April 12, 2024

Betty Cole Dukert, top producer of ‘Meet the Press’, dies at 96

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

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

In her 41 years at “Meet the Press,” a Sunday morning program on NBC, Ms. Dukert booked politicians, diplomats, foreign dignitaries, cultural figures and heart surgeons for interviews by a moderator and a panel of journalists; sought the most capable reporters for the panel; and researched the topics to be discussed.

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

As she rose through the “Meet the Press” hierarchy, Ms. Ducert worked 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 more pleasant to work with, more intelligent, and whose judgment and tact are so excellent,” Mr. Spivak told the Missouri newspaper The Springfield Leader and Press in 1970.

For much of her time on Meet the Press, which premiered in 1947, Ms. Ducert was a rarity: a woman in a top production job at a major news program that had no permanent female moderator. (The program didn’t have one until Kristen Welker succeeded Chuck Todd last year.) In contrast, on “Face the Nation” on CBS, a competitor to “Meet the Press,” Lesley Stahl was moderator from 1983 to 1991.

“Betty was such a lovely, kind person and the ‘keeper of the flame’ for ‘Meet the Press,’” Mr. Wallace, moderator of the show from 1988 to 1989, said in a statement. But, he added, “behind the goodness, Betty was fiercely competitive. Even after decades on the show, she would fight for a guest as a 25-year-old booker. Important politicians in Washington knew it was dangerous to cross Betty.”

In 1976, Ms. Dukert and a team from “Meet the Press” 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 whom carried large guns to protect Mr. Arafat. The other woman passed around cookies and orange juice.

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

As the interview ended, Mr. Arafat presented Ms. Dukert with an embroidered black cotton shirt made in a refugee camp. “I felt like I had to take it,” she added. “I didn’t want to offend him.”

While Mr. Arafat was cooperative, Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi was demanding and elusive. He was to be interviewed by satellite, and he demanded that NBC pay for an expensive add-on: a two-way feed that allowed him to look directly at his interviewer. But he withdrew shortly before the broadcast, forcing Ms. Dukert at the last minute to convene three experts to talk about Colonel Gaddafi at the NBC studio in Washington.

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

Betty Ann Cole was born on May 9, 1927 in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her father, Irvin, was a mechanical foreman on an oil pipeline, a job that required him to move his family across the state and eventually to Springfield, Mo. 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 in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

She found work as a secretary and copywriter at a Springfield radio station and then as an administrator at a local juvenile court before moving to Washington. She was a secretary at Voice of America for a short time and 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 earned extra money 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 every year I got a slight increase, from nothing to something more than 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 in 1985, above Ms. Dukert. Ms. Dukert was named senior producer in 1992 and executive producer in 1997, the year she retired. .

In 1967, Mrs. Ducert met her future husband, Joseph Duvert, who was then the Republican chairman of Maryland, when they both attended the Republican Governors’ Conference in Palm Beach, Florida. They married the following year.

Mr. Dukert died in 2020. There are no surviving immediate family members.

From the beginning of her career, Ms. Dukert said, she preferred working behind the scenes rather than as a reporter. From her perch, she helped 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 important figure, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appeared several times on “Meet the Press.”

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

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

“Just before we went on the air,” Ms. Ducert recalled, “when we were testing the microphones in Chicago and Washington, Dr. King: ‘Stokely, behave yourself.’”

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