In the Hot Seat
Q. You never repeated the offense?
A. No, never. To this day, I say shoot.
Q. A lot of people would be surprised to learn that Tim Russert once worked as a substitute teacher.
A. Oh, I loved that. I taught history and English, and actually a teacher at Riverside High School took ill, and I was given a class of juniors and seniors in history and English for almost a full semester. And I thought I was going to be "Mr. Novak," "Room 222" and "[Welcome Back,] Kotter" all rolled into one.
And they give you the attendance sheet and a key to the room, and they'll say: "Here's your attendance sheet, here's the key. Keep 'em away from the windows, and if you get in trouble, grab the squawk box." And that's it. That's your introduction to being a teacher.
And they really did rank the kids and separate the kids by their abilities, and I had the equivalent of the sweathogs, as they were referred to in some of the TV shows . . .
I just drilled these kids. I mean drilled them hard. All the facts of the American Revolution and various wars and generals and political dates of significance. And made a game of it in many ways and . . . gave them rewards and money and time off and all that. And then we challenged the smart class to a good, old-fashioned quiz bowl, and we beat 'em, we really beat 'em.
Q. You were competitive even then.
A. Yeah, but I always wondered what happened to those kids. One came up to me on the street one time and actually told me he'd made it to college, which was a big deal back then.
Q. How did you pay for your first year of law school [at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law]?
A. Through a pinochle game and a Bruce Springsteen concert.
Q. I was going to ask you about your association with the Boss. Tell the story.
A. During college, what we did is, a group of us, we booked concerts and lectures at the campus, at John Carroll University, and after I left college, I took a year off and taught school and worked at city government . . .
I came back, went to law school and was broke, and my alma mater, John Carroll, called me up and said, "Can you help us get some people to come play here?" And I said, "I'm going to law school. I can't do that; it's a time-consuming job." They said, "We'll pay you."
So, I called some people I still knew in the music business, and I said, "What about this young guy from Jersey named Bruce Springsteen?" He had one album out at the time. And they said, "Well, he's actually going to go on tour in February, March," and it was $2,500. That's what it cost -- $2,500. They raised it to $3,500 because he really took off. In any event, I booked the concert and got paid for my work, and that, coupled with money that a guy named Frank Szuniewicz [Buffalo's deputy comptroller] made at a pinochle game in Buffalo -- he loaned me some money -- and I used those earnings to pay for law school.
Later in life, when I was in New York, my wife, Maureen Orth, wrote the cover story for Newsweek on Bruce Springsteen. We were in a restaurant, and Springsteen was there with some of his friends, and they started talking, and she introduced me. And I said, "I want to tell you a story." And I told him how I went to law school on a pinochle game and a Bruce Springsteen concert. He said, "It sounds like one of my songs."
Q. In 1979, working for Moynihan, you were embarrassed your salary, $57,500, was published in the Buffalo papers. Why?
A. Because my dad read it. It was on the front page, and as he repeated it to me, 57 TOUSAND dollars. And I realized that here's someone who had worked two full-time jobs and had never made in both jobs combined $57,000 at that point in the '70s.
Q. So, why wouldn't that be considered a sign of success?
A. Well, it was, but I was young, and, I mean, it was one of those things where, you know, people in Buffalo want to be proud of you, and are, and yet when they saw a taxpayer's salary of $57,000, it raised a lot of eyebrows. And, as my dad said to me, "Everybody and their brother's asking me for a loan."
Q. Would you be embarrassed if your NBC salary was published in Buffalo now?
A. Oh, yes, sure.
Q. You worked for Mario Cuomo for a couple of years. What was that experience like?
A. Well, six days into it we had the Ossining prison riot. And it was the first time I had ever gone through a prison riot, which was an eerie experience because I, being from Buffalo, remembered very vividly Attica, which turned into a bloodbath. So, that was a very tense and painful but educational experience, where people who I didn't know all that well worked together, and we were able to get through it. And it's something that's enormously bonding as you try to work your way through it.
And obviously the governor's keynote address to the '84 convention, which had a lot of themes about fathers and how hard they work and the idea of a family of America and all that. In hindsight, that speech now is viewed as one that was the credo of the Democratic beliefs. But when it was given, there were people -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- who really responded to the themes, the lessons that their parents had taught them. And that still is a very strong memory . . .
But when I left in October of 1984, I left it. I left it forever, and I told everybody. I said, this is it. I believe you're allowed one turn in the door, and people judge you on your performance. There's been some amazing people in journalism, John Chancellor, I think Ben Bradlee, Bill Moyers, Diane Sawyer -- I mean the list goes on of people who had gotten some government experience. Which helps you enormously with understanding the process and also the issues.
Q. When you interviewed George Bush as a candidate in 1999, you talked baseball. Was it enjoyable talking about baseball with him?
A. I love to talk about baseball with anybody. Actually, one of my favorite stories about Senator Moynihan involves baseball, too, about the Yankees. He was on "Eyewitness News Conference," an ABC local program in New York, ABC's local version of "Meet the Press."
Q. This was 1977?
A. Yeah, and talked about the race for Manhattan borough president . . . It was a difficult question for him to take on, and so he deftly avoided it. He said, "There's only one race in New York today, and that's the Yankees, and if the Yankees don't win it today, Torrez will win it Tuesday."
I almost fell out of the chair because, of the senator's many strengths, he was not particularly aware of that level of knowledge of baseball, contemporary baseball. So, we walked out of the studio, and we were walking down the street, and I said, "How did you know that?" He said, "Know what?" I said, "Know that if the Yankees didn't win today, then Torrez would do it Tuesday." He said, "Who's Torrez?" I said, "Mike Torrez would be the starting pitcher of the Yankees, Tuesday, if they lose today." I said, "Senator, where did that come from?" He said: "Well, I was in the chair getting made up, and this young kid with a Yankee cap comes in with a ball and glove. And he's throwing the ball in the glove, and I said, 'Hey, Tiger, are the Yankees going to win today?' He said, 'I don't know, mister, but if they don't win today, Torrez will do it Tuesday.' "
And Pat Moynihan went on live TV and simply repeated that, not having a clue what it meant. And he said, "If you can't trust a 10-year-old with a Yankee hat, who can you trust?" Which tells you a lot about his instincts.
But baseball is the great equalizer. You can talk baseball. People come on the set all the time and want to talk about baseball, football. Sports is a kind of thing that people can argue about, take delight in, and then the light goes on, and we revert to form and talk politics.
Q. Bush later showed your son around the White House. Does that sort of thing affect the way you view him?
A. No, I mean, my son has been the beneficiary of so many courtesies. Al Gore came here to the studio, he and his class presented a petition on the environment or something. Newt Gingrich came here. He's had access to meet the leaders of our country that I would only dream about. And I've tried to extend similar courtesies to children of other people. I think kids are a special species.
Q. But it doesn't affect what happens when the red light goes on?
A. No, never, how could it? That's not what I do. I've known people, some longer than others, but I guess having had the benefit of growing up as a Catholic, we have this wonderful thing called a confessional, where when you go into the confessional, the priest opens and now it's time to begin. But there's this veil in front of you, and it's the time where you can be completely candid and totally honest and frank and know that you're not going to be compromised -- and that's what I try to bring to "Meet the Press."
Q. How is interviewing John Kerry different from questioning George Bush?
A. It depends. It depends on the issue, and it depends on the time. When John Kerry announced his candidacy, he came here, and he was very focused and very prepared and answered in relatively short bursts. Other times, his answers were much more extended, and you had to work a little bit harder in terms of getting to the substance by peeling it away and asking more follow-ups.
The last time he was on [before Kerry's April appearance] was from Iowa, the week before [the Iowa caucuses], where he predicted he was going to win. He said, "Tim, mark my words. You and everybody in Washington will be scratching your heads when I pull off this upset," or something along those lines.
Q. But a lot of politicians come on predicting victory.
A. Well, of course! And occasionally they're correct, you know.
Q. We're almost out of time. Is it more fun asking questions than answering them?
A. Yes. It's a lot easier to throw grenades than it is to catch 'em -- Lyndon Johnson.
We'll have to close on that point. Tim Russert, thanks very much for joining us on "Meet the Man Behind Meet the Press."
Howard Kurtz is The Post's media reporter. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at noon on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"Meet the Press," where host Tim
Russert has reigned as king of the Sunday morning news shows since 1997.
(Photograph by David Deal)