Friday, June 13, 2008

Iowan Gartner Helped Propel Russert To Fame

Shocking news of NBC Washington Bureau chief Tim Russert's death from an apparent heart attack is still fresh but it recalls some old stories of how the paunchy countenanced TV personality became one of the most respected arbiters of political debate by high-jumping substance over the blow-dried showmanship so common in his business.

There is a reason so many Americans feel they know Russert well enough to mourn his passing at age 58. An Iowan gave Russert the chance to do what he did with "Meet The Press."

Former NBC News president Michael Gartner, a native Iowan who edited the Des Moines Register and co-owned The Daily Tribune in Ames before his well-chronicled involvement with the Iowa Cubs and Board of Regents, had the foresight at NBC to see that Russert's behind-the-scenes smarts made him the perfect choice for more air time.

In a speech at Drake University several years ago, to a packed house at the Knapp Center, Russert, host of "Meet The Press," said he would not be in the position without Gartner taking a chance on him. Gartner introduced Russert that day in Des Moines for the speech, and the two lions of American journalism were close friends, as NBC's Brian Williams just pointed out on MSNBC moments ago. I recall being at the funeral for Gartner's son Christopher and hearing that words from Russert, poignant ones about valuing the years we have with loved one, were among those most comforting to Gartner.

Those of us who worked for Gartner (for my part at the Daily Tribune in Ames) recall the story Gartner's Midas Touch with Russert's television career.

The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times committed the story
to print:

By 1989 he (Russert) was beginning to appear on news shows. Viewers took to him. Michael Gartner, then president of NBC News, suggested more on-air assignments. Russert described his first reaction to the proposal on The Larry King Show: "I said, "Michael, look at me. I don't belong on TV. I don't have a jaw. I have cheeks.' "

And cheekiness. Soon he was on Meet the Press regularly, doing frequent comment on Today and NBC's cable outlet, even turning up often on Imus in the Morning. "It gives me a chance I don't get on my own shows to insult people," he jokes.

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