You know you've made it big when your name becomes a verb said with admiration. And in the field of TV journalism, nobody was bigger than Tim Russert.
To be "Russerted" was to be grilled, fairly yet relentlessly, on "Meet the Press." The word conveyed respect for the professional process and especially for the man who made the Sunday morning show must-watch TV.
The sudden death on Friday of Russert, at a mere 58, is a huge loss. He was a bear of a man whose warmth was as gripping as one of his paw-like handshakes. His impish smile revealed a playful spirit and his enthusiasm for politics, sports, his beloved Buffalo and his faith and family were infectious.
He was also a terrific writer and storyteller. "Big Russ & Me," an extended love letter to his father and the Irish Catholic values Tim and his siblings were raised with, was a best-seller. The heartwarming tales provoked readers to share their family memories, and Russert turned those into a second book, "Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons."
His death, coming during one of the most important presidential elections in memory, doubles the pain. He served as a moderator during debates, and no big event was complete without his input. When Russert talked, you paid attention because he had something to say.
Attempts to smooth his rough-hewn look were useless. Once when I was a guest on his MSNBC show, a stylist came on the set during a commercial break to try to tame his wild reddish hair. Tim submitted to the indignity oh-so-briefly, saying with finality after only one brush "not too much."
That wasn't the only way he distinguished himself from the blow-dried celebrity-stalkers who dominate the airwaves. Tim didn't think journalism was a license for cynicism and proved every time he got in front of the camera you could simultaneously show your love for America and be skeptical of the people running it. He practiced old-fashioned values in a thoroughly modern medium.
I first got to know him 25 years ago, when I was a young reporter for The New York Times and Tim worked for Sen. Daniel Moynihan and then Gov. Mario Cuomo. We talked sports and politics, sometimes over a beer or three, and I realized he had a sharp eye for the telling detail, the little fact that gave away more than a politician realized or wanted.
It was a skill I especially came to admire after he alerted me in 1984 to a report in The Washington Post where Jesse Jackson had referred to New York as "Hymietown." The phrase, buried in the long article, later caused an uproar, but Russert was one of the first to recognize its significance.
He moved to NBC in 1984 and seamlessly made the shift from counselor and operator to reporter and analyst. Four years later, he was the network's Washington bureau chief.
But it was during his 17-year run on "Meet the Press" where Russert defined himself and the modern TV interview. The pols who took their turn on the hot seat knew he would relentlessly prepare by pulling together anything they had said of consequence.
If you didn't prepare as much as he did, getting Russerted could be a career-ender. If you were ready and honest, you passed the toughest possible test.
His trademark tactic was to post quotes on-air in graphic form, a deliberate practice that made the question clear to both the guest and the viewer. In the hands of a lesser man, it could have been a cheap "gotcha" gimmick.
Not with Russert. Week in, week out, it was a dramatic moment that was utterly serious without being sensational.
Just like Big Tim himself.