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.
A. I don't think so . . . I was pretty reluctant. I thought that they probably should find someone much better known in the country, someone who would be readily recognized. But his sense was that because "Meet the Press" was in third place in the ratings, that we should try something, and if it was perceived as good quality, that there'd be word of mouth -- and he was right, I think. But it's not something that I ever imagined, growing up in Buffalo or even sitting in this office.
Q. Since you're the bureau chief and you get all this face time, does that cause any tension among your reporters?
A. I don't think so. I work very hard to get them on the air, and they know that.
Q. You had a pretty good career in politics. What did you learn working for Moynihan?
A. Where do I begin? Probably the most important thing is that you can disagree agreeably. Having worked for four presidents, he brought a huge perspective to life and to government and to politics, and that ideas mattered, that you can achieve things, but you can't do it alone and usually can't even do it with ideological rigidity.
Q. When Senator Moynihan first asked you to move from the Buffalo office to his Capitol Hill staff, you expressed some doubt about your qualifications. What did he say?
A. I really became concerned I wasn't the correct fit for his staff. Most of the staff were Ivy League-trained and educated and had deep ideologies and philosophies about politics, and I was sort of considered a pragmatist . . .
And I said, "I'm not sure I belong here." . . . And he said, "You have to understand: What you know, they'll never know, and what they know, you can learn." And he slapped me on the back, dusted me off and sent me on my way.
Q. Were you a pretty good spinmeister with the press? Did you go on background and leak and try to make your boss look good?
A. I enjoyed the press; I always have. And the reason I came to NBC was because [Washington lawyer] Leonard Garment, who was a very close friend of Pat Moynihan's, was a very close friend of Larry Grossman, the president of NBC News . . . And one thing led to another.
Q. In the book, you portrayed this as a fairly casual decision, kind of a lucky accident. But it was a huge career change for you. Did you agonize over this?
A. Well, I was prepared to leave government and politics. I thought I was going to go practice law, and the person who really was very helpful was David Burke, who had worked for Senator [Edward] Kennedy and . . . went on to become president of CBS News. And he said it was remarkably similar to him in terms of the pace and the issues that you deal with. You're only doing it from the other side.
And I realized then that I really didn't want to practice law, that I didn't want to leave the excitement and energy of being involved in the political and media communities. So when I joined NBC, I was very conscious of where I had come from, and therefore I was an executive behind the scenes, and I did that for four years. And for two reasons: one of them to learn the business, but secondly, I wanted to assure everybody, inside and outside NBC News, that I could be objective and [that] I truly had severed all of my political past.
Q. Do you get frustrated when politicians launch into their talking points?
A. Sure. Yeah. I try to anticipate them by saying, you know, "Senator, I know you've said . . .," and you take away at least the first time they say it . . . You instinctively want to lean across the table and choke 'em and say, "Stop! We've heard it!"
Q. That would be good television.
A. The fact is, you would then make your guest enormously sympathetic to the viewing public. When a guest comes on and gives the same answer three and four times, the viewer says, one, "He's not answering a question," and, two, in the words of my dad, "That guy's a phony." And that's devastating. And it always amazes me that the guest would leave and all the handlers are giving high-fives that he had ducked the tough one. He didn't do anything. He made a terrible impression with 5 million viewers who are saying, "Why won't you answer the question?"
Q. A Democratic strategist once told me that candidates were crazy to go on "Meet the Press" because they would only make big news when you have them for lunch. Why do people come on and subject themselves to your sort of patented interrogations?
A. Well, you know, I respectfully disagree with that. I think that people who prepare can come on and do very well for themselves.
Q. But it's a risk.
A. There's a downside if you don't prepare. I think what has happened is, there are so many other formats or forums that are much more casual, where you can come on and leave after five or six minutes. Basically, it's a video press release, and then you can walk out.
But if you really do say, "All right, I have a chance here to talk to 5 million people in the country, which is a lot of people, and they're all politically motivated and sophisticated, but I also can make a much larger impression upon the Washington political and media communities and the editorial boards around the country, and I can say something that I believe in, and it can resonate with a lot of people," that can help make it a reality.
Q. You ever do the Katie Couric-Diane Sawyer thing and book the top guests yourself?
A. Sure . . . You know, if news breaks, everybody grabs the phone and says, "You've really got to come on my program." It never works that way. What you have to do is be in a situation where you talk to people on a regular basis and say to them, you know, "I think you have a very good chance of being the next secretary of state," which is what I said to Madeleine Albright after the election. And I said, "If it happens, your first stop should be 'Meet the Press.' " . . . And she laughed, and she said, "From your lips to Bill Clinton's ears," or something like that. Well, it happened, and she said okay.
Q. I get a lot of e-mail from liberals saying you're much tougher on Democratic candidates than you are on Bush administration officials. I'm sure you've heard this.
A. You know what? I get it from both sides. It's overwhelming. For example, on the Bush interview, those on the right said: "How could you have done that? How could you have been so aggressive, so rude to the president?" Those on the left said, "Why didn't you hit him with this or ask him this?"
Q. It's time to go to the videotape. [Roll video of "Meet the Press," February 8, 2004]
RUSSERT: When you proposed your first tax cut in 2001, you said this was going to generate 800,000 new jobs. Your tax cut of 2003, created a million new jobs. That has not happened.
BUSH: Well, it's happening. It's happening. And there is good momentum when it comes to the creation of new jobs. Again, we have been through a lot. This economy has been through a lot, which is why I'm so optimistic about the future because I know what we have been through. And I look forward to debate on the economy, because I think one of those things that's very important is that the entrepreneurial spirit of this country be strong and the small-business sector be strong. And the policies I have laid out enhance entrepreneurship. They encourage small-business creation, and I think this economy is coming around just right, frankly.
Q. You didn't follow up on that point. Some people would say you let him get away with the claim that the creation of new jobs is happening when there's no evidence that it's happening.
A. I could spend the entire hour on job creation. I could spend the entire hour on weapons of mass destruction. I have 45 minutes, and I have to use it the best that I can.
I think by saying that he promised to create over 2 million jobs and it hasn't happened . . . I'll stand by that question, and I think his response is rather instructive.
Q. You let the president give some pretty long answers. Is it harder to interrupt the president of the United States in the Oval Office than a candidate in your studio?
A. Oh, it's different, you know. As I said, I've interviewed President Clinton twice and President Bush in the Oval Office. If you compare the interviews to when they're candidates it's a different interview, a much different interview, because when you're interviewing the president of the United States in the Oval Office, there's a certain sense of respect, and people around the world are watching, and I'm very mindful of it.
Q. You also interviewed Howard Dean last summer. Let's take a look at that. [Roll tape of "Meet the Press," June 22, 2003]
RUSSERT: How many men and women would you have on active duty?
DEAN: I can't answer that question because I don't know what the answer is. I can tell you one thing, though. We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now . . .
RUSSERT: But how many troops -- how many men and women do we now have on active duty?
DEAN: I can't tell you the answer to that either. It's . . .
RUSSERT: But as commander-in-chief, you should know that . . .
DEAN: . . . I don't know the exact number, and I don't think I need to know that to run in the Democratic Party primary.
Q. Why did you keep pushing Dean on that point?
A. Well, he raised it . . . I mean, Governor Dean came on as the antiwar candidate, and here he was advocating more troops for Iraq . . . And I'm sitting there going, this is interesting: The antiwar candidate is now asking for more troops. So I said, "Well, how many more would you have?" which I think is a very fair question. And he said, "I can't answer that." I said, "Well, as commander-in-chief, you should."
It's very similar, having a sense you may have asked this . . .
Q. You researched the possibilities of my questions in advance?
A. When you called "Meet the Press" and asked for the Howard Dean transcript and the George Bush transcript, I said I see where he's going . . .
Q. Were you surprised that Dean raised a lot of money on the Internet after that interview, where his performance was pretty widely panned?
A. No, because Joe Trippi was, and is, very clever.
Q. His former campaign manager.
A. What they realized halfway through the interview, there were some potential problems with the substance, and so they went on the Internet and said, you know, basically you see what's happening to our guy.
Q. Russert's beating him up.
A. Let's rally the flag against this Washington insider or whatever the hell it is. But that's okay, I mean, that's part of politics. I do think that that interview with Governor Dean was very instructive as to the potential problems he was going to have . . .
One of the fiercest critics of my comments about Dean was someone who believes very deeply that there should be more tax cuts, not fewer, and that every time I ask a politician about deficits resulting from tax cuts, that I'm pushing a personal agenda, that I don't like tax cuts. I don't have a view on tax cuts . . .
Q. You don't have a view on tax cuts? Or you don't let your personal views affect the kind of questions you ask?
A. I don't have a view on tax cuts, I really don't. What I've tried to do in my life is come to a point where I know both sides of the issues so well that I almost confuse myself, and I can see the merit of both sides. Okay, if you want to do tax cuts, you can stimulate the economy, and, okay, if you go too far on tax cuts, you're going to create deficits. I understand both sides.
Q. You're like a lawyer who can argue either case.
A. Yeah, that's true.
[I later called back to ask Russert a couple of questions about his April 18 interview with Democratic presidential candidate Kerry.]
[Q. Why did you start off the interview by asking him flatly, "Do you believe the war in Iraq was a mistake?"
[A. The one question that George Bush has a considerable edge on is in saying what he believes. Senator Kerry had voted to authorize the war. I asked the president whether he thought he had started the war under false pretenses. I wanted to give each man an opportunity to rethink where they are now, as opposed to March 2003.
[Q. When did you discover that 1971 footage of a long-haired John Kerry on "Meet the Press" saying he had committed "atrocities" in Vietnam and that the nation's leaders were "war criminals"?
[A. I had the audio-only two years ago. Through a lot of diligence and luck, we were able to find (the video) three or four weeks ago.
[Q. What did you make of how he handled that (Kerry said he had spoken in "anger" and was "excessive")?
[A. I was really fascinated by his answer, that he talked about it in a reflective way. I was sitting there as a listener, watching a presidential candidate on live television dealing with a very delicate issue.
[Q. Do you now have visions of moderating a Bush-Kerry debate in the fall?
[A. I don't think my style lends itself to that.]
Q. Let's look at your punditry record. I'd put it up on the screen, but I don't have a screen. January 6, 2004, on the "Today" show, Matt Lauer asked you whether Dean was, quote, unstoppable. You said: "Right now something would have to interfere with Howard Dean's movement towards the nomination. He clearly is on his way to it unless something untoward happens."
Two weeks later, Dean was trounced in Iowa. Were you wrong?
A. Was I wrong? I think he was on his way to the nomination. I think the intervening event was the extraordinary negativity that erupted between [Dick] Gephardt and Dean. And then, ultimately, in the scream, which I thought was kind of a striking event. But at that stage, do I think that he was the front-runner? Absolutely, yes.
Q. You also said: "In New Hampshire three weeks from today, he's considerably ahead in the polls." Don't you and everyone else in journalism rely too heavily on polls, which can change in a second?
A. Probably. Probably. But they're instructive, in that if you didn't have independent polls, you couldn't possibly help interpret this thing you're being given by either side because they have their tracks, their own polls . . .
I really do try to avoid being a predictor and prognosticator, and when I do analysis, it's based on reporting. And three weeks out of Iowa or whatever it was . . . the Kerry campaign and the Gephardt campaign all said to me, "We're not sure we can stop this guy." And they were very open about it. And I don't say that because they tell me in confidence, but it helps my reporting.
Q. On January 19, 2004, the day of the Iowa caucuses, Matt Lauer asked you, "Which candidates can survive a setback in Iowa?" And you said: "Howard Dean. He has a revenue source on the Internet; he has an organization in the states and a future." Did you miss the boat on that one?
A. Oh, no. I mean, he did survive. He went through New Hampshire --
Q. And got clobbered there, too.
A. He had the money to run a very competitive race in New Hampshire. You will recall throughout the day because of the, quote, exit polls, which people were relying on, I mean the early reporting on many of the cable outlets was that, you know, Dean had run better than expected. So, I mean, Dean hung in there and through Wisconsin.
Q. One controversial moment in your career was in September 2000, when you moderated the debate in the Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Congressman Rick Lazio. You asked if she would apologize for branding her husband's accusers as part of a right-wing conspiracy. You asked, "Do you regret misleading the American people?" That caused quite a stir. Did you go too far on that?
Q. Absolutely fair game?
A. Oh sure. I mean I believe the question before that, or the question after that, was [when] I showed a commercial that Congressman Lazio had run, which had dummy footage of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. They had pictures of Moynihan and Lazio walking down the hall. They had never walked down the hall together; they were superimposed. And I said to him, would he apologize to the people in New York, or would he acknowledge now that that was phony footage in effect. And then I [asked Clinton the question] because I was talking about the whole issue of credibility, [and she] had gone on the "Today" show and said, "This is all part of people who are opposing my husband; it's not true and all part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. . ."
I have no problem asking difficult questions of either Democrats, independents or Republicans, and that's a case in point.
Q. On the [Monica] Lewinsky matter, Mark Sommer, a Buffalo News columnist, said you were "like a bull in a china shop." He said you chose "sensationalism over substance." He said Russert "embarrassed himself and his profession." Pretty tough stuff.
A. Yeah, but he wrote an apology or a retraction. [Actually, a clarification.]
Q. Did you call him?
A. I didn't call him. He got his facts wrong in that column in a big way . . . Can you imagine a debate with Hillary Clinton running for the Senate from New York and not talk about her comments?
If Rick Lazio had said that it was a left-wing conspiracy against him, would it not be fair game? . . . I never mentioned Monica Lewinsky; I never mentioned sex; I was talking specifically about Hillary Clinton's comments when she was on the "Today" show. The accusations were false, she said, and they were the result of a vast right-wing conspiracy. So, I mean, it was a perfect --
Q. It was her own words. The question is, should it have been part of the Senate campaign? And your answer is, obviously, yes.
A. Well, of course, just [like] Lazio's credibility in using phony footage. I mean, you have to be evenhanded in these things, and to this day I'm amazed, well, when you say cause a stir, it was largely amongst party activists supporting Hillary Clinton. And I fully expected that . . . You get it from the left and the right, and I think that kind of confirms you're doing a pretty good job.
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.
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.