Video: Little Russert on 'Big Russ'

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Dateline NBC
updated 5/10/2004 1:49:28 PM ET 2004-05-10T17:49:28

If you ever wondered why Tim Russert gets so passionate when he's questioning presidents and politicians about values and character and the truth, he'll tell you it comes from the man he calls "Big Russ." They say you can't go home again. But in some ways, Tim Russert never left the town, the times, and the teachers in the place he still thinks of as home.

Tim Russert: “I thought I would grow up in Buffalo. And if I got real lucky, I'd have a chance to go to college. Maybe even law school. And then be a good lawyer here or a good teacher here. And that would be the extent of, of, of fulfilling my dreams.”

Tim Russert's childhood dreams never included the world he now occupies, one filled with power brokers, policy makers, and presidents. His start in the news business was a lot more humble.

Stone Phillips: “You are responsible for his start in journalism.”

Sister Mary Lucille Socciarelli: “Well that's what he tells me and I'd like to think that, too, yup.”

Sister Mary Lucille Socciarelli was Tim's teacher in seventh grade when she named him editor of the school newspaper. It was a carefully planned appointment, with  ulterior motives.

Russert: “I was in the back of the class at St. Bonaventure School flicking rubber bands with paper clips, the whole shot, spitballs, the best. And she had enough of it.”

Phillips: “He says this was your way of channeling his excessive energy."

Sister Lucille: “Don't misunderstand me. He was not sneaky. Not sneaky.  He was clever. “

Phillips: “And you didn't want him to have too much time on his hands.”

Sister Lucille: “Time on his hands. To be thinking of anything he hadn't already thought of.” [laughter]

Russert: ”It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. And it gave me such a sense of respect of self worth. And suddenly, any time I would begin to throw a spitball, or a snowball, or rubber band, she'd say, ‘I'm going to close down the newspaper.’ No! It was really the classic whitewash the fence trick. She roped me in.”

Sister Lucille's enthusiasm was infectious, whether it was about tim's newspaper or about the country's new president. Her love of the Kennedy clan earned her the nickname "Sister Kennedy,” and it rubbed off on young Tim. John F. Kennedy was a Catholic, an Irish-American, and a World War II veteran, like Tim's father. And, Tim says, that made him seem like one of the family. 

Russert: “We thought Kennedy was just like us; Irish-Catholic. We didn't know he was rich.”

Sister Lucille: “He was wonderful. He was inspirational. And- he had that ability to lead people, and to convince them that they could do anything. You know? And I think that Tim caught that.”

Tim was 12 in 1962, when President Kennedy visited Buffalo. It's unthinkable today, but his motorcade route and timetable were printed in the local paper. As a sanitation worker and truck driver, Tim's father knew the city streets like the back of his hand, and  where the family would have the best chance to see its hero.

Big Russ: “We had a perfect site. They thought we wouldn't see them but I told them what route they went.”

Russert: “As he said, he's going to get off at Smith street exit." And dad said ‘Boy, that's a tough turn to negotiate. They're going to have to slow down.’ So, he said, "We're all going to go see the President.’ Parks the car. We walk over. We're standing there. There weren't many people. And he says, ‘He should be here in about five minutes.’ And he put me on top of a mailbox and all of a sudden coming down, here's the limousines, motorcycle escort. American flags. Bubble top is off. And there seated on the back, red hair.  That's why I remember it.  Auburn. And he's waving like this. And my Dad pushes me off the mailbox. And I stumbled out in the street. And President Kennedy reaches out. And I reached out. Smiled at me. I can still just—“

Phillips: “And you shook hands.”

Russert: “And my sisters are clapping. And my Mother's hugging my Dad. ‘Do you believe this?’ Dad took out a White Owl cigar. Smoking. Right? A big White Owl.  He goes, ‘Can you believe this?’  A Russert has met a President of the United States."   

Just a year later, the Russerts were mourning John Kennedy's death, as if it all had been too good to be true, Tim says. He put out a special edition of the school paper and wrote about the president who had smiled at him and grasped his hand.

Russert: “‘President Kennedy was that rare and perfect combination of Christian, father, statesman, peace maker, author, politician, and last but not least, a friend of the common man.’ I was very idealistic.  But when I wrote that, I meant every word of it.”

The school sent a copy of Tim's editorial to the president's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. To Tim's surprise, he got a reply.

Russert:”It was such an important lesson to all of us. You know? You can be heard. You can reach out beyond the boundaries of South Buffalo. There is a bigger world out there.”

Today, Russert's work reaches millions and has global implications. But Buffalo, especially South Buffalo where he grew up, is never far from his thoughts. It's still home to the quiet hero in his life, his father.

Russert: “That's the real Tim Russert.”

Phillips: “How do I address you?”

Big Russ: “Just call me 'Big Russ.'”

Phillips: “Big Russ.”

At American Legion Post 721, Big Russ may be better known than his famous son. He was a parachute rigger during World War II. It wasn't glamorous work but lives depended on him doing his job right time and time again.

After the war, Big Russ came home to South Buffalo, married, and raised four children, Tim and three daughters. To support his family, he took two full-time jobs. He drove a newspaper delivery truck but his main job was with the sanitation department, where he rose through the ranks from lifter, to driver, and, eventually, to foreman.

Russert: “He'd work all day. He'd come home, eat supper, stretch out on the couch, grab a catnap, and go back to work again. I now realize it was the quiet eloquence of his example that influenced me more than anything else. His glass is two-thirds full. The most optimistic man I've ever met in my life. You know my dad's favorite expression, and to this day, when he says it I swear I can see his heart pounding: ‘What a country.’"

The senior Russert is a man of few words. Less so, his son, who's written a book called "Big Russ and Me", to honor the father whose life, he says, has served as a template for his own.

Russert: “When he retired from his first job, he turned in his pension papers. And they said, ‘Mr. Russert you have 200 sick days.’ I said, 'Dad. 200 sick days? Why didn't you take your sick days?'  He said, ‘Because I wasn't sick.' Keep working. Never look back. Always show up. Always do your job. Always be prepared.”

Big Russ made sure he could provide, giving his four children pretty much everything they needed, just not  all the things they wanted. In Tim's case, he writes, that included a brand-name baseball glove.  

Russert: “I really wanted my own new baseball glove. And I finally got it. It came in a plastic bag and I opened it up and it wasn't a Rawling's or a Spalding, it was some other model. I was, ‘Oh man, what is this? And then I realized what a dope I was. Here I was, my dad working two jobs, full-time. Gives me a brand new glove. The best he could possibly buy or afford. And I'm turning my nose up at it. I felt awful. I had violated every lesson that he had taught me. And it has stayed with me all my life. It still haunts me. And now I cannot wear a shirt or anything with a logo on it.”  

Phillips: “Did the two of you talk about it?”

Russert:” I didn't have to because when I acted the way I did he just put his head down and walked away. And that's the worst punishment you could ever have. So I'm sorry.”

Phillips: “Never too late.”

Russert: “That's right. That's right.”

Tim says his appreciation for his father's work ethic has grown through the years. But as a teenager, he got a taste of how hard Big Russ worked when he took a job on a garbage truck to earn money for college.

Russert: “It is grueling work. I was exhausted. The last day I did it, after four summers, I took off my headband. I took off my gloves. Took off my garbage boots. Threw it in the back of the truck, and pushed the lever. And I said, ‘I'm outta here. I'm never coming back.’ And if there's ever a moment in college or in law school where I thought about bagging it, it was, ‘Oh, no. You want to go back to those trucks?’ And also, ‘What would Big Russ think? You couldn't get up to take an exam?’”

Tim passed his exams, graduated from college, then law school, and went on to work in New York Democratic Party politics. In 1984, he joined NBC News and, seven years later, became moderator of "Meet the Press."

Phillips: “What do you think of the job he does on Meet the Press?”

Big Russ: “We're going to keep him in office as long as we can.” [laughter]

Russert: “When I interviewed, first, President Clinton a few years ago and then President Bush in the Oval Office, both times, he called me on Monday morning. ‘What a country. I can't imagine the thought of my kid sitting there, toe-to-toe with the President of the United States.’ Then he says, “By the way, why didn't you ask them about my social security?’”

With12-and-a-half years, more than 600 broadcasts, and thousands of guests under his belt, the 54- year-old Russert rules the world of Sunday morning talk shows. As he's quick to point out, though, there have been learning experiences along the way.

Phillips: “Borrowing a page from Meet the Press, we're going to play a few video clips and—"

Russert:
“Oh no, wait a minute. This is not fair.”

Phillips: “Here we go.”

Russert: “Are you part of this. Is this part of the setup?”

Big Russ: “What's your name again?” [laughter]

Phillips: “November 10, 1991. Former klansman David Duke, then running for governor of Louisiana. Let's take a look.”

Russert: “Do you still think that Adolph Hitler is the ...”
Duke: “I've listened to all this ...”
Russert: “Excuse me, do you think he's the greatest genius in the world?”
Duke: “I've never said that.”
Russert: “Well, you did.”
Duke: “I don't believe that. Listen, I don't believe that. I think Hitler was a disaster for the Western world.”
Russert: “Let me ask you about, let me ask you ... Can I please ask a question? Thank you.”

Phillips: “A little heated there.”

Russert: “A little aggressive. In fact, after that interview, someone from NBC said, ‘Yeah, you got to be careful not to cross the line from moderator or questioner to prosecutor.’ So I called Big Russ, the way I always do after the show.  And he picked up the phone and said, ‘That was great. You were pounding' that guy.’ And I said, ‘Well, Dad,’ I said, ‘I got to be careful. they're suggesting I may have made a mistake this time.’ Long pause. He said, ‘I'll tell you what. You make a mistake, make a mistake with a Nazi.’” [laughter]

Phillips: “You have called the guy sitting next to you the cheapest and most accurate focus group around.”

Russert: “It's amazing. Stone, he has one word that is devastating for a politician. The guy is a phony. If Big Russ calls you a phony, you are finished. You'll never make it. And he's never been wrong.”

To this day, there is one Meet the Press faux pas that still makes Russert cringe.   

Phillips: “October 29, 1995. Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, guest on Meet the Press.”

Russert: “Oh, God. I know this one.”

Phillips: “He had lost a part of his leg from a wound in Vietnam. This exchange.”

Russert: “Are you not concerned that if you cut a deal with the Republicans, President Clinton will saw your limb off?”
Sen. Bob Kerrey: “Oh, that's a terrible metaphor, since somebody's already sawed one of them off.”

Russert: “Here I am with a decorated Vietnam war veteran amputee. How did I ever say, ‘Saw your limb off?’ I went to a commercial as soon as I could after this. And just literally put my head on the desk like this. And I looked up and Bob Kerrey said, ‘I own you.’” [laughter]

With John Kerry in this year's presidential race, Vietnam was the issue, and whether he had exaggerated the atrocities he claimed to have witnessed.

Russert: “A lot of those stories have been discredited.”
Sen John Kerry: “Actually a lot of them have been documented.”
Russert: “So you stand by that.”
Kerry: “A lot of those stories have been documented. Have some been discredited? Sure they have, Tim.”

Russert says his approach to interviewing is simple: Learn as much as you can about your guest, then take the other side. He told an audience at the University of Buffalo, recently, that the stakes have never been higher. His whole family was there for the speech, Tim's three sisters, his mother, and Big Russ. The Russerts of South Buffalo were royalty that night. "Blessed, but not entitled," as Big Russ told his son countless times growing up.            

Big Russ: “I feel like I'm very honored to have him as a son. There's nothing I wouldn't do for him. He knows that. And then I don't think there's anything he wouldn't do for me. You know?”

Phillips: “Forty years ago you were chasing down JFK's limo for a handshake. Today, presidents come to talk to you. I mean it's hard not to be struck by how far the Russerts have come in one generation.”

Russert: “And yet, how much we are still so much the same. And I think the best word is grounded.  We know who we are. We know where we came from.”

The epilogue to Russert's book is a letter to his college-bound son. Tim reminds Luke of the values his grandfather stands for to this day, the optimism and idealism that  carried Big Russ through his 80 years and that he instilled in his own son so many years ago.

Russert: “You know, I interview politicians for a living. And people can get jaded, and cynical about the political process. And I must admit I have my moments. But all that is trumped by, ‘What a country.’ And I hope that idealism never leaves me. And I hope my son adopts it as well.”

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