In the Hot Seat
Tim Russert on his ego, his bias, his father worship and what he really thinks about tax cuts
By Howard Kurtz
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page W16
Tim Russert is the quintessential Washington insider, a man with tentacles deep into the political and media worlds, one of the few journalists in a puffed-up, preening profession who really matter.
He is also the son of a garbageman, and that may be the secret, hidden in plain view, of how he reached the pinnacle of Beltway influence.
It's not that emptying stinking pails of spoiled food into the grinding jaws of a truck, which Russert himself did for several summers, is especially enlightening. It's not just that he came to see public policy as a one-way ticket out of the warm yet stifling embrace of Buffalo's south side.
It's that Tim Russert is the anchor as everyman, the big talker with the street smarts, the man who hobnobs with presidents but aims his delivery at the working stiffs. Amid the high-tech wizardry of television, it was Russert who picked up a white board and marker on Election Night 2000 and plotted the progress of the Bush/Gore all-nighter, scribbling "Florida, Florida, Florida" before anyone knew the race would not be settled there for 36 days.
The role of backslapping Buffalo Bills fan isn't just a pose for Russert -- a neat bit of imagery to soften the status of his multimillion-dollar salary and mighty network perch -- though he isn't shy about using it to his advantage. Russert is tough, driven and ambitious, but he is also the kid who got punished for using chalk to write a word that the Federal Communications Commission would not allow on the airwaves. And he's no Yale or Harvard man; he attended Cleveland's John Carroll University, and only because he got a partial scholarship.
Russert, 54, is a lawyer who started out as a Democratic political operative, signing on with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and gradually developing a reputation for devastating effectiveness at shaping coverage. He once leaked word to two reporters that the senator's Republican opponent had distorted his own military record, knocking the candidate out of the race and prompting the New Yorker magazine to observe that the man had been "russerted." In 1984, Russert made the jump to network news as a mid-level executive.
He didn't think small. Within months, Russert was helping arrange for the "Today" show to visit Pope John Paul II -- at his father's suggestion, he had the letter requesting an audience translated into Polish -- which gave Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley a major exclusive.
Russert was hardly a household name when he arrived in Washington after NBC named him to run its sizable bureau here in the final weeks of 1988. The Washington Post reported that Russert "is clearly being groomed for bigger things at NBC News," a reference to his barely veiled desire to become the news division president.
Instead, it was in the "Meet the Press" studio on Nebraska Avenue NW, not the towers of Manhattan's 30 Rock, where Russert would make his mark. The oldest program in television -- it debuted in 1947 -- was languishing in third place on Sundays when the man no one would accuse of having movie-star looks took over in 1991. ABC's David Brinkley ruled the Sunday morning roost, but Russert's bulldog interrogation style won plaudits and often produced news. In 1997, soon after Brinkley retired, "Meet the Press" became the top-rated Sunday news show and has not relinquished that status.
The Russert approach doesn't rely on flashy video or glitzy graphics. He will put on the screen something the guest said in 1989 or 1996 or three months ago and probe for contradictions and inconsistencies with the guest's current stance. He will go full bore for as much as half an hour before breaking for commercials.
He can be prosecutorial at times, and some would say a little full of himself. But the show's success has established what insiders call the Russert Primary, a hurdle that any serious presidential candidate must clear. "You go on that show and you do well, it translates into the 500 most important journalists and pundits saying, 'This guy's for real,' " says former White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. And when a candidate falters on the program, the buzz immediately turns bad.
The White House has taken notice. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Dick Cheney's first interview was with "Meet the Press," one of nearly a dozen vice presidential appearances on the program. And in February, George W. Bush tried to energize his reelection campaign by granting his first Sunday morning interview as president to Russert.
Democrats were soon demanding equal time for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, so Russert put in a request as the Democratic primaries were winding down. Kerry called back personally and said he'd like to do it, and in mid-April, he submitted to the hourlong examination.
Russert has become so valuable to the network -- "Meet the Press" is said to make annual profits of $50 million -- that more than two years ago, executives signed him to an extraordinarily long contract that runs through 2012. Industry insiders estimate he makes north of $5 million a year.
For all his success, Russert has both beer and champagne tastes. I once saw him at the Safeway, pushing a cart filled with cases of bottled water like any other weekend schlepper. He drives a Ford pickup -- along with his Lexus. He has a summer house on Nantucket, and each year pays for 17 Buffalo relatives to fly there, virtually taking over the small plane that travels the route.
Sometimes Russert can lose perspective. He offered to buy his dad a Cadillac or Mercedes several years ago and didn't understand why his father insisted on getting a Crown Victoria. If he had taken a "fancy" car, Tim Russert Sr. said, the neighbors would ask: "What happened to Tim? He's showing off. He got too big for us."
Now the anchor has written a book, Big Russ & Me, about his father's role in his life. The first-time author paints a warm portrait of his dad, a World War II veteran, and of Catholic school and the American Legion post and the Irish characters who populate his old urban enclave in western New York. He also writes about driving to Cleveland to see the Yankees play the Indians and idolizing Yogi Berra, and years later interviewing him on television and getting Berra's autograph for his own son and for Big Russ. All of which makes clear that Tim Russert, media superstar, hasn't forgotten where he came from.
Q. Welcome, Tim Russert, to this special edition of "Meet the Man Behind Meet the Press."
Washington is filled with huge, massive, uncontrollable egos; as a guy who now gets to interview presidents, is yours under control?
A. If you come from Buffalo, everything else is easy. Walking backwards to school, for a mile in the snow, grounds you for life. Plus, if you have a family the way I do, it's a daily reality check.
Q. When President Bush agreed to be interviewed by you in the Oval Office in February, do you think this was an overdue recognition of your importance in the universe? Or did you think: All right, little Timmy from South Buffalo, who used to deliver the garbage, has made it!
A. Both. It's interesting to me that the president decided to do the program at that particular time. Clearly, I think the White House felt . . . that the Democratic primary had gone on for such a point that they needed to find a forum or a vehicle to put the president out to where he could express their point of view, to talk to the country, to rally the base . . . My only regret is I didn't have three hours.
Q. Were you nervous?
A. I wasn't. You never know in those settings.
Q. Whom did you ask for advice about the interview?
A. I talked to my dad more than anybody else because he is just a wonderful sounding board as to what is on his mind. He said, you know, first of all, be comfortable because you have a long-term contract, and you'll be there long after those guys. But also be respectful because it is the Oval Office, and that'll be there long after you're gone. But his concern was Iraq and the economy and jobs, along those lines.
I was amazed, we have this little thing on our Web site where we announce a guest . . . We must have received 5,000 e-mails, 6,000 e-mails. All suggested questions and things like that. A lot of them were very ideological, some people saying, "How could you possibly sit down with that person?"
He's the president of the United States, excuse me, ma'am! And the far right wanted me to hug him, and the far left wanted me to choke him, and I wasn't going to do either.
Q. You're known for intensive preparation. Do you work all the time?
A. Yeah. I get up early, and I read a lot of newspapers, and I watch the morning news shows. I read everything I can find: books, magazines, journals. Talk to everybody I can possibly talk to. And I've learned the lesson now that I should have learned in college, and that is if you prepare every day, then if a major event occurs on a Friday or a Saturday you don't have to crash.
Q. Hosting "Meet the Press" and doing an interview show on CNBC and serving as Washington bureau chief and talking politics on the "Today" show -- all that wouldn't seem to leave a lot of time for hobbies.
A. No, it doesn't. But I mean my primary hobby was in terms of watching my son's games, you know. I never missed . . . I was so determined to do that. My own dad had two full-time jobs, through no fault of his own, couldn't come to a lot of my games and a lot of other activities . . . Because my son was at a school nearby, I invariably would leave here, would see a 3 o'clock game, bring my cell phone and beeper and then come back in time for "Nightly News."
Q. Tim Russert, soccer dad.
A. Yes, exactly. I'm not a big party guy. I mean I don't hit the social circuit very hard. We're together as a family every night. I like to go to movies and ride my exercise bike.
Q. In 1990, Michael Gartner, then the president of NBC News, asked you to be a panelist on "Meet the Press." What was your gut reaction?
A. Well, I was intrigued by it . . . But I was also very conscious that traditionally in television the bureau chief had been strictly a managerial role and didn't cross over into editorial.
Q. Did you have any personal hesitation about how you would play on the small screen?
A. I don't strike myself as someone who is particularly telegenic. I had never had any kind of training or coaching or prior experience at that. But then I looked up and saw Jack Germond, and I figured, you know what?
Q. It's okay to have a face for radio?
A. Actually, Gartner had sweat shirts printed up, which I still have, "Just Another Pretty Face."
Q. The following year, Gartner asked you to draw up a list of possible hosts for "Meet the Press," which Garrick Utley was leaving, and you wound up with the job. Kind of like Dick Cheney leading the vice presidential search for George Bush.
A. There you go. Yeah, I drew up a list of people inside and outside of NBC, and I flew to New York and gave them the list. [Gartner said,] "There's one name missing: yours."
Q. Most people think you would be salivating for the job, run over a couple of people or poison their coffee or something.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company