In the Hot Seat
Q. Why did you decide to write a book about your dad, as opposed to a standard Washington autobiography?
A. I had been asked to do a book for a long time, Sundays With Tim or Inside the Green Room or Behind the Scenes of "Meet the Press," and I didn't want to do that. I thought it would complicate, if not compromise, my ability to do what I do by talking about people in a way that I didn't want to do . . .
I think September 11th had a lot to do with [why I decided to write this book]. I come from a family of civil service, policemen, firemen, sanitation workers . . . I was surprised after September 11th how people said, "See, we never knew that those policemen and firemen and first responders, as they now are called, were heroes."
And I always believed that my dad was the kind of person who was the backbone of the country. And I thought to affirm his life would be a very important thing for people of his generation, people of his background. And so, if we can have a national conversation about fathers and the role they play in their sons' lives and vice versa . . . People look at Washington as this all-powerful center of political thought and media focus; [with this book,] they have a sense that I came from a real family, from a real place called Buffalo.
And that is essential to understanding why I ask what I ask and why I do what I do, and that this guy called Big Russ has been central to my life and that there are a lot of Big Russes in the country. And I think we're going to find out a whole lot more about that after this book comes out [this month].
Q. You mention your father having worked two jobs. What was that like?
A. I don't know how he did it. He would get up before all of us when it was still dark, and he'd go to work, and then he'd come home for supper, as we called it. And we always had supper together around the table, and pass the potatoes, and you always hoped you got 'em first. And then he'd spread diagonally across the bed and take a nap and go off to work.
And then on weekends, you know, he'd change the storm windows and reseal the driveway. And he never complained. He never whined about any of it. And we always thought of it not being unusual that Dad was working so hard. That's what he did. Dad worked. And everybody in our neighborhood, most of them had a job and a half, a second front as it's called. Dad was unusual having the two full-time jobs.
But to this day, it absolutely astounds me when I look back and think how he did it every day. And then he had over 200 sick days built up, and I drove him to City Hall to cash in, to apply for his retirement, and I said, "You know, you have 200 sick days. Why didn't you take them?" And he said, "Because I wasn't sick."
Q. What about your own experience in the sanitation biz. Was that a character builder?
A. Four summers for what, three months a summer, so that's a year. Plus a lot of Christmas vacations because they needed extra help with all the packages and boxes and things, so I probably spent about a year and a half of my life lifting garbage cans. It's very educational. There's nothing worse than dumping the cans of a clam stand on a hot August Monday. Ooof, not a pleasant aroma -- I kid you not.
But the people you work with, it's a real motivating force. I mean, you spend a summer on the garbage trucks, and you will not flunk out of college. You cannot wait to go back.
Q. Pursuing higher education takes on a whole new allure.
A. Because the sense of all the guys on the garbage trucks is that this is it, you'll be back. A lot of guys say, "I'm not going to lift garbage the rest of my life." Well, and a lot of them do. And there is a way out, and it's called education, and it's all the things that my dad would try to teach me. You've got to get an education, you've got to get an education.
It was a lot of good times on the trucks, and the people were fun and interesting. I mean, I actually was assigned to picking up garbage in the red-light district, which had its own educational opportunities.
Q. I don't recall reading a chapter on this. You actually have early memories of watching "Meet the Press" as a kid?
A. I do, yes. One of the wonderful things about writing a book was that I went back to my old neighborhood but also to the house I lived in when I was a baby until I was about 11 or 12 years old. And looking at photographs of our old black-and-white flickering TV set . . . I remember Nixon; I remember Kennedy; I remember Castro, and my father used to love to watch "Perry Mason," a lot of those programs. And we'd do it as a family. There were only 21/2 networks at the time [ABC was a fledgling operation] and no CDs or video games. We'd all sit around on the rug on the floor and watch it all.
And I remember him getting very animated about Khrushchev -- that's a very vivid memory. Now being in television, I had John Kennedy Jr. on "Meet the Press" once, God bless him, and I showed a picture of Congressman John Kennedy, his first appearance. And after the show, John asked to see it again, John Jr., because he had never seen that video of his dad. And he was so intent in looking at it, almost analyzing his facial and cheek structure, and I said to him, I said: "Do you remember what you saw? Do you actually remember what you remember, or is it all now so confused by the wallpaper video footage?" And he said, "I don't know." He said, "I remember coming out of the desk, but I don't know the salute and all that [after JFK's assassination]." And so now it's so hard for me to remember specifically what I remember as a young kid watching TV.
Q. And what you've seen on endless replays.
Q. I was shocked to discover that you once got in trouble delivering the Buffalo Evening News. Did you have no concept of journalistic fairness? Explain what happened.
A. Billy Clouden had a paper route, and he would pay me 10 cents if I would deliver half of it. And it was the 1960 presidential race, John Kennedy against Richard Nixon. Our neighborhood was Irish Catholic, and everyone was for John Kennedy because he was Irish Catholic. We didn't know he was rich; we thought he was just like us.
And every house had a Kennedy sign, and there were Kennedy fliers all over the place. And so I took a Kennedy flier and put it inside of each newspaper and delivered it. And there was one Nixon supporter on the block who obviously called the Buffalo News, and the superintendent drove to Billy's house. And [Billy] said, "What did you do?" I said, "Oh, I just saw these fliers, and I thought, rather than have to do the paper one day and then the flier the next day, it's one-stop shopping." And it was a very rude awakening of the notion of a free press and objective journalism, and that's the last time I showed my bias.
Q. In 1962, when you got that coveted JFK handshake [after Russert's father maneuvered the family into a prime spot during a presidential visit to Buffalo], it sounds like what Bill Clinton did getting that picture.
A. There is no video, and there is no still. You know what I remember? It's sort of funny what you remember. The president's hair was reddish, more reddish than I thought, and I'd never realized it until that day because it was all black and white when I saw him on TV. But then when I saw him in person, it was extraordinary.
Q. But even in the age of color television people sometimes look different --
A. And I'm sure it didn't happen, but I'm still convinced that riding home in our station wagon, the car was rocking back and forth we were screaming so loud. Finally, a Russert has met a president of the United States! My dad had a big cigar, you know, a White Owl. He was so proud we had met a president.
And, actually, we talked about that after the Bush interview. I was talking to him after the show, and I said, "What did you think?" He said, "Well, you know, first Clinton and now Bush." He said, "I just can't tell you what it feels like as a father to see that."
Q. You always call him after the shows to get his critique?
A. Oh, yes.
Q. And is his critique sometimes not 100 percent positive?
A. Oh sure, yeah.
Q. You're Tim Russert. How can he criticize?
A. Yeah, right. And he is objective, you know. He'll say: "I can't believe you have that guy on there. You really had him on the ropes," or, "Yeah, you let him go."
Q. How did you get yourself grounded for two weeks?
A. I don't have to talk about that, do I?
Q. It's in the book.
A. Which one was this? Was it for writing on the street?
Q. It was for something you did with chalk.
A. Oh, crikes.
Q. I'm starting to suspect there were more incidents that didn't make it in the book.
A. Yeah, you had me worried there . . . We used clotheslines as trip lines, but the worst thing was I wrote a four-letter word beginning with "s" with yellow chalk on the street, and I actually got my mouth washed out with soap. And he really took soap and put it in my mouth. [The grounding actually involved a school-cutting incident.]
Q. Sounds like something that would happen on "Leave It to Beaver."
A. A cleansing operation, but it really works. It really does.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company