Betty Cole Dukert, Top ‘Meet the Press’ Producer, Dies at 96


Betty Cole Dukert, who began her career in Washington as a secretary in the 1950s and later became the top producer of the weekly NBC News public affairs program “Meet the Press,” died on March 16 at her home in Bethesda, Md. She was 96.

Her late husband’s niece Barbara Dukert Smith said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

In her 41 years at “Meet the Press,” a Sunday-morning fixture on the NBC schedule, Mrs. Dukert booked politicians, diplomats, foreign dignitaries, cultural figures and heart surgeons to be interviewed by a moderator and a panel of journalists; sought out the most capable reporters for the panel; and researched the subjects to be discussed.

“She was the main point of contact on Capitol Hill for the show,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, who started on “Meet the Press” as an intern and became the program’s executive producer in 2002. “She worked the phones constantly. It wasn’t an era when you could send off an email to book someone.”

As she rose in the “Meet the Press” hierarchy, Mrs. Dukert collaborated with a long list of moderators: Ned Brooks, Lawrence Spivak, Bill Monroe, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Chris Wallace, Garrick Utley and Tim Russert.

“I have never found anyone who is nicer to work with, more intelligent, and whose judgment and tact are so superb,” Mr. Spivak told the Missouri newspaper The Springfield Leader and Press in 1970.

For much of her time at “Meet the Press,” which premiered in 1947, Mrs. Dukert was a rarity: a woman in a top production job at a major network news program that did not have a permanent female moderator. (The program did not have one until Kristen Welker succeeded Chuck Todd last year.) In contrast, at “Face the Nation” on CBS, a competitor of “Meet the Press,” Lesley Stahl served as moderator from 1983 to 1991.

“Betty was such a fine, gracious person and the ‘keeper of the flame’ for ‘Meet the Press,’” Mr. Wallace, the show’s moderator from 1988 to 1989, said in a statement. But, he added, “behind the gentility, Betty was fiercely competitive. Even after decades on the show, she would fight for a guest like a 25-year-old booker. Important Washington politicians knew that crossing Betty was perilous.”

In 1976, Mrs. Dukert and a “Meet the Press” crew flew to Beirut, Lebanon, to record Mr. Monroe’s interview with Yasir Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. She was one of two women in an apartment with about 15 men, some of them carrying large rifles to protect Mr. Arafat. The other woman passed around cookies and orange juice.

“I just sat looking around the room, at the machine guns and the orange juice, and thought, ‘What a strange world we live in,’” Mrs. Dukert told the Television Academy in 2003.

When the interview ended, Mr. Arafat presented Mrs. Dukert with an embroidered black cotton shirt that had been made in a refugee camp. “I felt I should take it,” she added. “I did not want to insult him.”

While Mr. Arafat was cooperative, the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi was demanding and elusive. He was to be interviewed by satellite, and he required that NBC pay for an expensive add-on: a two-way feed that would let him look directly at his interviewer. But he backed out shortly before airtime, forcing Mrs. Dukert at the last minute to round up three experts to talk about Colonel Qaddafi in NBC’s Washington studio.

“Apparently, there was a fight between two aides, and we were on the side of the one who lost,” she told The Tulsa World in 1986. “Qadaffi owes us a lot of money for that one.”

Betty Ann Cole was born on May 9, 1927, in Muskogee, Okla. Her father, Irvin, was a mechanical foreman on an oil pipeline, a job that required him to move his family around the state and eventually to Springfield, Mo. Her mother, Ione (Bowman) Cole, managed the home.

Betty showed an early interest in journalism — influenced by the reporter characters played by Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell in the early-1940s films “Woman of the Year” and “His Girl Friday” — and wrote a fashion column for her high school newspaper.

After attending Lindenwood College for Women (now Lindenwood University) in St. Charles, Mo., and Drury College in Springfield, Mo., she graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1949.

She found work as a secretary and copywriter at a radio station in Springfield, then as an administrator at a local juvenile court, before moving to Washington. She was briefly a secretary at Voice of America, then found secretarial work in a lobbying office for NBC and its parent company, RCA.

After a year, she was hired — again as a secretary — in the programming department of WRC-TV, the NBC station in Washington, where she moonlighted as a production assistant.

In 1956, Mr. Spivak, a creator and executive producer of “Meet the Press,” interviewed her for the associate producer job. She impressed him with her production experience and her willingness to take a new job without a raise to prove to him how much she wanted the position.

“That was fine,” she told the Television Academy, “except that I had been getting a slight increase every year, from nothing to a little above nothing. So it was a handicap.”

She took the job and was promoted to producer in 1975, when Mr. Spivak retired. “She was the only producer for a while,” Ms. Martin said, until Barbara Cochran became executive producer, above Mrs. Dukert, in 1985. Mrs. Dukert was named senior producer in 1992 and executive producer in 1997, the year she retired.

In 1967, Mrs. Dukert met her future husband, Joseph Dukert, who was then the Republican chairman of Maryland, when they both attended the Republican Governors Conference in Palm Beach, Fla. They married the next year.

Mr. Dukert died in 2020. No immediate family members survive.

From the start of her career, Mrs. Dukert said, she preferred working behind the scenes to reporting. From her perch, she helped to develop an A-list of “Meet the Press” guests, including President John F. Kennedy; Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady; Golda Meir, when she was Israel’s foreign minister; Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba; President Anwar Sadat of Egypt; and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel.

Another major figure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appeared on “Meet the Press” several times.

“He was just an overwhelming presence” Mrs. Dukert told the Television Academy, adding that he had a calming effect on those around him.

One Sunday Dr. King was on a remote feed from Chicago, while other civil rights leaders — including Kwame Ture (then known as Stokely Carmichael), the fiery activist and Black Power advocate whose radicalism worried Dr. King — were in the Washington studio.

“Just before we went on the air,” Mrs. Dukert recalled, “when we were testing the microphones in Chicago and Washington, Dr. King said, ‘Now, Stokely, you behave yourself.’”



Richard Sandomir – [source]

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