way that he wanted to on that program, and he always appreciated that.
So you never went in there expecting to get soft treatment. But you always expected to get fair treatment. And I think that Tim considered that part of his professional obligation.
BLITZER: I don't know if you can stick around for a few more minutes, David...
BLITZER: ... because Paul Begala is here in THE SITUATION ROOM, as well, an obvious very -- you have been -- you were close friends with Tim Russert, Paul, for a very long time, going back to when -- when you worked for Bill Clinton in '92?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: When I first came to Washington in the late '80s. So, probably 20 years, I have known him, and in various incarnations.
When I was a White House official, I would go on "Meet the Press." Tragically, I was one of those newsmakers. And let me tell you, it is a lot easier to prepare somebody to go on "Meet the Press" than it is to actually go on yourself.
You know, at the worst of the Lewinsky scandal, I went on "Meet the Press." And it was like a heavyweight bout. He pounded me. And I pounded back. I accused of NBC for illegally receiving -- or receiving illegal leaks from Ken Starr's operation, which I happen to think was true.
He came right back at me. And when it was over, a few days later, a card came in the mail from Tim. And it said, "Brother Paul" -- he would always call me Brother Paul because we shared a devout Catholic faith -- it said, "Brother Paul, we both did our jobs."
BEGALA: And, you know, he treated me with great dignity in a really difficult time. He didn't go easy, though. Even though I think we were friends, he didn't go easy at all. He hammered as hard as he could.
I later learned -- that was back in 1998 -- I later learned that Mark McKinnon, President Bush's media adviser, took a tape of that show to help media-train George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas, to try to teach him how to pass through that ring of fire that was Tim Russert on "Meet the Press."
There's just nobody else like him. The combination of toughness and decency is really at the hallmark and the heart of who Tim was.
BLITZER: Well, but tell us about the man, beyond the journalist, beyond the host of "Meet the Press," the interviewer. You got to know him on a personal level over these years.
We heard from your friend James Carville. You could hear in his voice he was in a state of shock himself, because they were real pals.
BEGALA: Oh, yes. Tim and James went to Wizards games together. They went to the Nationals games together. They were very, very close friends.
And I can you something about it. He called me when he had heard, James did, this afternoon. And, of course, I thought back to the last time I talked to Tim. It was just a few days ago. He was getting ready to go to Italy to celebrate his son Luke's graduation from B.C.
And he had just said on the air, on that Tuesday night when Barack Obama locked up the Democratic nomination, he said: You know, one place I would like to be tomorrow is an inner-city school teaching American history. So, I called him up, and said, you know, Tim, I just did that. I was just in an inner-city school in Washington, D.C., teaching history to these kids. Let me set that up for you. They would love to have you.
And he lit up. And there was no more -- he wasn't talking about politics anymore. He was talking about kids and how -- how important it is to give back to the community. He -- there was a side of him passionately concerned about children.
He spoke -- one of the great honors, he spoke in New York City at the Al Smith Dinner, which, for a Catholic kid, is a big, big deal. It's a white-tie, very, very fancy dinner. And he stood up and spoke about inner-city kids at risk.
Now, there wasn't a poor person in that room. There was 1,00, 2,000 of the wealthiest people in New York in that room. And he stood there, as only he could do, with that moral authority he had, and encouraged all of us to do more to help inner-city kids.
And it is so tragic, but that's the last conversation I had with him was all about how he cared so deeply about kids in the inner city and how he was going to the school and visit with those kids.
BLITZER: We just got a statement in from the former Vice President Al Gore.
Let me read it to you and to our viewers: "The United States and the world have lost a great journalist, interviewer and author. He was an original, and will be greatly missed."
David Axelrod, if you're still with us, it is hard to believe there are, what, almost five months left in this campaign, and there's not going to be Tim Russert there to be analyzing, reporting, questioning about what's going on. It's just something that, it hasn't registered, at least to me yet.
AXELROD: No, I think it's going to leave a gaping hole, Wolf.
I think that there's nobody -- as I said, I don't think there was a greater student of the process than Tim or anyone who had more enthusiasm for it, with all its imperfections. I mean, he loved the game of politics, and, yet, he was serious about the outcomes, and understood that there were real stakes.
I want to add to something Paul said. Any of us who have been on his show or have participated in events with him know that he always was inveigling people into bets, with the proceeds going to the Boys and Girls Club of Washington.
And, you know, he's got -- Paul talked about how -- about Tim's Catholicism. I think he really took those precepts very much to heart and lived them and believed in them. And it was at the core of who he was. And he translated that into social action in a private way to help those who needed it.
As I told you, we experienced it personally, but he -- you know, as great a journalist as he was, he was an even better person. And I think that those of us who had the privilege to know him will miss him for that, as much as the gaping hole he will leave in -- on our Sunday mornings and during the coverage of this campaign.
BLITZER: Because a lot of people aren't aware that -- Paul, you are -- of the work that he did for all sorts of charitable causes out there. He made it in this business. And, obviously, he was making a very, very nice salary from NBC News. He lived very comfortably. He had it all. But he wanted to give back.
BEGALA: Absolutely. He never forgot that. That's one of the highest things you can say about somebody. He never forgot who he was, where he came from, or how he got there.
And, as you know, as a kid from Buffalo yourself, you know, you go back to Buffalo, it's the two people, every time I go, they ask me about. How's my buddy Wolf Blitzer? How's my buddy Tim Russert? The two local boys who made great, not just good.
But it's just what's so hard for, I think, everybody to fathom is that that great big loving heart could ever give out. It is just -- it's almost too tragic, you know, for all of us who love him to comprehend right now.
BLITZER: And, David, as a Buffalonian myself -- and I think you will appreciate this -- whenever I would go back to Buffalo, you know, you could feel Tim Russert's presence, because he never ran away from the city of Buffalo.
The city may have been in trouble. A lot of the manufacturing base, the Bethlehem Steel, the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, so much of the manufacturing, the industrial base that had been Buffalo for so long just simply disappeared. But you know what? He never, ever forgot Buffalo, and certainly never forgot his beloved Buffalo Bills.
AXELROD: Well, more than that, Wolf, I think how much of how he saw American government and politics was through the prism of his neighbors and his family back in Buffalo. You know, sometimes people get inside the bubble in Washington and lose touch with what's going on in the country and the things that people are feeling and experiencing. That was never Tim. Tim's heart was always back in Buffalo with Big Russ and his neighbors and the folks that he grew up with. And he never lost that working-class touch. And I think it helped him form his reporting and made him better at what he did.
So, there's no doubt that this is a big loss for the country. And it's, I'm sure, going to be particularly felt in Buffalo.
BLITZER: You know, Paul, it will be felt in Buffalo. It will be felt all over.
But David is absolutely right, because, you know, if you read "Big Russ and Me," you know the roots of Tim Russert. His father was a sanitation worker, worked on a truck, and two shifts, and came home, and he was struggling to put food on the table for that family. So, he could really appreciate what a lot of, you know, poor working people all over the country were going through in this day and age, in this, the richest country in the world.
BEGALA: And the kind of people who are invisible, frankly, to those of us who are prosperous.
And Tim always made them visible to us. You know what he did? This is something my family took up because of him. He sent a copy of that book, by the way, to my dad...
BLITZER: "Big Russ and Me."
BEGALA: "Big Russ and Me." Sent a copy to my father.
And one of the things that is in there. And my boys and I have adopted this now. If we break a glass at home -- and I have got four boys -- we break a lot of glass -- you stop and wrap it up. Don't just throw in the trash can. And Tim said this. He said, because, you know, the guys are going to grab that, and the guys, meaning the guys on the garbage truck.
BLITZER: The garbage collectors.
BEGALA: They could cut their hands. And you stop, and we wrap it up in two or three newspapers, tape it all up, so that the guys won't break their hands.
The only reason I ever thought about the guys was because Tim Russert was always one of the guys. And Big Russ had driven that truck. And no matter how powerful, wealthy he was, no matter how comfortable he became meeting with popes and presidents, he never forgot the guys on that truck.
And he spoke to me about it, and he wrote about it movingly in that book "Big Russ and Me."
Elizabeth Cohen is joining us right now, our medical correspondent.
I take it, Elizabeth, you have some new information, more information on how he died?
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. We have two pieces of information.
One is from Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. And they said that Mr. Russert was not dead on arrival at the hospital, that he died after arriving at the hospital.
There's also something interesting that we want to report, which was that NBC, on their Web site, originally said that Mr. Russert died of a sudden heart attack. And, about 10 minutes ago, they changed that. They changed that to say, instead, that Mr. Russert rushed after being stricken at the bureau.
So, they have taken out the reference to the heart attack. I think there's a reason for that. I was -- just got off the phone with the past president of the American College of Cardiology. And he said, look, a 58-year-old previously healthy man, I don't think heart attack. I think something called cardiac arrest.
Now, they may sound like the same thing, but they're not. Cardiac arrest is caused by electrical impulses that go haywire, for want of a better word, in the heart. Now, it may be related to some blockages in the heart, but it's not the blockage that kills someone. It's electrical impulses that go haywire.
Most of the time, people have no symptoms. They don't have that kind of classic chest pain or chest fullness that we hear about. It is usually very, very sudden. It happens to 300,000 people a year. And it happens very quickly, usually with no symptoms -- Wolf.
BLITZER: No symptoms at all? But do we have any idea what could cause this? Is it a genetic thing? Is it stress? Is it just what?
COHEN: It's often caused by a blockage in an artery. So, it is not unusual for a man that age to have some kind of a blockage in the artery.
But, usually, it is -- it shows up in some way over time through a test or maybe through a bit of pain, and it's taken care of. You do an angioplasty, you do some other kind of procedure, and it's taken care of.
And I asked this cardiologist, Wolf, what you just asked me. Well, why would a relatively simple blockage cause these electrical impulses to go crazy and cause cardiac arrest? And he said, Elizabeth, I wish we knew the answer to that. I wish we know why some people just collapse and die and other people survive it.
BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen, with the latest on that.
Howie Kurtz is joining us from "The Washington Post," the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES." He really made his mark on a lot of stories over these past few decades here in Washington, Howie.
KURTZ: You know, Wolf, it is worth recalling how Tim Russert got to be the moderator of "Meet the Press" in 1991. He wasn't a television personality. He certainly didn't have the matinee looks.
But when he -- shortly after he became Washington bureau chief, his bosses at NBC became so enamored of the daily conference calls that they would have, where he would share a lot of the behind-the- scenes color of what was going on in politics in this town, that, ultimately they said,well, maybe you should be the guy.
I mean, certainly, it wasn't out of central casting for that job.
But another point, you know, as -- as your guests, both in the political and journalistic worlds, come on and talk about this great, voracious passion that he had for politics, a lot of why he was so successful in covering these stories, both as a reporter, a bureau chief, a commentator, and the moderator of that Sunday show, was preparation.
I mean, he would take home the briefing books and look at everything that a presidential candidate had ever said, so that he could put up those graphics, so that he could press somebody in order to try to break through the sound bite answers that all of you who interview people on TV for a living are so accustomed to receiving.
BLITZER: And, on the Valerie Plame story, he actually found himself in what journalists hate to find themselves in, not necessarily reporting the news, but being part of the news.
KURTZ: That was a very uncomfortable moment, perhaps one of the most uncomfortable moments in his journalist career for Tim Russert, to find himself on the witness stand at the Scooter Libby trial, providing the testimony that basically sunk the former Dick Cheney chief of staff, saying, no, no, no, they had never discussed Valerie Plame, although Libby claimed that they had, and not be able to answer reporters' questions, because the guy loves to talk, and usually likes being the center of attention.
You know, one other quick point I think that's worth making here is, this is somebody who, as you say, came out of Buffalo, was rooted in Democratic precinct politics, worked for Mario Cuomo, worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
And, yet, when he crossed over and when he became a journalist, I think people in both Republican and Democratic politics would tell you that he was fair. He hammered everybody. You couldn't really detect his leanings. He was a hawk on things like the budget, and the candidates should explain how they were going to pay for their proposals, and how they were going to deal with red ink, but he would distribute those questions no matter who was there.
In fact, in more recent years, it was some liberal bloggers and commentators who complained that Russert, you know, wasn't liberal enough or wasn't hard enough on the Republicans. So, the fact that he managed to kind of leave that partisan history behind and become not just accepted, but acclaimed, as a television journalist, and a fair- minded one, says a lot to his dedication to the craft.
BLITZER: It does, indeed.
All right, Howie, stand by.
I want everyone to stand by, because we are now at the top of the hour.