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Remembering Betty Cole Dukert, former executive producer of Meet the Press

A personal reflection by Betsy Fischer Martin, executive producer of Meet the Press (2002-2013)

Betty Cole Dukert was the embodiment of class, grit and grace. Already a legend in television, she was nearing the end of her remarkable 41-year career at “Meet the Press” just as I was starting out as a college intern. We would end up working together for six years during which she was a mentor and a guiding force during a period of big changes on the longest-running show in television. 

A pioneer for women in television, she started working in TV news in the early 1950’s for WRC, the local NBC station in Washington, as a secretary and as a temporary weekend production assistant for the network. In 1956 she was hired as an associate producer to co-creator and producer/questioner Lawrence E. Spivak of Meet the Press. 

Spivak was a tough and demanding boss and expected an around-the-clock work ethic to match his own. He offered her the job on the condition that she be paid the same paltry amount she was making in local news - to prove to him that she actually wanted the position not just the salary increase. Eventually, she was promoted to producer of the program and presumably received a well-deserved raise. 

Betty was Spivak’s right hand until his retirement as moderator in 1975. She stayed on as producer, working alongside the next six moderators: Bill Monroe, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Chris Wallace, Garrick Utley, and Tim Russert.

She retired with the title of executive producer in 1997 after Meet the Press celebrated its 50th anniversary on the air. Betty had been with the program for almost all of the history-making interviews and she remembered most of them in great detail — not just what was said on the air but the behind-the-scenes negotiations and any corresponding drama. Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Robert Frost, Golda Meir, Eleanor Roosevelt — nearly every important political figure in modern history. After the program, each guest received a handwritten thank you note along with a professionally printed copy of the transcript from Betty in the mail. 

Despite her front-row seat to history, she had a humility about her. She didn’t brag or boast. She was exacting yet charming. She kept an index card catalog system of former guests and panel members. Each person had a “yellow card” upon which was typed their contact information, the date of their appearance and who they appeared with. 

For reporters who were on the “press panel” asking questions of the newsmaker guests, lightly written in pencil next to the date of their appearance was Betty’s handwriting. VG for very good, G for good, and an X if maybe they weren’t quite up to snuff that week. Betty decided who would be invited back.

I never saw her lose her cool. She was calm in the face of breaking news, high-stakes interviews, and other live television fiascos. Once in 1995, the night before a taping of a big interview with Ross Perot at his United We Stand conference in Dallas, he threatened to pull out of the show. She turned on her charm and maybe a few tears and convinced a volatile Perot that it would reflect badly on her if he canceled his appearance. He changed his mind. No one wanted to disappoint Betty. Tim Russert looked on in amazement. 

A hallmark of the program dating back to the days of Lawrence Spivak was a strict adherence to political nonpartisanship on the air. Spivak always said he viewed it as his mission to learn as much as possible about the guest and then take the other side no matter the political party. Betty felt strongly about this as well. She considered herself an independent and never discussed her personal political opinions in the office. Maintaining her journalistic integrity, as well as that of the show, was of paramount importance to her. It seems rather quaint to think about today in an era of cable news and opinionated television hosts. None of that would stand on Meet the Press. 

She worked long hours in the office, sometimes waiting until late at night for a return call from a congressional office or lawmaker. This was an era long before cell phones or even voicemail. Any work on our rudimentary computer system had to be done at the office — there was just no such thing as “working from home.” Afraid to miss a call after hours at home, she employed an old-school home answering service to take messages and let callers know when she might return. Even after she retired, she kept that answering service for years after the advent of answering machines. She often referred to Spivak as a creature of habit, but I think she was too.

A true lady, Betty was incredibly caring and generous. We stayed in close touch and enjoyed lunches at the Cosmos Club (her favorite) and, later, brunches at her retirement community dining room. She loved her affiliation with the International Women’s Forum and made sure to recommend me for membership when I became the executive producer.  

Every Christmas until she stopped driving, she would hand deliver a red tin of homemade Chex mix to the Meet the Press office staff and promise a refill the following year only if the prized tin was returned safely to her. She was always perfectly put together for any occasion. When she retired, she gave me a few of her classic suits and a pretty black dress that I still have. It will never go out of style. Her hair remained jet black and perfectly coiffed even at her 90th birthday surprise party in 2017.  

She died peacefully at her apartment in Bethesda, Maryland on March 16th, just two months shy of turning 97. The word “trailblazer” is thrown around a lot these days but in the case of Betty Cole Dukert, it rings true. She graduated from the University of Missouri journalism school in 1949, made her way alone to Washington, DC to enter the exciting new world of television news and rose to the top in a field dominated by men in front of and behind the camera. She did it with courage and determination but always with class and kindness. Meet the Press has been on the air for almost 77 years and there is no doubt that Betty Cole Dukert deserves a lot of the credit for helping it remain the longest-running television show in the world.