A young political operative who charmed a beautiful woman to marry him for his intellect despite his dough-boy appearance, Tim Russert ended up hitting it big as the moderator of a struggling Sunday morning talk show that most people considered fodder for softball questions.
That was before Russert came along and made a trip to the dentist a more enjoyable experience for the politicians who sat across from him. His impeccable preparation made Russert a journalist whom Democrats and Republicans alike both feared and respected.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger thought their friendship would mean an easy interview, his wife Maria Shriver, a lifelong colleague of Russert’s, told him to prepare more. “Tim doesn’t give anyone, friends included, a free pass,” she said.
Russert’s hardnosed style came directly from his father’s lunch-pail background — he was a Buffalo garbage collector — and his own educational training by the nuns and the Jesuits. He spoke of Sister Mary Lucille as a great influence alongside presidents and governors. The young nun with a penchant for Democratic President John F. Kennedy pushed Russert to get into Canisius High School in Buffalo, a prestigious Jesuit school usually reserved for upper-class elites. Russert indeed found his way there, and later to John Carroll University in Cleveland. He always claimed the nuns and the Jesuits “taught me to read and write but also how to tell right from wrong.”
Meet the Press made Russert famous, but it was his work for Catholic Charities and the heartwarming autobiographical sketch of his relationship with his father, Big Russ and Me, that touched the hearts of millions and showed his true colors as an old softy, despite his staccato, pit-bull journalism.
His son Luke was always the pride of Russert’s life. Never shy or embarrassed about his Catholic faith, Russert longed to have his child blessed by the pope. Upon meeting John Paul II on an NBC trip, Russert told the pontiff that his wife was pregnant. The pope invited him to return to Rome for a blessing after the baby was born. Naturally, the pope’s schedule did not allow for Russert to simply stop by for a visit even with the personal invitation. Instead Russert and his wife, Maureen, went to the public Vatican audience on Wednesday afternoon. Russert analyzed where he thought the best vantage point would be to meet the pope and used his connections to get a good spot. He also remembered the pope’s motto, Totus Tuus (Totally Yours), which meant that the pope had given his entire life over to Mary — who he claimed saved him from an assassin’s bullet. He dressed his infant son Luke in a T-shirt with the words “Totus Tuus” on it and was able to garner the attention of the pope despite the large crowd. “Very nice,” the pontiff said, and offered his blessing.
Today, may Tim Russert hear that same motto from God as He holds him in the palm of His hand.