The lecture hall was packed as the crowd awaited a speaker known by millions for his enormous insight into American politics. Every Sunday, Tim Russert spoke to the titans of American politics as moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press” where his grilling of public figures on the issues of the day had become legendary. But tonight people came from far and wide to hear him speak about a topic far more dear to him: his Father. The publication of his riveting memoir, Big Russ and Me, offered a window into the values and experiences that were at the core of this well-regarded Washington newsman’s life. The book’s success had a surprisingly large impact on the American public.
His dad, Tim Sr., a hardnosed working class guy, who worked two jobs, neither of them particularly elegant—he delivered newspapers and picked up garbage for a living—and yet Russert talked about him as the epitome of class. Big Russ taught him the values of living with faith, discipline and simple honesty. He made an honest living and family always came first. What more could a son ask for?
Throughout Russert’s life, when he saw those values reflected back to him in the people he came across like the Jesuit priests who taught him and his dad’s drinking buddies, to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who Russert helped get elected in 1976, Russert drew a clear line tracing it all back to his father’s living room in Buffalo. His book resonated with so many because they saw his father’s values as universal truths to live by. Sure Russert was a big-shot TV political anchor—but he never seemed detached from the world of blue collar people who put kids through college on the sweat of their brow and a wing and prayer.
Russert’s famous plain white board was emblematice of the man himself. He’d use it to show some quick math on the Electoral College in a general election or the number of super delegates left for Hillary Clinton to try to muster together to overtake Obama. Long before anyone else dared to say it, Russert called the nomination early for Obama saying and showing that the numbers just didn’t add up for his opponent. It wasn’t fancy, but he got his point across. Simple. Honest. And right on the money.
That afternoon in the lecture hall, Russert told two stories that stuck with me. The first was a story about how he sent the book to his father and waited to hear his reaction. One night passed, then another, finally a third. Russert wondered if his father was embarrassed by it. So he called the old man himself.
TR: “Dad? It’s Tim.”
Big Russ: “Oh hi.”
TR: “Dad…did you get the book?”
Big Russ: “Oh yeah, I got it.”
TR: “Dad…what did you think of the book?”
Big Russ: “Well I only got it a few days ago—I’m reading a chapter a night, it’s really good so far, but, I’ll let you know!”
The second story is particularly poignant and I will use it as my prayer this father’s day. Tim and his son, Luke, were inseparable. They were pals, friends. Where everyone has a father, Luke Russert was one of us lucky enough to have a “dad.” They were in constant contact and text messaged each other often throughout the day. When Luke went to college he needed a more tangible reminder of his dad, one that he didn’t tell the family about until he got home from college.
Maureen (Tim’s wife): “Tim, come over here NOW.”
TR: “What’s the matter?”
Maureen: “Luke’s got a tattoo.”
TR: “(Angry) WHERE IS IT?”
It was then than Tim’s son Luke rolled up his sleeve to reveal a “TR” on his right arm.
Luke: “Dad, you and grandpa have always been right by my side all my life. I want you there forever.”
Russert said he fell into his chair not knowing what to think or say and began to cry.
In some small way, I understand what Luke meant—there was a comfort in knowing that Tim Russert was always there to ask the challenging questions and offer some insight into the often confusing world of politics. He will be missed, not only by Luke, Maureen and the Russert family—but by all of us who looked to him for wisdom.