Tim Russert: Sharing Buffalo with America - Part II

by Tim O’SHEI

(Originally Published August 1999)

Every Sunday morning, Tim Russert takes command of millions of living rooms. The host chair of Meet the Press grants a special power to those who can fill it; for Tim Russert, the fit is as comfortable as a custom-built recliner. He’s tough, inquisitive and informed. He casts a stern, commanding presence while interrogating many of the world’s most powerful leaders...

But he can laugh and joke with them, too (particularly when it comes to their sports loyalties).

Even as a young boy, Tim radiated an aura of something special. “I just knew there was something special about this kid,” said Sister Mary Lucille, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and Tim’s seventh-grade English teacher at St. Bonaventure school in West Seneca. “I just knew that it wouldn’t be long before he’d be interviewing the president of the United States and other international figures.”

Sister Lucille’s prediction was very foresighted. There’s no doubt that President Clinton watchfully minds every word of dialogue on Meet the Press. It’s a show that makes headlines, and the way that Tim does his job will certainly nudge the way in which the president does his.

“The key to Meet the Press,” Tim said, “is to take the other side of an issue and try to draw out and elicit the truth from your guests.”

Shining a revealing spotlight on a Serbian leader—or even a domestic politician like former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke—is what Meet the Press does. “I believe to my toes it’s the ultimate public service,” Tim said.

Millions of viewers see Tim’s relentless but respectful tenacity—a personal quality with its roots in Canisius High School—when he questions guests each week. When Duke, who’s now a Louisiana politician, appeared on Meet the Press this spring, Tim’s questioning singlehandedly ripped apart his campaign to replace former Speaker-elect Bob Livingston in Congress. Using quotes from Duke’s recently-published autobiography, Tim forced him to explain and justify his racist beliefs. Tensions were tight and tempers were heated, particularly when Tim questioned Duke’s assertion that World War II bombers committed atrocities similar to those of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

“David Duke said that the Allied bombers of World War II committed the same kind of crime that Timothy McVeigh did when he blew up the Oklahoma building,” Tim said. “Well, my father was one of those Allied bombers.”

That statement hit Tim Russert—and probably thousands of other war veterans and their families—in a spot where it really hurt. For Tim, who has the power to respond, it’s a chance to stand up and defend all of those whom we honor on Veterans Day. And he can do it without ever stating a straightforward opinion. Tim’s retort is the most powerful tool of response—the well-informed question. It’s like sprinkling salt in the path of a slug: Nothing can make a worm squirm more.

“You cannot let those comments stand,” Tim said. “You shine a light on people and you expose them for what they were, and what they are. David Duke dropped about 15 points in the polls after his interview on Meet the Press, and he lost.”

Last April, Tim welcomed the foreign minister of Serbia—a top aide to President Slobodan Milosevic—as a guest on Meet the Press. The minister had granted only one previous interview to an American journalist, and Tim hadn’t been happy with the casual questioning (“How are the people of Serbia doing? How is Mr. Milosevic doing?”). “It outraged me,” Tim said, so he opened his interview bluntly: “When will the Serbian army stop killing and maiming and raping the people of Kosovo?”

The minister’s response was a vehement denial of any wrongdoing. But Tim—prepared with pictures, anecdotes and intelligence reports—chipped away at the denials. He used information and questions to expose the minister’s lies, live for the world to witness.

“I was very specific, but persistent,” he said. “It is that kind of intellectual preparation and rigidity that absolutely stems from what I learned from the Sisters of Mercy and the Jesuits in Buffalo.”

Timothy John Russert and Timothy Joseph Russert.

Tim with his sisters. From left to right: Betty Ann, Tim, Kiki and Trish.

Today, Tim’s “most important job,” as he calls it, is to instill those values in his son. Luke, a 13 year-old seventh grader, is the same age his father was when Tim’s journalism career began. Luke’s childhood, of course, has been more privileged than his father’s: As a boy, Tim’s annual birthday wish was to pack into the family station wagon and drive to Cleveland for a Yankees doubleheader. Nowadays, Tim, wife Maureen and Luke have season tickets for the Baltimore Orioles.

“A few weeks ago Luke wrote an essay for class,” Tim said. “The assignment was, “What do you respect most in life?” He talked about going back to Buffalo and observing first-hand the way I grew up, and all the obstacles and hard work that you have to do to achieve something. That was so moving to me, and so worthwhile. Although he hasn’t had the same experiences, he was at least aware of them and observed their importance.”

Tim's son Luke and Tim's mother Elizabeth.

Christmas 1995 - Tim with President and Mrs. Clinton and Tim's wife Maureen. In the front row Tim's son Luke with his classmates August Humphries (left) and Alex Humphries (right).

GO BUFFALO!

Buffalo values aren’t shared only in the Russert household. On many Sundays—particularly during football season—Tim will toss a little hometown cheerleading into his otherwise serious broadcast. Last season, he pulled a out a Flutie Flakes box during a political panel debate. Another time, Tim questioned New York’s newest senator, Chuck Schumer, about his allegiances—Bills or Jets? (Schumer’s classically-political response: He wears a Jets jacket and eats Flutie Flakes for breakfast.)

When the Buffalo Bills were playing in their most recent Super Bowl, at the Georgia Dome in 1994, Tim brought Meet the Press to Atlanta. At the end of the show he brought out his father—clad in Bills sweatshirt and hat—and told the nation, “This is my dad and his generation who have rooted for the Buffalo Bills since 1960. Now the game is in God’s hands. God is good and God is just. Please God, one time, go Bills!”

After the show, NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw told Tim, “You Irish-Catholics from South Buffalo are shameless. You can’t pray on the air!” “I just did, Brokaw,” Tim said. “You’ll see.”

At halftime, Buffalo was beating the Dallas Cowboys. But by game’s end, the Bills had lost, 30-13. As Tim returned to his hotel the first person he saw was Brokaw, who said, “Hey Russert, I guess God is a Southern Baptist!”

When the Buffalo Sabres advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in June, Tim was probably the first (and only) anchor to hold up a hockey jersey and nationally cheer on the Sabres. “This is an objective program,” he said on Meet the Press, “but guess where that Cup’s going—Go Sabres—bring it home—we want the Cup!”

The Buffalo cheerleading is done in good fun, and Tim boosts his hometown more than most anchors do for theirs.

"Go Bills!"

"Go Sabres!"

“I think it’s very important that people across the country understand that we’re real human beings who have the same emotions and beliefs that they do,” he said. “The fact is, I’m extremely proud of being from Buffalo. That’s a very important message to send to everyone, young and old alike.

When I go across the country, there is not a day that I haven’t been stopped in an airport or on a street from someone who will say, “I grew up in Buffalo,” or, “My father is from Buffalo,” or “Go Bills! Go Sabres!” It’s an amazing bonding to have occurred.”

It’s a connection that’s been made between father and son, though Luke Russert isn’t the only one who’s been exposed to those values: Every Sunday morning, his dad shares a little bit of Buffalo with all of America.

RussertFamily.jpg (37099 bytes)
Tim and family at his induction into the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame -
May 20, 2003.
Top row: Trish, Kiki, Tim and Betty Ann.
Bottom row: Elizabeth and Tim.

Tim O’Shei is a freelance writer.

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