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'Special Report' Panel Remembers Tim Russert and Weighs In On McCain's Debate Challenge to Obama

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume" from June 13, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM BROKAW, ANCHOR, 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 in the NBC News Bureau in Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: That was the news today, shocking news, as Tom Brokaw took to the NBC airwaves to make that announcement that Tim Russert had had died, 58-years-old. He was at work apparently in the audio tracking booth when, at least now they believe it was a heart attack. We're waiting to hear exactly how he died, but a shock to Washington, and definitely to the NBC family.

Some observations and remembrances from Mort Kondracke, Executive Editor of "Roll Call," Jeff Birnbaum, columnist of "The Washington Post," and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Fox News contributors all.

First, Mort, obviously shocking news.

MORT KONDRAKE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "ROLL CALL": Absolutely.

BAIER: What about Tim Russert?

KONDRAKE: He was a great journalist, one of the very best. I've always sort of looked around to see who is the best question asker in all of journalism. And for years before you were born, it was Peter Lisagore of "The Chicago Daily News," who died in 1976.

Since 1991, hands down, no question, it was Tim Russert. What he did with "Meet the Press" transformed Sunday television. He braced all his guests with what they said before, based on prodigious research. And he had a staff that would flash up on the screen—here is what you said five years ago, and how do you square with that?

And his journalism was all informed by having a political practitioner himself. He was Daniel Patrick Moynihan's first press secretary and then chief of staff, and he's the one who had the wisdom to persuade Pat Moynihan to switch from being what amounts to the first neo-con ever, strict anti-communist, into a liberal in order to preserve his political career, because Pat Moynihan might not have been reelected in New York if it had not been for the switch.

BAIER: What are your thoughts?

JEFF BIRNBAUM, COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": Tim Russert is, I think, the gold standard for interviewing political figures, without question, largely because he insisted on knowing the topic and being completely prepared. He always knew every angle going into things.

He cared about policy and the substance of things, even though he broadcast mostly about something that was much more ephemeral, politics. But he really knew the substance.

He cared about books—that is one of the things that really mattered to me—on a separate show he did for CNBC. He featured nonfiction book authors, recently including me, I'm very proud to say, and he encouraged people to think deeply about Washington, and write deeply about Washington, and rewarded people who cared about the substance of things, something that you don't often see on television.

And on top of that, he was a remarkably nice man, who, even though he did come from Democratic politics, he never showed a partisan slant. He would put people on the griddle whether they were Republicans or Democrats, and insist on getting an answer.

And yet people liked him because they saw what I knew personally, I'm happy to say, that he was just a very warm-hearted individual.

BAIER: I was talking to Chris Wallace and Brit Hume earlier, and I said Roger Ailes said earlier today that he couldn't find a picture where Tim Russert wasn't smiling. And he was always smiling.

And I took a shuttle from New York to D.C. after an election night, and he came up to me and said "How about this election?" He came out of highs shoes, and he was just talking for five minutes, like just so excited about covering this election at this time. He was an affable fun guy to be around.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: He was gregarious, always enthusiastic, an incredible passion for politics, and genuinely a good guy. I didn't know him intimately, but every time I encountered him I ended up smiling and enjoying the encounter. And everyone who met him felt that way, particularly the people who worked for him.

What he managed to do—television is such a ubiquitous medium, it is hard to imagine anybody would invent something. And as Mort indicated, he invented the interrogation.

You would think somebody would have thought it up before. He decided to use the screen to flash something that the person had said, and to make the chief witness against his guest the guest himself and his past. And it worked in a way that, of course, everybody now has copied, and it made what he did interesting and effective, because otherwise you would ask a question that every politician is trained in dodging—that's what an interview is about, how do you deflect a question and end up on message.

But if he confronts you with something the opposite of what you're saying today, and it's on the screen, you've got to have some answer. And that's why he was a breakthrough. And he will be remembered as a kind of a genius in that way.

KONDRAKE: You often thought that of some public figure who was a shooting star has not been fully vetted until he has been through "Meet the Press" and been done by Tim Russert.

BAIER: Tim Russert will be terribly missed. Thank you very much for these remembrances.

So, up next, who won the first week of the general election campaign? We'll look at what Senators Obama and McCain accomplished and what they didn't when we return with the FOX all-stars.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: John McCain has proposed a series of debates. I'm looking forward to having him.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: His response is perhaps one debate and one town hall meeting to take place on the fourth of July. Now, we all know what Americans do on the fourth of July, so of all times, obviously, that would be the least viewed.

What we need to do is set town hall meetings once every few days, as many as ten, and have it televised to all of America by all the networks and all the cables so that Americans can view us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: So, the debate over debates continues, in this case, town halls. As you remember, John McCain offered ten town halls before the three presidential debates. The Obama campaign came back—three presidential debates, one town hall July 4, and one long-form Lincoln- Douglas-type debate where they speak back and forth, no questions.

What about this, and who won the week in this general election that is just starting? Mort, let's start with you.

KONDRAKE: As to debates, I think Barack Obama chickened out. You can understand why he would. He is less good at town halls. McCain is better, although we really don't know how it would turn out, but that's McCain's strength.

Obama thought he had a lead going. He started out the week right after Hillary Clinton's departure with a six-point lead in the Gallup tracking poll, and it is now down to three, so that would suggest a little slip, anyway, on Barack Obama's part.

And he didn't have a particularly good week. Jim Johnson, his chief vetter for vice president, had to resign. Eric Holder, one of the other vetters, is under fire.

I think there is one thing that worked to Obama's advantage this week, and that is an analysis from the Tax Policy Center that said that John McCain's tax proposals would overwhelmingly benefit the rich.

But I would say net-net, I think McCain is slightly ahead.

BAIER: On this town hall thing, Charles, we should point out that we never heard back from the Obama campaign about the specifics of whether in fact it was just July 4th and that's it. But they are definitely talking about how they are going to deal with this.

KRAUTHAMMER: It's true, but I don't see the salience of this issue having any effect on public opinion. This really is small-ball. This is ping-pong. And McCain ought to be heaving shot putts or javelins.

This election is going to hinge on two issues, the war on terror and the war on Iraq, on the one hand, and secondly on the economy, and I think on the main issue people are worried about, high gasoline prices, which is killing everybody.

On the war, McCain ought to challenge Obama as a man who opposed the surge and introduced a Bill that would have killed it, would have had all American troops out of Iraq a few months ago with a calamity on our hands, and a man wants upon inauguration to call the Joint Chiefs into his office and to prepare an evacuation with a plan of over 16 months.

He can win with this issue. He can talk about how al-Qaeda is in disarray, and how under Obama, it would be the exact opposite.

And secondly, on gasoline, he has got to change his position on drilling. There is an issue here to be had. The Democrats have opposed drilling in the Arctic and outer-continental shelf. The Republicans are in favor. The American people understand it's a crisis. You have to do something.

And McCain has to take a flight up to the arctic and say I was wrong— $2 gasoline, I was against it; $4, a crisis in our economy, I'm in favor of it.

BAIER: Who won the week, Jeff?

BIRNBAUM: For fear of being accused of being lowbrow, I'm afraid I'm going to speak in favor of small-ball. I really do think that's what a lot of this politics is all about. And because of the attacks on debates and the resignations in the Obama camp, clearly this first week of the general election campaign really went to what amounts to the challenger, John McCain.

And I think that he made up some real ground here, and I will be happy to talk about small-ball next week, too, if you want.

KONDRAKE: I do have to agree with Charles that these were lost opportunities on McCain's part, and he ought to pick them up.

BAIER: OK.

When we come back, Tim Russert on life in his own words—a life that was cut short today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BAIER: Finally tonight, with Tim Russert's sudden death today, his colleagues are reflecting on his life, his work, his passions.

A major passion was his family. Russert wrote two two books about his dad—"Big Russ and Me," and "Wisdom of our Fathers." When the first book came out, Russert talked with our own Neil Cavuto. We thought we would leave you tonight with Tim Russert in his own words telling a story close to his heart.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM RUSSERT, JOURNALIST, NBC NEWS: He never had a new car. He turned 75-years-old. I wanted to buy him a new car. I sent him a brochure for a Lexus, for a Mercedes, for a Cadillac.

And he pulls in and he said, I will show you where I want to go. Two blocks away, he goes into the Ford dealership. Charlie comes in with a Buffalo Bills windbreaker—Tim, show him the car—a black crown Victoria.

I said, dad, it is a cop car. He said, Charlie, open the trunk. Two cases of beer, two suitcases will fit in there.

So we're driving home, and I said, dad, why didn't you want a Lexus or a Mercedes? I am paying for it. He said we beat those guys in the war.

I said how about a Cadillac? Cadillacs are American made. He said, what do you want me to do? Drive home with a spanking new Cadillac, Big Russ's kid made it big on television so I'm showing off? I can't do that. I know who I am. I'm a Ford Crown Vic guy.

Even in receiving a gift, he was teaching me a lesson.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: Particularly poignant ahead of Father's Day this weekend—Tim Russert, dead today, hard to believe. Our condolences and our prayers go out to the Russert family and to the NBC family tonight.

That is "Special Report" this time. Thank you for watching.

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