Political leaders pay tribute to TV's Russert

June 18, 2008 5:51:39 PM PDT
The crowd at Tim Russert's funeral Wednesday would have made a great panel on his Sunday morning news show. The two men vying to become president, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, were there, as were members of Congress, television journalists and several generations of politicians from both parties.

Obama and McCain sat next to each other at the private service, per a request by the Russert family. Later in the day, former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton joined several hundred of Russert's friends and colleagues at a memorial service televised by MSNBC.

Russert, the host of NBC's "Meet the Press," died Friday of a heart attack. He was 58.

Tom Brokaw opened the memorial service by lifting a bottle of Rolling Rock beer to salute his fallen colleague.

"We are going to do it Irish style," Brokaw, who pilfered the Rolling Rock from Russert's cooler, said at the service held at the Kennedy Center. "There will be some tears, some laughs, and the occasional truth."

Speakers included Maria Shriver, Mario Cuomo, Mike Barnicle and even the nun who taught Russert in the seventh grade. It ended with Russert's 22-year-old son Luke.

"He regarded a day greeted without real enthusiasm as a sadly lost opportunity," said Cuomo, the former New York governor for whom Russert worked as an aide in the early 1980s.

Shriver, California's first lady and member of the Kennedy family, recalled how Russert tried to help get her daughter into Boston College, which Luke attended.

He told her "it's competitive," she said. "You need to know people in Boston. You need to know people in the Catholic church."

Shriver had that covered, although her daughter landed on the waiting list.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams told how Russert went to the best salons for haircuts.

"Tim spent a fortune on his hair," Williams said. "And on the day when he got it done, he looked outstanding for 60 to 90 minutes afterwards."

Russert, who also was the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, was known for conducting tough interviews of Washington's most powerful politicians, yet he evoked an everyman quality that showed his blue-collar, Buffalo, N.Y., roots. Part of that came from his sometimes rumpled appearance.

Brokaw referred to Russert as "an unmade bed of a man with an armful of newspapers and a cell phone to his ear."

The crowd entering the Kennedy Center heard music from Russert's iPod, including Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." The memorial ended with a video tribute by Bruce Springsteen, who was touring in Europe.

Among the politicians at the memorial service were former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Those at the funeral included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Honorary pallbearers included Williams, "Today" show host Matt Lauer and former "Today" show host Bryant Gumbel.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, had attended the public wake on Tuesday.

The funeral service at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood was private, but a loudspeaker broadcast the service to about 100 onlookers standing along the tree-lined street.

Luke Russert gave the eulogy. His mother and Russert's widow, Maureen Orth, looked on.

"My dad was my best friend," Luke Russert said, his voice strong and clear. "To explain my bond with my father is utterly impossible to put into words."

He said that whenever he did well on a school assignment, his father would yell, "Yahoo! You smoked 'em, buddy!"

He asked the crowd to imagine a special edition of "Meet the Press" this Sunday in heaven. "Maybe Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr will be on for the full hour debating," he said.

Luke Russert repeated much of the eulogy at the memorial service, confiding that his father often recycled the same speech for different civic groups.

"Tim Russert led with his heart, his compassion and most of all his honor," his son said. "I love you, dad, and in his words, let us all go get 'em!"