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Future Lawyers Meet a Political Animal

By Imtiyaz H. Delawala, Crimson Staff Writer

For millions of Americans, if it's Sunday, it's "Meet the Press."

On the longest running show in television history, politicians are grilled and news is broken weekly. At the center of it all is "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert--a staple on the American political scene, one of the most respected broadcast journalists in the country and today's Harvard Law School Class Day speaker.

During Russert's nearly 10-year tenure, "Meet the Press" has become a ritual for its average 4.2 million viewers, growing into the highest-rated Sunday morning interview program and the most quoted news program in the world.

Russert, who serves as senior vice president and Washington bureau chief for NBC News, also anchors his own program on CNBC about the role of media in American society and is a contributing anchor for NBC's other cable news channel, MSNBC.

Not bad for someone who started his journalism career just 16 years ago.

Meet Tim Russert

When Russert came to NBC in 1984, he was a journalism novice but no stranger to politics and the law.

Born in Buffalo, New York on May 7, 1950, Russert grew up attending Catholic schools. He graduated from John Carroll University, a Jesuit university in Ohio, before graduating with honors from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

Because of his family's blue-collar background, Russert had to work to put himself through college and law school. "For four summers, I picked up garbage, delivered the Buffalo News, made pizza, drove a cab," Russert told George magazine recently. "That was my summer vacation."

After passing the bar in New York and the District of Columbia, Russert began what seemed would be a long and distinguished career in politics.

Russert got his start volunteering for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), driving with him on campaign road trips in New York.

Moynihan recounted in an interview with The Crimson how Russert got his start in Moynihan's Washington office.

"My wife, who knows more about politics than I do, said to me, 'Do you remember that nice, young man from Buffalo? Why don't you see about bringing him to Washington?'" Moynihan says.

Russert quickly moved up in the ranks, becoming Moynihan's chief of staff in Washington D.C. by the age of 29.

"He took over the regional offices in New York, and he was so good at it, that one thing led to another, and the rest is history," Moynihan adds.

But in 1984, after two years in New York Governor Mario Cuomo's office, Russert's plans changed as he made the leap from politics to media.

"In eight years, I had done it--made the best contribution, learned as much as I could. And I wanted to start a family," Russert said in his George interview.

Russert joined NBC News that year, hoping to put his legal training and governmental background to use in media. He was hired as vice president and assistant to the president of NBC News in New York. By April 1985, he was working behind the scenes, supervising the "Today" show's live broadcasts from Rome.

During that visit, Russert arranged the first-ever appearance by Pope John Paul II on an American television news program. In a commencement address to the Columbus School of Law in 1997, Russert recounted his first meeting with the pope.

"I'll never forget it," Russert said. "The door opened, there he was, dressed in white. I was there alone. As he approached me, my mind quickly turned away from Bryant Gumbel's career and NBC's ratings toward the notion of salvation. And you heard this tough, no nonsense, hard-hitting questioner from 'Meet the Press,' a trained attorney, begin my exchange, 'Bless me, Father.'"

After the Rome broadcast, Russert continued working behind the scenes, leading NBC's weeklong broadcasts from South America, Australia and China in 1986 and 1987. In 1990, he oversaw the production of a prime-time news special, "A Day in the Life of President Bush."

In the Camera's Eye

Russert first appeared on-air for NBC News in 1990 as a panelist on "Meet the Press." He took over as moderator of the show in December of the next year.

According to Marvin Kalb, who was moderator of "Meet the Press" from 1984 to 1987, Russert became involved with the show early in his NBC career.

"He was very interested in the show and took an active and passionate interest in what we were doing," says Kalb, who now serves as the executive director of the Washington, D.C. office of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Russert moved up quickly in NBC's ranks, participating in daily conference calls to coordinate all of the network's news programs.

"Meet the Press" senior producer Betsy Fischer says Russert impressed his NBC bosses during the calls with his in-depth knowledge of the political scene.

"The producers realized that they ought to put this on the air, because they were learning more [about politics from Russert] from the conference calls than from anything else," Fischer says.

Politics, colleagues agree, defines Russert.

"He sleeps, eats and drinks politics," Fischer says.

"He is a political animal," Kalb says.

In the nearly 10 years that Russert has headed "Meet the Press," the show has expanded from 30 minutes to an hour, covering the major news issues of the week, from foreign policy to gun control to election-year politics.

"He sees the program as a major forum for political debate," Kalb says.

"I hope that the quality of the interviews, the information, will make viewers better-informed citizens," Russert said in his George interview. "I know that sounds noble but I believe it very deeply."

Keys to Success

Some say the show, known for its hard-hitting questions and unbiased host, is a product of Russert's legal knowledge and training.

"It helps him a lot in the way he formats questions, the way he leads up to bigger questions like a lawyer would," Fischer says.

But William Kristol '73, editor of The Weekly Standard, says it is Russert's political background that is his greatest asset during interviews. "He's more perceptive of politicians," says Kristol, who first met Russert when the two worked together for Moynihan in 1976. "He asks more interesting questions because he has been in their shoes."

Kristol says Russert has succeeded despite attending law school.

"He has totally overcome the deficiency of legal training," Kristol quips. "I don't think anyone knows he is a lawyer."

For Fischer, one of the show's producers, it is Russert's active involvement in all phases of the show--from choosing the guests to planning the computer graphics to basic research--that gives Russert his interviewing edge.

"He knows what people are going to say through his research, and he has the ability to look at all sides of an issue," Fischer says.

Russert described his daily regimen in George.

"As soon as Sunday's over, I'm thinking about next week," Russert said. "I read seven newspapers a day, books, magazines, because I want the very best guest on the most important topic."

And other journalists notice his diligence, Kristol says.

"People respect him because he is smart, and he works hard," he says. "He prepares more than others."

The Highlight Reel

Russert often breaks news on "Meet the Press" as he leads discussions of the week's issues.

In 1998, for instance, Russert was the first to report that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) would resign from Congress. In 1999, he broke the story that Hillary Rodham Clinton might consider running for the open U.S. Senate seat in New York.

Last month, Russert landed the first exclusive interview with Rudolph W. Giuliani after the New York City mayor announced he would not run for the Senate.

Many in the political world see "Meet the Press" as the place to break news and political announcements, Fischer says. The show is political press secretaries' favorite place to send their bosses, according to a recent survey published in George.

While Russert's colleagues say his passion for law and politics makes him take the show very seriously, his personal qualities make him "fun to work with."

"He is very jovial and good-natured, and obviously very intelligent," Fischer says.

"He's friendly and cheerful," Kristol says. "He has a very ebullient personality."

The show has had its lighter moments, such as the back-and-forth bickering of political odd couple James Carville and Mary Matalin, who are regular guests.

And in 1993, Russert broadcast the program from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where his Buffalo Bills were taking on the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.

Russert recounted his memory of the event in his Columbus School of Law speech.

"At the end of the program, I looked into the camera and said 'It's now in God's hands. And God is good. And God is just. One time: Go Bills!' Russert said. "My colleague Tom Brokaw turned to me and said, 'You Irish Catholics from Buffalo are shameless. You can't pray on the air.' I said, 'I just did, Brokaw.'"

The Dallas Cowboys won the game 52-17.

Off the Air

When he is not wrestling with popes, presidents and football gods, Russert has found time to make his mark off the air as well.

Russert is married to Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth and is the father of a 14-year-old son, Luke.

In 1995, Russert was named "Father of the Year" by the National Father's Day Committee; Parent's Magazine named him a "Dream Dad" in 1998.

Despite his success, serving others has also remained important to Russert, who serves on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington.

According to Patricia Shannon, who serves as president and CEO of the Washington chapter, Russert often donates money from speaking appearances to the Boys and Girls Club. Russert donated a $15,000 check from an appearance on "Celebrity Jeopardy" to the organization.

"He is very generous in sending funds," Shannon said last week. "I got a check from him this morning."

Shannon says that Russert's father, himself a member of a Boys and Girls Club, inspired his generosity.

"He comes from humble beginnings," Shannon says. "He deeply admires his father and believes his [father's] character was molded a lot in the Boys and Girls Club."

Russert has served as master of ceremonies for several of the group's fundraising dinners.

"He is an extraordinary emcee," Shannon says. "He is very emotional when he speaks. He can bring people to tears and is usually on the verge of tears himself."

"He is very passionate about telling people about the need for Boys and Girls Clubs," she adds.

Russert's devotion to service has been the subject of many of his speeches in the past and could well figure into his address to Harvard Law School students today.

"Whatever your ideology, reach down and see if there isn't someone you can't pull up a rung or two-- someone old, someone sick, someone lonely, someone uneducated, someone defenseless," Russert said in his Columbus School of Law address. "Give them a hand. Give them a chance."

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