Whether mapping the latest twist in the campaign trail or predicting what was likely to be next, Tim Russert was the newsman people in power watched carefully — along with the nation’s viewers.
Adding to Russert’s credibility as Washington’s most prominent journalist was his style as an interviewer, particularly as host of "Meet the Press," which he took over in 1991. With a sheaf of documents and notes to paw through, he confronted his guests with past quotes that often contradicted what they had said or done since.
Under his stewardship, "Meet the Press" became not only the top-rated Sunday talk show, but a major part of the political process. One frequent guest once called it the "Russert primary."
If Russert had a special feel for the power brokers he interrogated, good reason. As an attorney, he served as counselor to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.
Then, in 1984, he came to NBC News as an executive to help rebuild the flagging news division. In 1988, he moved to Washington as NBC’s bureau chief and a senior vice president.
In perhaps the sole case of a network exec going public as regular on-air talent, this broadcasting neophyte was handed the side job of rejuvenating "Meet the Press," which was three years older than its host, then 41.
"If it’s Sunday, it’s `Meet the Press,’" became his reassuring signoff.
With his beefy build, tousled hair and face that often wore a knowing grin, the Buffalo native looked nothing like a future TV star.
"The fact that I don’t look like a typical TV person probably underscores my credibility," he once told The Associated Press. "I hope so."
His exposure far exceeded the weekly hour. He became the face of NBC News’ political coverage, both on the broadcast network and its cable-news sibling, MSNBC.
He even made a prop famous: During the dizzying coverage of Election Night 2000, Russert ditched high-tech devices in favor of an erasable slate and grease pencil, scribbling vote results while trying to make sense of them. The slate is now on public display in a Washington museum.
Whatever the occasion, Russert established himself as the political go-to guy, appearing everywhere from the Washington bureau newsroom to the anchor desk alongside Brian Williams and Chris Matthews.
Like his colleagues and audience, he had every expectation there would be plenty more interviews and political news for him to savor. At his death, he was in the middle of a 12-year contract with NBC News that would have run through the election of 2012.
"Fasten your seat belt!" he advised everybody in recent NBC ads to promote its coverage of the presidential race.
On Friday, the political season, and the world of TV journalism, was rocked by the prospect of his absence from the scene.