Russert lives by fatherly advice

Tim Russert’s gruff, occasionally prosecutorial style makes him an effective host of “Meet the Press.” He has transformed that NBC program into the ratings leader, and made it a requisite stop for policymakers of both parties. His on-air demeanor is not warm, nor does he come across as especially approachableTim Russert’s gruff, occasionally prosecutorial style makes him an effective host of “Meet the Press.” He has transformed that NBC program into the ratings leader, and made it a requisite stop for policymakers of both parties. His on-air demeanor is not warm, nor does he come across as especially approachable.

Those who have met Russert come away with a different impression. In person, he is quite amiable, someone with whom you would enjoy having a meal or watching a baseball game involving his beloved Yankees.

Fortunately, it is the kind and gentle Russert who surfaces through much of Big Russ & Me. The book is a memoir of Russert’s life and career, with frequent snippets of advice along the way. Think of it as Tuesdays With Morrie with a happier ending.

Russert draws on the virtues of hard work and honesty imparted by his father, nicknamed “Big Russ.” The elder Russert worked two jobs, as sanitation foreman and newspaper delivery-truck driver, to support his family. What he lacked in book knowledge he made up for by an abundance of practical know-how and, more important, a kind heart.

Though the author’s experiences growing up in a close-knit blue-collar Irish Catholic family in the 1950s and 1960s were hardly unusual, they gave the future television host a strong sense of who he was and what really matters. That proved to be good preparation for a job in which Russert has to explain the nuances of politics and policy to viewers who may well have only a passing interest in the subject.

“Big Russ is the least expensive and most accurate focus group around, which is why I call him every morning for his reaction to Sunday’s show. He gives me his honest assessment, and it is not always what I am longing to hear,” his son writes.

As a child, Russert’s parents instilled in him a love of learning and politics as well as a deep respect for and devotion to Roman Catholicism. Those are recurring themes throughout his life, and are reflected in Big Russ & Me. And while Russert speaks well of both of his parents, it is clear that his relationship with his father had the greater influence.

“The older I get, the smarter my father seems to get. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t remember something that Big Russ taught me,” Russert writes.

One of the book’s few shortcomings is that he almost never mentions his mother. He only briefly discusses the impact his parents’ separation had on him.

Russert’s career was tremendously helped by two larger-than-life bosses who proved to be effective mentors and role models. His stints as an aide to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) and the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) provided a crash course in politics and the workings of the real world.

Moynihan, who combined a scholar’s mind with a politician’s temperament, gave Russert self-confidence that someone from South Buffalo who graduated from less-well-known schools could compete with people from wealthier backgrounds and more exclusive colleges.

From Cuomo, Russert learned about the importance of combining rhetorical skills with a strong commitment to one’s faith and political philosophy.

Those lessons came in handy for his current job. Though Russert admits that he is not telegenic and that he “has a face for radio,” this obviously has not prevented him from making the program a resounding success.

He is effective at drawing out guests and forcing them to explain things in a straightforward manner. It was Howard Dean’s appearance on the program last June, in which the former Vermont governor combined an arrogant attitude and a striking lack of knowledge about foreign affairs, that caused some journalists and political observers to doubt his long-term viability.

Ironically, Dean’s contributions increased after the program aired and his most loyal supporters became more defensive of him. However, Russert helped expose the attributes that led to the eventual demise of Dean’s candidacy.

Russert does not mention Dean’s appearance. That is unfortunate, as it would have been interesting to learn if Russert felt Dean’s demeanor would eventually do him in. The absence is one of the few shortcomings of this otherwise enjoyable and sweet memoir. Big Russ & Me, laden with anecdotes, will appeal both to media/political junkies and to people who want an uplifting story about the lessons learned from a close father-son relationship.