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`Meet the Press’ celebrates 50 years

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Tim Russert has long awaited this week.

"I want to preside over the 50th anniversary of `Meet the Press,' " he declared during a chat in 1992. "That will be a real landmark day in television."Now he's about to. And it certainly is all that.

Turning the big five-O this week, NBC News' "Meet the Press" is not only a pioneering interview program; this is the oldest TV series in the history of the world. And under moderator Russert, it's still going strong.

Its unrivaled anniversary will be marked on this Sunday's broadcast. The guest of honor: President Clinton, whom Russert will interview at the White House. ("Meet the Press" airs locally Sunday at 8 a.m. on Ch. 5.)

But the official birthdate is Nov. 6, 1947. On that long-ago Thursday evening, what had started on radio two years earlier jumped to the frail new medium of TV.

As before, four journalists would convene at a Washington, D.C., studio to grill a top politician or other newsmaker. But now you could see, not just hear them, as well as moderator Martha Rountree, a radio producer who had created the program with magazine publisher Lawrence Spivak.

The inaugural guest was U.S. Postmaster General James Farley. But, oddly, his appearance was carried only on NBC's New York City outlet. Then, a couple of weeks later, "Meet the Press" mushroomed to the full network - two stations.

Much has changed since. Now you pay somewhat more than the 3 cents Farley charged to mail a first-class letter, NBC-TV boasts significantly more than two affiliates, and "Meet the Press" long ago took residence on Sundays.

To help fill in that half-century gap, watch a special edition of MSNBC Cable's "Time and Again," which airs a "Meet the Press" tribute at 2 p.m. Sunday and again at 11 p.m. MST.

This enduring series, says "Time and Again" host Jane Pauley, "is a skybox on the 50-yard line of American politics, the best seat in the house to watch the power players of the nation and -"

Block that metaphor, we get the idea!

Or we will in short order. For here are "Meet the Press" guests including John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even Carl Sandburg.

Here is Richard Nixon on Nov. 3, 1968, two days before the election, vowing as president to try "to establish communication with every one of the dissident groups. I believe I'm a pretty good listener."

Here is Ronald Reagan, a former movie star and TV pitchman, explaining on Jan. 9, 1966, that his entry into politics was stirred by his belief that "the rank-and-file of the citizenry" should participate.

Here, on July 10, 1960, is Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson telling the "Meet the Press" panel that no way is he interested in running for vice president - just four days before he signed on as John Kennedy's running mate.

"Meet the Press" was the first network news program televised in color on a regular basis, starting in September 1960. Last February, it became the first network TV show of any kind to broadcast in digital high-definition.

It would spawn competitors on every major network. Besides "This Week" forerunner "Issues and Answers," which ABC launched in 1960, CBS' "Face the Nation" began in 1954 and "Fox News Sunday" came on board in April 1996.

A living testament to the show's longevity, executive producer Betty Cole Dukert joined the staff in 1956. "Someone at NBC warned me, `It could go off the air any week.' I said, `Well, I'll take that chance.' " Forty-one years later, she is planning to retire on Jan. 1.

Three years younger than "Meet the Press," Russert became moderator in December 1991. Soon the broadcast expanded from 30 minutes to an hour and added a closing feature: the "Meet the Press" Minute, a weekly nod to its past.

Says Russert, who is also NBC's Washington bureau chief, "I love history and I revere tradition, and `Meet the Press' has both of them."

But, then, he has never been coy about his pride in the program, reaffirmed each week in his unequivocal signoff: "If it's Sunday, it's `Meet the Press.' "

As Russert is fond of saying, "`Meet the Press' is a national treasure, and I'm honored to be its temporary custodian."

Or maybe not so temporary. He recounts a recent exchange with Robert Wright, during which the NBC President hailed the show's first 50 years and promised, "It'll have 50 more."

"Well, Bob," said Russert, pleased by the news, "I'll be 97."

We'll be watching, Tim.