Tim Russert celebrates his father -- and traditional virtues

May 16, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

Work hard. Tell the truth. Cultivate a firm handshake. Look everybody straight in the eye. Dodge no problems or issues. Venerable virtues that to many have seemed quintessentially un-American since the 1960s now re-emerge as the heart of American character. So insists Tim Russert, the television personality. He does that in Big Russ & Me: Father and Son: Lessons of Life (Miramax, 352 pages, $22.95), which is destined to dominate the Father's Day market.

Russert, born in 1950, grew up in South Buffalo, N.Y. His father, who never finished high school, drove a sanitation truck for a living, later becoming a foreman. Uncomplainingly, throughout Russert's childhood and adolescence, "Big Russ" held a second job, delivering the Buffalo Evening News, in order to support his wife, Tim and three daughters. A parachute rigger in the Army Air Corps in World War II, he was injured in a plane crash but would never talk about it. His family's social focus was the American Legion post, of which he was, at one time, commander.

Russert presents his father as a classic member of the Greatest Generation, celebrated by Tom Brokaw, Russert's colleague at NBC. Russert describes it as "that brave and selfless generation of Americans who came of age during the Great Depression and then went off to fight for freedom and democracy in the Second World War."

For his own achievements, of which he is justly proud, Russert gives enormous credit to his father's example, advice and leadership -- and those values, as well as the parochial schools he attended, which instilled, he writes, discipline and focus.

His favorite grade school teacher, Sister Lucille, pressed him toward going to a more demanding and prestigious Catholic high school than the one in the Russerts' neighborhood. In that Jesuit school, Canisius High, he was pushed hard to learn and to think and to question. He was the first member of his family ever to go to college, also a Catholic school, after which he went to law school at Cleveland State University. Young Tim also had an early job as a "packer" on a garbage truck, which helped put him through college.

"I learned a few things, too," he writes of those early years. "That there is no substitute for getting up in the morning, reporting to work on time, and putting in an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. That everybody has a job to do and a contribution to make, and that no matter how small that job may seem in the larger scheme of things if it's worth doing at all, it's worth done well. ... I learned, too, that having a certain job at one point in your life doesn't mean you'll be doing it forever."

Hammering that home, he recounts a Sunday morning when he sat with his parents and watched Meet the Press with Richard Nixon being interviewed, and then later episodes with John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro. Being involved in it never crossed his mind. He was too busy thinking about being a baseball player or a criminal defense lawyer or a "fighter at the Alamo."

Today, he is immensely pleased and proud of where he has reached and landed professionally. One of his most intense celebrations in the book is being able to take his son, Luke, to the White House when George W. Bush had an event for members of the baseball Hall of Fame in March 2001. Another is meeting, twice, Pope John Paul II in the Vatican when he was working as the NBC executive in charge of a Today week's broadcasts from Rome.

He became fascinated with politics when John F. Kennedy first became a national figure, when Russert was not yet 10. He loved him, and the other Kennedys, with unflagging enthusiasm primarily because they were, as he was, Irish Catholics.

During law school, he signed on with Daniel Patrick Moynihan to help in his first campaign for the U.S. Senate. With victory, he went to work for Moynihan, first in his upstate New York office and then in Washington, as his chief of staff. In 1987 he was hired by Leonard Garment as a news executive at NBC, where he directed the Washington bureau and then was assigned to add focus to the Today show. By 1990 he was also a panelist on Meet the Press, which since 1991 he has run as moderator.

Finally, the book is a loose-woven tapestry of stories of childhood and young adulthood, rather than a full-sweep memoir. It ends in the present, but the years after he worked for Moynihan, his intellectual hero, are treated very lightly. Much attention is devoted to his son, who as the book ends is about to begin college, to football (including his benighted Buffalo Bills) and then to bringing full focus back on his father.

Russert is not easy on his own generation: "I believe that parents of my generation have often failed our kids. We are so eager to be understanding and sympathetic that we end up being too lenient, even as we further undermine the already diminished authority of teachers, coaches and principals."

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