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Self-propelled moderator has charm, clout


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 1998

Che ultimate Washington insider comes from Buffalo, N.Y., and looks it.

[Publicity photo]

At the better Beltway cocktail parties, he is the beefy guy drinking beer and not wearing an expensive suit.

"I'm not another pretty face," Tim Russert says with the boyish, soften-'em-up grin of the star TV reporter who is about to rend and tear and crunch.

Russert, 48, is the Sultan of Sunday Morning TV -- the head that out-talks all others. This week he will be in St. Petersburg as moderator of debates between the candidates for governor of Florida and U.S. Senate.

Russert's bosses at NBC have tendered him a television compliment; they made his name part of his show: Meet the Press with Tim Russert. This is accurate enough, for since taking over, seven years ago, Russert has reshaped the old war horse, firming its muscles, trimming its fat and sending it jogging off in new directions.

The pre-Russert show, high-minded, drowsy, had become last in the ratings among the Sunday Inquisitions; now it's No. 1 and leading the pack in the Bill-and-Monica chase. This has disappointed those few of Russert's peers who aren't themselves panting after the Unlovely Pair.

"Some of us," wrote syndicated columnist Mary McGrory, "have been saying that not everything about the scandal is interesting, important or worthy of what Jane Austen called "the compliment of rational opposition.' When I appeared on Meet the Press recently, I was taken aback to find that my old friend (Russert) was not one of us."

In the column, written in mid-July, McGrory characterized -- or maybe pinioned -- Russert as "a big guy from Buffalo, N.Y., with a heart of gold and a great hunger to be everywhere and to be first."

Early this month McGrory said she hasn't heard from Russert, a friend for 20 years, since the column. "I'm afraid he's a former old friend," she said glumly.

"Mary is still my good friend," Russert declares. "I didn't mind what she wrote. Only it was wrong."

On the air, Russert is a strong yet beguiling figure. He looks like a good guy, someone you could invite to a backyard barbecue, and he would see to it that none of your local friends felt intimidated.

He lacks the easy aristocratic look of Tom Brokaw or the cattle king glare of Dan Rather but is at least as formidable in an interview. Like all deft talking heads, he can attract or frighten celebrity pols to his program. When they talk too long, about too little, he can interrupt them without raising his voice and sounding ugly. He looms over the show.

"It's less Meet the Press than Meet the Russ," the Washington Post's Tom Shales wrote. "Sometimes you don't realize there's another correspondent sitting there until Russert breaks for a commercial."

Sometimes there isn't another reporter. The Oct. 4 show opened with Russert going one-on-one with Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., in his first TV interview since it was divulged that, 30 years ago, this chairman of the committee deciding whether to impeach the president had a long-running affair with a married woman. After 15 minutes, just when viewers were beginning to wonder whether Hyde was getting away free, Russert zeroed in on the awkward subject.

Hyde gave him a reproachful look, then shrugged philosophically and wriggled through his answers. Perhaps he had read the Washington Post on the new power structure at NBC.

"Russert doesn't just have clout; he is clout," Shales reported. "There are those within NBC News who think Russert has more power than either the News Division president or anchor Tom Brokaw."

Whoever is on top, what emerges is good show biz television. Guests say what they want to say, but not at length. Sometimes they are baited into saying what they ought to say. And pizazz rules.

"Carville and Matalin. He fills the program with people like that -- freaks," says St. Petersburg Times editor of editorials Philip Gailey, who knows Russert from his days in the Washington press corps. "It's not just Russert. All Sunday morning shows have gone to entertainment. But Russert led the way."

Still, Russert comes out likable. "One-on-one, he's the most charming man in Washington," says Gailey, "with the exception of Bill Clinton."

Russert is self-propelled -- not one of those Eastern Seaboard achievers who can always produce a connection from Choate or Yale, ready with the right introduction, the needed recommendation. Russert grew up blue collar, son of a man who worked two jobs to keep his kids in Catholic schools.

"Tim is a product of the Good Mercy nuns and the rough and tumble of South Buffalo politics," Joseph Crangle, former chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, told the Boston Globe.

Russert was fresh out of John Carroll University in Cleveland and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law when Crangle gave him his first job in politics in Pat Moynihan's first campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Soon the young lawyer was working in the senator's Washington office. He stayed for seven years, becoming Moynihan's best-known aide. Then, just as people were beginning to talk about Russert as a future political candidate himself, he moved to Albany, N.Y., as counsel to Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Once again, he made an impression. Cuomo said of Russert: "He plays chess while others are playing checkers, and he is seven moves ahead."

In 1983, after two tears with Cuomo, Russert surprised people by joining NBC. Soon he was running the Today Show. By 1989 he was beginning to appear on news shows. Viewers took to him. Michael Gartner, then president of NBC News, suggested more on-air assignments. Russert described his first reaction to the proposal on The Larry King Show: "I said, "Michael, look at me. I don't belong on TV. I don't have a jaw. I have cheeks.' "

And cheekiness. Soon he was on Meet the Press regularly, doing frequent comment on Today and NBC's cable outlet, even turning up often on Imus in the Morning. "It gives me a chance I don't get on my own shows to insult people," he jokes.

Occasionally, Russert raises the curtain on his private life. He talks about his son Luke, 12, who plays video games in the morning while his father reads the papers in the same room. Russert's wife, Maureen Orth, is a writer for Vanity Fair. But his inspiration is his father back in Buffalo.

Recently Russert received an award from his father's chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars. "I told the meeting how my father and so many like him had lived through World War II and come home with strong, simple goals: find a job, start a family.

"I said when I did a story about Social Security or Medicare, I would look away from the politicians and think of my dad and men like him, the ones who put a face on our problems. The ones who mattered.

"Then I gave my dad the award they'd just given me -- and saw something I'd never seen before. My strong old father was crying."
A remarkable scene. The only trouble is, the show will never be called Meet the Press with Tim Russert in Buffalo, and the star is not going back to where he came from.


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