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Remembering Tim Russert

Aired June 15, 2008 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Happy warrior. Tim Russert, a giant of journalism, dies while preparing for "Meet the Pres." What is the legacy of this relentless interrogator and passionate pundit? How is that so many people felt touched by this working class kid from Buffalo? And why does he leave such a gaping hole in our business?


KURTZ: For me, at least, the shock hasn't worn off yet. Journalists who pass away are sometimes overpraised given that it's journalists who do the praising, but not in this case.


KURTZ (voice over): Tim Russert was many things: a tenacious interviewer, a political junky, a straight shooter, a sports fanatic, a world class gossip, the son of a Buffalo garbage man who never forgot his blue collar roots. And most important, an extraordinarily decent human being. His impact on Sunday morning's television on journalism itself was remarkable.

NBC's Washington bureau chief succumbed to a heart attack, and it fell to Tom Brokaw to break the news.

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, the moderator of "Meet the Press" and NBC's Washington bureau chief, collapsed and died early this afternoon while at work as the NBC News bureau in Washington.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: Well, the shock waves cannot be fully expressed. Tim was our friend, our leader, our cheerleader, our teacher, my mentor.

KURTZ: As other NBC colleagues joined in remembering their friend and colleague, tributes also poured in from President Bush, Barack Obama, John McCain, rival anchors and network executives.


KURTZ: Russert's signature every Sunday on "Meet the Press" was his relentless interrogation of politicians, something I asked him about on this program four years ago.


KURTZ: In terms of television stagecraft, is there such a thing as moderator being too aggressive with the guest and then turn viewers off?

TIM RUSSERT, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": Oh, absolutely. I believe that deeply. Lawrence Spivak, who founded "Meet the Press" 57 years ago, said, learn as much as you can about your guests and his or her position on the issue. Take the other side. Be persistent, but be polite.

And I try not to berate people. I don't want to make them sympathetic. But sometimes facts are important.


KURTZ: And if we can get a shot of the "Meet the Press" special edition that was broadcast this morning, the moderator's chair there, which Russert occupied for 17 years, left empty in his absence.

Well, joining us now to talk about who Tim Russert was and the mark he left on journalism, Sally Quinn, founder and co-writer of "On Faith," an interactive blog at and "Newsweek"; Judy Woodruff, former anchor for CNN who is now a special correspondent for "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer"; Wolf Blitzer, who anchors "THE SITUATION ROOM" and "LATE EDITION" here on CNN; and in New York, David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief for CNN.

Sally Quinn, let's talk about Russert as a journalist first. What was it about Tim Russert, what was it that he did to make journalism interesting and accessible to ordinary people? Not the junkies, but ordinary folks?

SALLY QUINN, REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": I was so hoping that you weren't going to play Tim Russert this morning and get too aggressive with us.

He was a consummate political junky. And he loved every single facet of politics.

I remember at a reception one night Tim came up, and we started talking about the budget. And Tim was just on fire about the budget. And he said, "You know, I just" -- "I tried to talk about this tonight with several other people, and they all say, 'The budget, it's too boring.' How can they think the budget is boring? Don't they understand the back story? Don't they understand the people involved and the manipulations and everything that's going on?"

I mean, he just -- he just threw himself into everything with the most extraordinary exuberance. And he was also the most well-prepared person I have ever known in my entire life.

KURTZ: And we'll get back to that.

So many times I saw politicians, OK, you're against the budget deficit, which programs would you cut? And often they would not answer.

Judy Woodruff, you hosted "INSIDE POLITICS" for so many years. You were an occasional panelist on "Meet the Press." What is it that made that program special?

JUDY WOODRUFF, PBS SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, one thing I think a lot of people don't know is that 19 years ago, Tim Russert had to be persuaded to go on television. He had made the move from adviser to Pat Moynihan and then-Governor Cuomo, came into the front office at NBC news advising Michael Gartner. And it was decided that Tim would be good on television.

And Tim had to be talked into it by Michael Gartner. There was a little persuasion. I happen to know from my husband, Al Hunt, who is also very close to Tim. And he -- because he wasn't sure that television was the medium. Look what happened.

KURTZ: They would hear him on the conference calls talking about what was going on in Washington every day, and he had so many stories, and he so loved it, that they were convinced that he could in fact make it on TV.

Wolf Blitzer, when you took over "LATE EDITION" a decade ago, Russert had already been at the Sunday morning game for about seven years. Did you learn anything from watching him over the years?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, learned a lot. And he made all of us better in the process because he was so good at what he did. And in part because he was very intelligent, but he was also very so inquisitive. He just was curious about all this kind of stuff.

He loved it. He loved politics, as all of us know. And he also felt that he had that mission that Lawrence Spivak had when he created "Meet the Press" so many, many decades ago, that this is a national treasure. And you've got to make sure -- you've got to keep those politicians honest, and you've got to ask them tough but fair questions. And I think he made all of us better in the process.

KURTZ: David Bohrman, I often referred in campaign seasons to "Meet the Press" as the "Russert primary," in that every presidential candidate had to go on, and then he would be rated. He had done a good job, he had done a horrible job, and that would affect the way that that candidate was talked about.

With so many shows and pundits out there, why was an appearance on "Meet the Press" such an event?

DAVID BOHRMAN, CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Well, I think everyone knew it was going to be the hardest one of them all. It was going to be one-on-one. They knew what Russert was going to do.

Every politician you talked to talks about the briefing books, the cramming for the sessions. And I think it was a higher level of prep. And I think everyone knew that this was the toughest interview they were going to get. And they had to pass it. KURTZ: Right. And, of course, they would often go on for an hour. And it would just be, you know, one question after another. And let's put it up on the screen, here's what you said in 2005, and that sort of thing.

All right. Turning now to Tim Russert the person, Sally, I mean, this is a guy who I once bumped into at the local Safeway. He was pushing the cart. He had all this bottled water he was buying for his family. He obviously became healthy, he had a house in Nantucket. Every year he would fly 17 relatives there for vacation.

So what was it about this person that touched so many folks?

QUINN: Well, I think that everyone is sort of wondering about an epitaph right now. And I think that the perfect epitaph for Tim, the one he would like the most, would be "Good father, good husband, good son, good friend." He was an extraordinary friend.

When our son Quinn (ph) had open heart surgery, Tim was right there. And at the time I was an atheist. And Tim called me up. He was the only one in Washington who would ever talk about religion openly. And he said, "I'm praying for you."

And I was just -- it really meant a lot to me. And I don't know why, because it was something at that point that didn't mean anything to me in my life. And later, when my son went to a special school for learning disabled kids in Buffalo, where Tim is from, Tim was all over it.

You know, he went to the school. He made speeches. He started a scholarship. My son played soccer against his beloved Canisius school.

He did everything he could for the Quinnster (ph), you know. And I don't know anyone -- I don't have a single friend who is so -- was so involved with other people's families. I mean, when he would see you at anywhere, you would run into him or you would talk to him, he would always ask about you and your family. And you always knew that he meant it.

KURTZ: And Judy, that was your experience as well?

WOODRUFF: It was. We have three children. Tim was actually godfather to our younger son, Ben.

And we had a very similar experience as Sally's, when our older son Jeff (ph) was sick about 10 years ago. Tim was the one who was right there. He started a tradition of sending baseball caps to Jeff (ph) from wherever he was all over the world.

But, you know, what I keep thinking, Howard, as we sit here and remember him is there was the boy inside of Tim Russert that -- who in a way never grew up. Sure, he grew u and he had a great career. But he had that boyish enthusiasm for everything in life.

And I think that was the spark that just kept burning inside of him. That's why I think it's so hard for us to believe he's gone.

KURTZ: And obviously, that was felt, I think, in some way not just by Washington journalists, not just by friends of his, but by people out there. I mean, 13,000 people as of yesterday posted messages of condolence on the NBC We site. There was some connection there.

Now, Wolf, as everyone knows, you grew up in Buffalo, Russert grew up in Buffalo. I went to college there. His connection to that place, the blue collar upbringing, a guy who spent summers on the garbage truck, as was his father's profession, it was real. And I think in some ways maybe it was the key to his success.

BLITZER: I think because he never forgot the roots that he had. He would always joke, he grew up on the south side of Buffalo, I grew up on the North side of Buffalo. And he would always say, "Oh, you grew up on the rich side."

But trust me, it was not very -- it was not a very rich part of Buffalo. But he would always joke about that.

You know what? He saw his dad get up at 5:00 in the morning, work as a sanitation worker. He was a garbage collector. Then he would have a second job. He would come home, try to take a little nap for a little bit, fall asleep on the couch.

He writes about this in his book, "Big Russ and Me." And then he would be up to 11:00 or 12:00 at night working, trying to make a living for his family to put food on the table for him and his sisters and the whole family.

And then he would go to bed really late and get up once again in the morning. And he never complained. His dad never complained about that. And I think that inspired Tim so much.

It just -- he just learned by that example. And it came through. And he would work until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning covering an election, and then I would see him on "The Today Show" the next morning at 7:00 in the morning. I would say, this guy, doesn't he need to sleep?

KURTZ: He never seemed to sleep.

David Bohrman, you've worked with a lot of big shots and egomaniacs in television. This is television, after all. What was it like to be alongside Russert, say, on the pressure of an election night or something like that?

BOHRMAN: Well, it was great. I mean, one of the words we sort of danced around but haven't, I don't think I've heard yet, is gusto. I mean, that's just -- he just relished it. He had so much fun.

I mean, I produced one election night with Tim in 1994 at NBC News. And it was when the Republicans took over control rather unexpectedly. And it was -- it was like being at a sporting match.

He was just -- he was a kid. And he was excited. And it was just fun working with him and covering politics, especially.

KURTZ: All right. I want to come back to his role as a Sunday morning interrogator. Let's take a look at some clips we put together, Tim Russert on "Meet the Press."



RUSSERT: May I finish? It was a simple question.

PEROT: Well, you already finished. Don't finish again. It's your program, you can do anything you want to with it.

RUSSERT: As a fellow named James Mayfield, you know who he is.


RUSSERT: ... pastor of the Tarrytown United Methodist church, your pastor...

BUSH: Very good research on your part, I might add.

RUSSERT: People were sent to the convention center. There was no water. No food. No beds. No authorities there. There was no planning.

You wouldn't support extending them, but you are now supporting this. And on the radio with this ad.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (voice over): I'll make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

RUSSERT: That's a direct contradiction.


KURTZ: Sally Quinn, what did people at home think when they saw Russert (INAUDIBLE) like that?

QUINN: I don't know any single person who ever thought that Tim was unfair. Everyone knew that he was doing his job, and I don't think he ever stepped over the line. He was always, always so prepared that it was, you know -- people really knew that if they made a mistake or if they slipped up, it was their problem and not Tim's problem.

KURTZ: And in fact, in the last day, we've heard from Barack Obama and from John McCain, and from Vice President Cheney, talking about how tough it was to go on "Meet the Press," but how they always felt that Tim was fair.

Now, pinning down politicians, as you know, is no easy task.

WOODRUFF: It's not. But, you know, Tim -- and I think this has been said in the last couple of days, but it's important to say it again -- he was trained as a lawyer. I think he approached interviews in a way like a trial lawyer.

He -- it was the Jesuit background, it was his legal training. He went into every interview, as you heard him say in that clip a minute ago, thinking, all right, I want to get information out of this person.

And he would do prodigious research, and then he would think ahead. So, all right, what if he says this? Well, then I'm going to ask that. But if he says that, I'm going to ask this.

He had worked it all out. Somebody compared it to a tree with all the branches. He had all this worked out in his notes and in his head. But that's what you have to do if you're going to get information out of a politician.

KURTZ: And I think that's the secret, David Bohrman. It wasn't just that he was a Jesuit-trained lawyer and all of that. I mean, he would bury himself in clips and documents. He would know as much about the guest's public record as the guest knew.

BOHRMAN: Absolutely. And it was a rite of passage for the guest, but it was -- it was the meat. It was the -- it was what Tim was all about. Because once you -- if you just had the facts at your disposal, then they were going to take you toward the information and the answers from the guests.

KURTZ: Now, as a pundit, Russert wasn't infallible. He, along with about a million others of us, said that Howard Dean looked unstoppable for the nomination four years ago. But people listened to what he said.

There was a moment on May 6th, the night of the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, when he said the following.


KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: All right. Let me start you with the same simple question. Did it just end tonight?

RUSSERT: We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be. And no one is going to dispute it.


KURTZ: Why was it such an event that Obama had it wrapped up?

BLITZER: Because the Hillary Clinton was certainly not ready to say that it was over. And she was still fighting. There were still some contests left. And the fact that he was willing to go out there and say it's over, forget about it, no more -- you know, no more concern about who the Democratic nominee is, infuriated Hillary Clinton's supporters,.

Not only Tim Russert, but others were saying the same thing. But he had that power, he had that authority to give it a lot more credence than some of the other pundits who say --- they've been saying that for weeks it's over, Hillary Clinton should just wrap it up. But it so infuriated the Clinton campaign, they were -- I mean, I got e-mails, I got phone calls.

KURTZ: But, of course, as it turned out, he what right. But the larger point, I think, is that he is wasn't afraid to take a risk, to put his reputation out there by saying, I've looked at the numbers, here's what I think.

WOODRUFF: That's right. And I think that was something that came with time. I mean, in the early days of working on "Meet the Press," you know, all the preparation we've talked about, that was Tim.

Over time, he built up that confidence in his ability to say, all right, here's what I've looked at, here are the facts. And based on that, here's my analysis. And he was comfortable doing that.

QUINN: You know, there's a wonderful story that he told me about when he was in prep school and Catholic school in Buffalo. And "TIME" magazine came out with a cover story saying, "Is God Dead?" And the school banished the book and people were canceling their subscriptions.

And one day one of the priests came in and said, OK, throw all your books away. Here's "TIME" magazine. I want you all to read it.

And they were stunned. And he said, you're all supposed to be people of faith. You must always question everything. Even your own faith.

KURTZ: That's really something.

QUINN: And if you can't question your own faith, if you can't come to the conclusion that you're right about your own faith, then you don't have anything.

KURTZ: David Bohrman, before we go to break, we -- many of us in the news business heard about this about 3:00 Friday afternoon. CNN held off on reporting it. Tell me what happened.

BOHRMAN: Well, I guess it may have been an hour before we reported. We began to hear some initial reports that something had happened to Tim.

I reached out and called some friends at NBC who relatively quickly learned that something had happened and that it was pretty bad. And before very long we knew exactly what that was.

I sent a note out internally in CNN in Washington to hold off. This is a story we're not going to report first. And at the same time, the Fox bureau chief in Washington, Brian Wilson, and I had a quick communication. And we both sort of quickly said we're not going to go first on this story.

We're going to wait for NBC to go on the air. We're going to let Brian or Tom or whoever it was make the announcement, and then we would be ready to follow in.

KURTZ: Right.

BOHRMAN: But it just felt like this was a story NBC needed to break.

BLITZER: And there was also another point, if I can just say -- and I think David was sensitive to this -- all of us were sensitive to this -- we didn't know if Maureen or Luke or Big Russ actually knew the extent of what had happened. And we certainly didn't want them to learn about this from us.

KURTZ: Right.

BOHRMAN: And Howie, we knew they were overseas.

KURTZ: Exactly.

BOHRMAN: And CNN is the broadcast that was likely to have been seen overseas. And that really made us aware that that's why we needed to wait.

KURTZ: You don't want to learn about it from television.

All right. Let me get a break.

When we come back, we'll take a look at perhaps the most uncomfortable moment in Tim Russert's career.


KURTZ: We're continuing our conversation about Tim Russert. He testified last year at the Scooter Libby perjury trial. And the jury believed Russert and convicted the former top aide to Vice President Cheney. Russert had said that they had never discussed the Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, despite what Libby had said.

Now, he knew he had to deal with it on "Meet the Press," and it was not a comfortable time for him. He invited me on because I had covered the trial. And we did it from this set. Take a look.


KURTZ: I was in the courtroom when you testified, Tim. And you looked uncomfortable during five hours of cross-examination, cautious, hesitant, as anybody would be. No journalist likes to be on the witness stand.

RUSSERT: It is different when you can't finish your sentence or complete your thought, when you are restricted to yes-no answers. And it is uncomfortable.


KURTZ: It was a difficult time for Tim Russert, wasn't it? QUINN: Yes, but, you know, the thing that is so interesting about it was that everybody believed Tim. There was never -- I never heard anybody say, "Do you think Tim is telling the truth?" It was, "Well, Tim says..."

And I think, you know, it was a good experience for him, especially for him as a journalist and a lawyer, to be on the other side. I think he found that an experience that really helped him in doing his own job.

KURTZ: I know he was frustrated though he couldn't talk to reporters about it...


KURTZ: ... because he was a witness at a very high-profile criminal trial.

Now, of course, Russert had a whole career before he came to journalism, as you mentioned earlier. He worked in Democratic politics. He worked for Cuomo, worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And he was pretty good at that, too.

When Moynihan was running for re-election in 1982, he leaked a story about the senator's opponent having exaggerated his Vietnam War record and knocked him out of the race.

WOODRUFF: Yes. Tim -- I mean, Tim was legendary.

My husband, who covered the Senate at that time, said, you know, he made the rounds on the Hill. And he met this young guy who had just come to work for the new senator, Moynihan. And he said, "He was so smart, he was one of the smartest people I had to deal with on the Hill. I couldn't believe he was only 29 years old." That was Tim.

KURTZ: David Bohrman, it seems almost quaint now when, you know, whether it's Tony Snow or Karl rove, you know, 10 minutes after they leave the White House they're on TV as pundits. But when Russert made the move in 1989, even before he was on television, it was considered a very controversial thing for somebody who had been so much part of the political culture to suddenly declare himself a journalist.

BOHRMAN: Yes. No, very few people then had crossed over and had been able to establish the credibility of sort of losing the political side and becoming a journalist. You know, Stephanopoulos has now done it and others have as well. But it was really uncharted territory.

I think Tim realized that, and Judy referred to how he had to be talked into doing that job. And I think he realized that he had this political baggage that he had to transform and had to shed before he could move forward and be accepted as the fair arbiter on those questions.

KURTZ: And one of the ways he did that, Wolf Blitzer, was by the way he questioned pretty aggressively both Democrats and Republicans on his show. To the point that he now had some liberal critics who said, oh, he's too easy on Democrats, even though obviously he had been a Democrat.

BLITZER: He had to make it clear that he wasn't going to have any favorites. And he would always take the opposite side.

If he was interviewing a Democrat, he would ask the tough questions Republicans would ask, and vice versa. That was the Lawrence Spivak tradition at "Meet the Press." That's something he truly believed in. And he certainly didn't want to pretend that, you know, that he was going to have any favorites or anything like that.

There were moments when he had a Mario Cuomo or a Patrick Moynihan on his show. And he was always transparent and above board. And he made it clear to the viewing audience out there, I used to work with the guys, but I'm not going to be easy on them right now.

KURTZ: He once told me that he would take suggested questions from Republican operatives if a Democrat was on, and vice versa. In other words, anybody could call or e-mail Tim Russert, and if he thought the question was good, he would use it.

WOODRUFF: He wanted to see what -- he was always collecting information. We all know he worked seven days a week, 24/7, in a town where people work hard. Tim was working all the time. And, yes, did he collect. But in the end, of course, it was his questions that were asked on the air.

KURTZ: Sally Quinn, did he once talk to you about his love of politics and why he was drawn to that field in the first place?

QUINN: Jack Kennedy, I think, was -- had more effect on him than anybody. My sister called yesterday, and said that she had been crying all day. And she said, "I haven't felt this way since Jack Kennedy died."

And he had talked about how growing up, Kennedy was this icon. And they had pictures of Kennedy all over his house.

And he also said that he was so moved when Kennedy made his inauguration speech and he talked about, "Ask not what can you do," and he said Kennedy said, "Here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own. " And he really took that to heart., that he wanted his work to be God's work.

And I asked him if he had ever lost faith, his faith in God. And he said only once. And that was when -- just after Jack was killed and then Martin Luther King and then Bobby.

He said, "I just asked God how -- if there was a good God -- how could we have this kind of suffering and pain in our lives." And he said, "The only way I got through it was just my faith and my family, and the fact that my parents believed and they had faith and they had optimism."

KURTZ: Right.

QUINN: And he said, "That's how I got through all my life." KURTZ: Well, thank you all for helping us both remember and celebrate the life and career of Tim Russert. We'll have more on that later in the show.

Judy Woodruff, David Bohrman, Wolf Blitzer and Sally Quinn, thanks for joining us.

After the break, we will talk about coverage of campaign politics. We'll have some -- I'll have some final thoughts on Tim Russert. But as we head to commercial, let's look at some of the headlines around the country remembering the passing of Tim Russert.


KURTZ: Some more thoughts about Tim Russert a little later. But a lot has gone on in the presidential campaign this week.

And joining us now to talk about that is Jill Zuckman, national political correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune," Sarah Baxter, Washington bureau chief for "The Sunday Times of London," and Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for "TIME" magazine.

And Karen, you're the one who broke the story this week about Barack Obama setting up a Web site to fight rumors, what he calls smears. The back story here is that, among the other falsehoods swirling around Obama, there was a story that appeared on certain sites about Michelle Obama supposedly having used the word "whitey" in some kind of talk or rant at church, or elsewhere.

Rush Limbaugh was one of the ones who talked about it on the air. And Senator Obama was asked about that afterwards.

Let's watch.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: They're waiting to use it in October, of Michelle going nuts in the church, too, talking about "whitey" this and "whitey" that.



SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is dirt and lies that are circulated in e-mail. And they pump them out long enough until finally you, a mainstream reporter, asks me about them. And then that gives legs to the story.


KURTZ: And Limbaugh says that he -- this rumor was pretty well widely circulated by the time he mentioned it.

But Karen, what does it say about the media coverage, that Obama feels like he has got to do his own rumor-fighting with a Web site? KAREN TUMULTY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": Well, I think they understand what the definition of media is in the Internet era. And they understand -- I mean, this is a campaign that -- for whom the Internet has been an extraordinary tool, but it's also, you know, a place where these rumors get started, where they gain currency.

And that night, after Obama was asked about that on his plane, he had a conference call with his staff. And he said, we've got to get a lot more aggressive about this. And it really turns on its head the traditional approach to rumors, which is to ignore them.

JILL ZUCKMAN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": You can look back to the last two presidential campaigns for examples of why you should do this. In 2000, Senator McCain's Republican primary, he faced all sorts of scurrilous rumors that were not true. And it really devastated his campaign in South Carolina, and he did not get the nomination. I 2004, Senator Kerry was slow to address the Swift Boat attack rumors on his...

KURTZ: Those were not precisely rumors. They were people who didn't like John Kerry who had served in the Vietnam War.

ZUCKMAN: They were actually -- it wasn't -- that was not a rumor.


ZUCKMAN: That was an attack that was not addressed as quickly as it could have been. So those are two examples of why this is a good way of trying to bat this stuff down immediately.

KURTZ: As Karen says, Sarah Baxter, usually campaigns -- I've had campaign operatives on the phone with me begging me not to report something, even not to report that the story is false, because it has the unintended effect of spreading it. So this is a very different approach.

SARAH BAXTER, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE SUNDAY TIMES OF LONDON": Well, you can't control the Internet. So they have to bat it head on.

I think the best thing that Obama has done is to take on the allegations with humor. For example, he said, "Oh, there's a scary figure out there called Barack Obama." You know, "Let me know if you see him." And I think that's a great way to diffuse it.

He also came out with that untouchables line, didn't he, that, "If people bring a knife to the fight, I'm going to bring a gun." That is also very well said, I think, and the right approach.

KURTZ: Help you avoid being too defensive.

Now, Jill Zuckman, this week there seems to have been a lot of chatter again about Michelle Obama, people going after Michelle Obama. And I wonder whether, is it that journalists find her fascinating because in part she's unscripted? Is it because she really does have a lot of enemies out there, and we have to report it? I mean, she, is of course, the wife of the candidate.

ZUCKMAN: I think they have to be concerned that she not turn into a Hillary Clinton type of figure from the '92 campaign. Remember when she was a lightning rod in that campaign, and I think there's a danger that Michelle Obama could be that lightning rod, not because of anything she necessarily set out to do. But I think there is a fascination with her that is not about the substance of the campaign.

KURTZ: Well, on that point, Fox News was having a discussion about Michelle Obama and put up one of these chyrons on the bottom of the screen, the headlines you see. Called her "Obama's Baby Mama."

Fox has since said that that was poor judgment, and it was obviously written by some producer. But it kind of symbolizes, I think, what is being talked about here.

Karen Tumulty, a little bit of buzz this week about Scarlett Johansson, because Politico reported that the actress has an e-mail relationship with Barack Obama. And suddenly, I turn on the radio, everybody's talking about this.

Are people reading too much into this?

TUMULTY: Oh, I think. I mean, this is just -- you know, it's catnip for cable. It's, you know, celebrity meets politics, meets, you know, technology. So it seems pretty silly to me. But I...

KURTZ: But people can't resist.

TUMULTY: Exactly. It's catnip.

KURTZ: Now, speaking about what's inbounds and out of bounds, Sarah Baxter, in London, not your newspaper, but "The Daily Mail," had a long piece this week. It got a lot of attention on the Web, and it had to do with John McCain's first wife, Carol.

Now, there's no secret about this. In fact, she says she still supports him.

He has said he behaved badly. He dumped her for Cindy McCain. He doesn't deny that, you know, he was meeting Cindy McCain before he was done with Carol. And she was in a car accident.

But liberal bloggers have gone nuts over this. And their argument is, well, Bill Clinton's personal life was fair game, so why shouldn't John McCain's be?

What do you think about this?

BAXTER: Well, it's a great British tabloid tradition to really scrutinize people and really delve away and talk to as many sort of so-called friends and all the rest that you can find. And I think it was -- I think it was fair reporting, even if the McCain camp didn't like it. But the point about John McCain is he's not standing on a family values ticket. He's not presenting himself as the most perfect father ever.

In fact, ironically, the Obamas, who've been getting so much criticism, are much more the sort of model nuclear family in many ways. You know, it's their first marriage and all the rest.

He's had quite a messy private life. But I think everyone accepts that, you know, he's got a fine family. And his wife has been very loyal.

KURTZ: His first wife.

BAXTER: His first wife. But he did dump her when he came back from Vietnam. And she said herself he thought -- he didn't want to be 40, and she was injured and badly disfigured.

ZUCKMAN: Now, hold on a second. He stayed married to his first wife for something like seven years after he came back from Vietnam. She had the accident while he was in prison. But he didn't come back and say, oh, you're disfigured, I'm done with you.

What she attributes their breakup to was him having a midlife crisis about seven years into his return and running around with a lot of other women. They were apparently separated at the time that he met Cindy McCain in Hawaii.

KURTZ: So you think all this is unfair?

ZUCKMAN: Well, I'm not sure -- I didn't see that article. But, look, if you're running for president, everything is fair game. People are going to look at it. But let's get the facts straight at least.

KURTZ: All right.

Now, one person who made news this week is Katie Couric, the CBS anchor. She had some comments about sexism and the media coverage. Obviously, this is a topic we've talked about many times on the show, in terms of the way Hillary Clinton has been covered.

And she made a reference here -- she doesn't name him -- to Tucker Carlson having said something about Hillary Clinton. And she got whacked on MSNBC by Keith Olbermann, who took exception to some other remarks that she made about another reporter.

Let's look at Katie Couric first and then Olbermann.


KATIE COURIC, CBS: Many women have made the point that if Senator Obama had to confront the racist equivalent of an "iron my shirt" poster at campaign rallies, or a "Hillary nutcracker" sold at airports, or mainstream pundits saying they instinctively cross their legs at the mention of her name, the outrage would not be a footnote. It would be front page news.



KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: And as to her advice that a reporter like Lee Cowan, who was her colleague at CBS for nearly a year, should find another line of work? It is sadly obvious that in leaving NBC and "The Today Show," Ms. Couric already has.

Katie Couric, today's worst person in the world.


KURTZ: Worst person in the world?

TUMULTY: You know, this just sort of -- we're driving numbers here with this argument essentially. You know, he -- this specific reporter that Keith Olbermann was defending was not named in Katie Couric's commentary, which, by the way, could have applied to any number of commentators in particular.

KURTZ: Just to clarify, what Lee Cowan said very candidly was, when you go to these Obama rallies and 20,000 people are going nuts, there is a certain level of excitement here that you have to resist. I think he has resisted it. But just to talk about it made him a target.

TUMULTY: Exactly. And I think that one of the problems in all of this, I think, is people have confused the commentators with the journalists -- with the reporters on the campaign when they talk about the media, when they talk about the coverage.

KURTZ: Howard Rosenberg, the "L.A. Times" critic, really went after Olbermann. Actually, it was before this. He accused him of smug histrionics, accusatory rants, and shameless self-puffery. He's also been a very successful broadcaster.

But give us the British insight here. When people go after each other in this way and we're all shocked and horrified, are you not shocked and horrified?

BAXTER: Not in the least bit shocked and horrified. I'm also not shocked that anyone shouted, "Iron my shirt!" or "Hillary Clinton, nutcracker."

This is satire. This is humor. I think women, female candidates, have to be able to take those shots.

John Edwards got joked at for his $400 hair cut, was it? And you know, he was called a Brett Girl. This, is you know, the cut and thrust of politics.

Margaret Thatcher went through it in 1979. And she never, ever complained about it. And in the end she had President Mitterrand of France slavering that she had the eyes of Caligula and the legs of Marilyn Monroe, and she reveled in it.

KURTZ: But now a lot of people -- a lot of male executives and male pundits say, I don't think there's been a lot of sexism in the coverage. It's interesting that the only female network anchor comes out and says, yes, there has been.

ZUCKMAN: Well, look, the fact that the day after Senator Clinton lost the Iowa caucuses, people were saying, when is she going to get out? And she's -- and people said when is she going to get out for months after that. Look at how long the campaign went.

KURTZ: But is that sexism or is that political rush to judgement?

ZUCKMAN: I think -- I think Senator Clinton is in a separate category to a certain extent. She's her own figure. I think if she were -- if it were a different woman running, she would have been treated differently.

KURTZ: All right. We're going to leave it there.

When we come back, we'll talk a little further about Tim Russert. And also, John McCain held a town hall meeting this week. Only one network was allowed to cover it.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: John McCain has been trying to get Barack Obama to join him in a series of town hall meetings, 10 to be precise this summer. So far, the two campaigns have not agreed, but Senator McCain is out there doing the town halls. He did one in New York on Thursday, televised exclusively by Fox News Channel, at which McCain said the following.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think Americans are tired. They're tired of the spin rooms. They're tired of the sound bites. They're tired of taking people's comments out of context.


KURTZ: I'm not entirely tired of it.

But Jill Zuckman, that was like a Fox infomercial for McCain. I mean, he had an 18-minute opening statement. And although Fox originally said that Democrats, Republicans, Independents would be in the audience, it turns out that the McCain campaign gave all the tickets to his supporters.

ZUCKMAN: I think that if the McCain campaign had had all the television cameras there from all the networks, it would not have been held live. This was really a typical campaign to them to hold a town hall meeting. But because Fox got this exclusive opportunity, they bit.

I mean, it didn't strike me as major, major news. I think it was a campaign stunt to try to taunt the Obama campaign.

KURTZ: Now in fairness, Fox offered the Obama campaign the same deal, do a meeting and we'll have our cameras there and so forth. But we know McCain loves town hall meetings. And sometime we all cover these things for 10 or 15 minutes.

If you give somebody a whole hour, don't you usually have to buy TV time to get that kind of exposure?

TUMULTY: Yes, it was a sweetheart deal for the McCain campaign. I mean, there is just no way around it.

KURTZ: I have the -- you know, I should mention that ABC News offered Senator Obama, Senator McCain a deal in which they would have a town hall meeting. Diane Sawyer would moderate. And they both turned it down.

I have this sneaking suspicion, Sarah Baxter, that the campaigns want to avoid journalists being the moderators and asking at least some of the questions at these events.

BAXTER: Yes. In fact, John McCain supposedly loves town halls. Well, any politician would set on those sort of terms, because there's no comeback from a clever moderator, say, like Tim Russert of "Meet the Press." You have got the audience respectfully asking questions. The candidate can give his own answer without any fear of interruption or anything like that.

These are very patsy events. And I'm -- I think there's a reason why they're not necessarily a very good idea. I think...

ZUCKMAN: I've actually been to dozens and dozens of town hall meetings with John McCain, especially in New Hampshire. He's had plenty of voters stand up and say, "I want to know why the hell you are still supporting the war."

I mean -- and the other thing that he has done, he's given his answer and he will say, "Is there something else you want to say? Do you have a follow up question?" Which is...

KURTZ: Right. No, you can get rude questions.

ZUCKMAN: ... you know, a little tougher.

KURTZ: And they're not completely unscripted unless you kind of pack the hall with your prescreened supporters.

BAXTER: And politicians love to show off how good they are sometimes at responding to hecklers. They even come up with lines for it.

KURTZ: Yes, that could make for good television.


KURTZ: I want to return now -- you know we spent the first half of this program on Tim Russert.

Why do you think that his passing has touched such a nerve, and not just in the journalist community, but in the public? And what kind of legacy does he leave?

TUMULTY: Well, I think he really was the gold standard of the tough interviewer. And, you know, I mean, I think we've all watched it and found ourselves picking up some of the -- those, you know, techniques. I mean, always making sure that you get the talking points into the questions so that the answer won't be just repeating the talking points. And that sort of thing.

He was just remarkable at this.

KURTZ: And he brought such great passion to it. And I think the think that ordinary people liked about Tim Russert he was that he didn't seem too full of himself. He always was sort of the guy, the regular guy from Buffalo.

ZUCKMAN: People liked Tim. I mean, that is the bottom line. I have had so many friends call me to say how upset they are. And these are people who are not in politics, not in Washington, who watched Tim Russert to learn about what was going on in the campaign.

KURTZ: I mean, that is the thing. It's not just the junkies who had a kind of appreciation for him, I think, as a political analyst, but also as a real person. You know, so many people come in front of the TV screen and they don't seem real. Tim Russert seemed very passionate and very real.

Would you agree?

ZUCKMAN: Absolutely. I mean, he seemed down to earth. He seemed like he could be your neighbor. He could be your friend. I think people felt a connection to him that they may not have felt to any other person on television.

KURTZ: A quick thought from you?

BAXTER: He made it look like politics wasn't for nerds, it was for real people. And that was great.

KURTZ: He made it look fun. He was having fun. And he died doing what he was loved, which was recording the introduction for "Meet the Press."

Sarah Baxter, Jill Zuckman, Karen Tumulty, thanks for joining us.

I'll have a few closing thoughts on Tim Russert when we come back.


KURTZ: A few final thoughts now about Tim Russert.

I was at NBC on election night, 2006. And Russert was supposed to use this newfangled and electronic gizmo to track the states and districts the Democrats needed to take over Congress. But he lost patience with the thing and said, to hell with it, I'll use my old white board, the one he had made famous by scribbling, "Florida, Florida, Florida" during the presidential cliffhanger six years earlier. In television, Tim knew you had to keep it simple.

And I happened to be at 30 Rock last month during the Indiana and North Carolina primaries. That was the night that Russert infuriated Hillary Clinton's team by declaring after midnight that the race was over and Barack Obama had wrapped up the nomination. As I made my way to the elevators later on, I saw Russert in the hallway, and he couldn't resist razzing me. "Hey, where are you going? Leaving already? The story is not over."

It was almost 1:00 in the morning, but Tim Russert was still going strong, still doing what he loved to do. You could hear the excitement in his voice every week when he said...


TIM RUSSERT, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": If it's Sunday, it's "Meet the Press."


KURTZ: For me, it won't truly be Sunday without Tim Russert.