WASHINGTON – Tim Russert's chair was empty on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, two days after his unexpected death.
But Russert was very much present on the full-hour tribute to this giant of political journalism who hosted NBC's public-affairs program for more than 16 years.
"His voice has been stilled," began Tom Brokaw, who led the conversation, "and our issue this sad Sunday morning is remembering and honoring our colleague and our friend ...."
Brokaw and a half-dozen others were seated in front of the "Meet the Press" set and its angular table, left vacant, where Russert had presided as recently as last week.
Brokaw noted that Russert had a large wooden sign in his office that read: "Thou shalt not weep or cry." That was the watchword for Sunday's program, Brokaw declared: "This is a time for celebration."
But a bit later he choked up, recalling Russert's words of awe at how far a working-class kid from Buffalo like himself could rise: "What a country!" he would marvel.
Among those gathered were presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and political pundit Mary Matalin, with Maria Shriver — the former NBC News correspondent and currently California's first lady — on a remote hookup.
All agreed that Russert was tough but fair in his interviewing, and that he, as a former political operative himself, loved politics and politicians.
What he didn't like, said consultant-pundit James Carville, was an elected official or anybody else who wasn't prepared to face him.
"The biggest insult to him was someone who came on and ... didn't take the show seriously," Carville said.
It was a mistake they quickly regretted, because Russert took his stewardship of "Meet the Press" as a sacred trust.
"He would spend all week preparing," said executive producer Betsy Fischer.
PBS' Gwen Ifill, a former NBC correspondent, called the program "The Church of Tim."
"I would actually get a pass from my own pastor to not be in church on Sunday if I was gonna be on `Meet the Press,'" she said with a smile.
MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle added that Russert's son, Luke, had told him the day before that the program was "Tim's second son."
However fitting Sunday's tribute, it was a cruel irony that Russert had become the big story, particularly in the midst of a like-no-other presidential race that he was covering with his customary gusto. Guests he had planned to grill Sunday were senior officials from both campaigns.
All that changed with Russert's death from a heart attack Friday. He was stricken while preparing for the broadcast at his network's Washington bureau.
NBC aired a prime-time tribute Friday night, then devoted Saturday's "Today" show to his life and career. His passing dominated rival cable-news networks and news-talk shows.
Russert was the face of political news for NBC as well as cable sibling MSNBC, serving as chief political analyst, a frequent correspondent and an election-night fixture, besides his off-camera duties as NBC News' Washington bureau chief.
He had become almost synonymous with the top-rated "Meet the Press," the TV institution he reinvented while becoming an institution himself. He had been its host since 1991 when the show, the longest-running on television, already was in its 45th year.
Several tape montages on Sunday's tribute displayed Russert in action, pressing subjects from Ross Perot to Louis Farrakhan. Politicos including John Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton were seen telling Russert they had no interest in running for the White House.
The abrupt void Russert leaves is unprecedented in network TV news. Even the tragic death of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings in 2005 followed his much-publicized battle with lung cancer and his four-month absence from the airwaves.
There was no immediate word on who would host "Meet the Press" next week, or in the weeks after that.
Drawing the program to a close, Brokaw observed "this would not have been just another Sunday for Tim: This is Father's Day." Any regular viewer of "Meet the Press" knew Russert was a devoted son (of "Big Russ," about whom he wrote in a best-selling memoir) and father (to Luke).
But the final moments — eerily yet aptly — were of Russert signing off from his host's chair, proud and cheery, with Father's Day greetings to all. For an instant, viewers might have wondered: Who will Russert be grilling next week?