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Tim Russert: A Man This Good Is Hard to Find

He was Moynihan’s number-one aide. Then he made Cuomo a household word. Now he’s NBC News’ youngest vice-president

Tim Russert, Republican National Convention, Astrodome

Tim Russert during the 1992 Republican National Convention held at the Astrodome in Houston, TX on August 17th, 1992.

Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

The vanilla ice cream next to the poached pear had mostly melted when Tom Brokaw gently clinked his glass. Smiling, he rose, and the three tables of six in the intimate, darkly wallpapered dining room of the Brokaws’ Park Avenue duplex turned to listen to the familiar voice. The dinner was in honor of Brokaws’ friend and colleague, Timothy J. Russert, the newest and youngest vice-president of NBC News. At thirty-four, Russert — who resembles the puckish, chubby altar boy that he in fact was — had spent the past two years as counselor to Governor Mario Cuomo of New York and several years before that as chief of staff for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, all the while building a nearly legendary reputation as a street-smart, media-wise political operative. Apart from the guest of honor and his wife, Maureen Orth, who had recently resigned as an NBC correspondent, the guests included NBC News president Lawrence Grossman; Al Hunt, the Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, and his wife, the television correspondent Judy Woodruff; Jim Hoge, the publisher of the Daily News; Ken Auletta, the New Yorker writer; and the sprightly Mrs. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose husband was due to arrive shortly.

The occasion was low-key and unpretentious, but that did not make it any less a ceremony, a kind of laying-on of hands. In a tone both jocular and welcoming, Brokaw said that they were gathered there to celebrate the removal of Tim Russert, a veteran of the Moynihan-Cuomo workfare program, from the public trough. All raised their wineglasses, except Russert, who did not, partly out of modesty, partly because he was drinking beer. The subsequent toasts also had a warmly chafing spirit, but the one that resonated the most in Russert’s mind was Ken Auletta’s. Auletta, who has written extensively about Governor Cuomo, said that for a public official there was a very fine line between protecting one’s political interests and dealing fairly and openly with the media. No one, Auletta said, navigated that line more skillfully than Tim Russert.

But, now, Tim Russert had crossed that line. The hearty, canny, consummate insider from Buffalo who masterminded Moynihan’s smashing reelection victory in 1982, the political Sancho Panza with the golden Rolodex who helped catapult Mario Cuomo from a local arena onto the national stage, had gone over to the other side. At NBC, the image maker so adept at manipulating the media from the outside would now be shaping it from the inside. These days, such a crossover is not exactly heretical. The fraternity of political émigrés in televisionland is select, but growing. Bill Moyers worked for President Johnson; Pierre Salinger was press secretary for President Kennedy; Diane Sawyer was a flack for President Nixon; and the man who may well be Russert’s prototype, ABC News vice-president David Burke, was the chief of staff for New York’s Hugh Carey. The fine line between politics and the media is not so much a real boundary as a sleepy border station lacking guards to check anyone’s papers or credentials.

Tim Russert has always been in the business of communication. His wife calls him an infomaniac. The son of a Buffalo Evening News truck driver, Russert is never without a bundle of newspapers under his arm. He lugs them on and off trains, taxis, buses. If he is flying from New York to Phoenix and the plane stops in Columbus, he will dash off to buy The Columbus Dispatch. He pores over local papers as a doctor takes a patient’s pulse: to check the health of the body politic. He was, for both Moynihan and Cuomo, their principal press spokesman, the architect and custodian of their images. For dozens of reporters and columnists, he became an essential stop on the road to a story. Knowing Russert was a prerequisite for anyone in the know; if he had been any more plugged in, he would have been electrocuted. Inevitably described as shrewd, he was the opposite of slick. Among journalists and media people, there is a veritable Russert fan club, composed of members of every political stripe. Liberal columnist Mary McGrory: “He’s the best I’ve ever seen.” Conservative columnist George Will: “He is a superb professional, who understands the Democratic party beyond the Washington Beltway, where most of it — thank God for small favors — lives.” Democratic political consultant David Garth: “He’s the best guy at working the press I’ve ever encountered.” Republican political consultant Roger Stone: Timothy Russert “He’s the best strategist in the Democratic party.”

Russert was that anomalous thing in politics, the loyal aide who understood the know-how and the know-why, the behind-the-scenes fixer who could work the phones and tell a Madison Avenue sharpie how to craft a thirty-second spot. Part fan, part handholder, part psychologist, part lawyer, part legislator, part speech writer, part lobbyist, he simply made himself indispensable. And visible. Russert attached himself to bigger men, and then grew under their patronage. “I believe in people who believe in things,” he says spiritedly. Not only was Russert instrumental in landing the keynote-speaker assignment at the Democratic convention for Cuomo, he also helped focus the governor’s stirring speech. Cuomo is his own best phrasemaker, but Russert got Cuomo to emphasize that graphic image of the Two Cities. He made liberal good intentions marketable again. When Gary Hart cried, in the midst of the primaries, “Get me a Russert,” he became a part of speech: russert (rus’ ərt) n. a skilled political operative adept at framing and communicating a politician’s message while enhancing and expanding his reputation and popularity.

NBC can use a russert. If NBC News were a candidate, it would be the perennial also-ran, the tired campaigner the public has all but forgotten. As the news organization that seems to have a lock on third place in the ratings, the only network that is unable to come up with a successful magazine show, the one news organization that has not been “hot” any time during the past decade, NBC could do with some gussying up. For the past eight years, Russert has spent part of every day thinking how to make television work for him; now he will be working for it. In part, Russert has left his first love for money. At NBC, he is making about double the $75,000 he earned with Cuomo, Recently married, he teasingly affirms that he and Orth want “to enlarge the family of New York” (she is now pregnant). The switch, though, was serendipitous — when Larry Grossman offered him the job, it was a move he hadn’t really contemplated. Afraid of becoming a political vagabond, Russert was also lured by television’s uncanny power of molding the images and ideas that millions regard as reality. “I didn’t understand television as well as I wanted. And I wanted to master it,” he says with conviction. At NBC, Russert is now helping shape the images that shape the nation.

In Buffalo, says Russert, “You were born a democrat and baptized a Catholic.” In that order. His apprenticeship in the rough-and-tumble world of ward politics began in 1960 when, at the age of ten, he lost a scuffle with the kid down the block who had ripped down the Kennedy sign from in front of the Russert residence. It was his first political lesson: stay out of a fight you can’t win. Crafty Timmy then persuaded a paperboy chum to let him deliver part of the boy’s Evening News route, and Russert slipped Kennedy brochures into the fold before flinging the paper onto neighborhood doorsteps.

In school, he was a little dynamo, and the nuns doted on him. He was a do-gooder who didn’t really seem to be a goody-goody. From the first, he says, “I don’t know what motivated me more, fear of failure or the need for success.” Named, in 1968, the Outstanding Youth of the Year of the Diocese of Buffalo, he chose a small and undistinguished Jesuit school in Cleveland, John Carroll University. Not only did he become president of the student body, he was the campus impresario, booking and organizing rock concerts. “I learned an awful lot about dealing with temperamental talent and egos,” he says with a laugh and a roll of the eye. “Politics is the same thing.”

The college graduate went to work for the city comptroller of Buffalo, George D. O’Connell, and learned ward politics at the feet of Frank Szuniewicz Jr. (“Frankie Son-of-a-Bitch,” he called himself), the leader of the fifteenth ward of Buffalo. Szuniewicz took him to the Roosevelt restaurant every day for lunch, where Russert wolfed down beef-on-kümmelweck sandwiches and the savory anecdotes of political old-timers. “Timmy learned street politics,” remembers Szuniewicz, “which is just finding out what people think down the street, not what’s written in the newspaper.” Russert knew that he could make it in Buffalo, but that Buffalo would not make it for him. Law was the answer, and he enrolled at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, a middling law school back in Ohio. Law school did not give him a profession so much as a technique for problem solving.

After graduating, Russert was working in Buffalo as the western regional representative for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan when the great blizzard of 1977 descended. As the snow fell, he rose to the occasion — organizing relief, then unwinding at what he describes as “the best parties in the history of the city.” Three days later Moynihan arrived to tour the area. There he found Russert, in an oversize parka and Timberland boots, the young wizard of the blizzard. “You’re coming back with me,” Moynihan said. “And,” recalls Russert, “I got on the plane, no suitcase, nothing.”

Together they drafted a letter to President Carter asking for disaster aid. Once in Washington Moynihan urged him to stay. It didn’t take much persuading. Moynihan had a crack staff — Ivy League degrees and a certain intellectual arrogance. Russert, the truck driver’s son from the sticks, was a bit cowed. “I didn’t recognize, for example, some of the references to Trotskyites and Mensheviks, or understand the nuances of the growth of liberalism in the CCNY cafeteria.” But he soon realized that he did know a thing or two that they didn’t know. “I understood what a Democratic senator from New York needed to stand for,” says Russert. “And I enjoyed saying sometimes, ‘That’s an interesting idea, sir, but it won’t play in Buffalo.’ ”

Moynihan, the child of Hell’s Kitchen who had made it in the Establishment, saw in Russert a younger self. At twenty-nine, after two and a half years as a legislative assistant, the energetic and high-spirited lawyer who operated the telephone like an extra appendage became the youngest chief of staff in the U.S. Senate. He remained Moynihan’s principal spokesman and a favorite of the press. He drank with journalists, gossiped with them, knew what they needed for a story and how to get it. When a reporter was desperate to reach a source, Russert would pluck the magic number from his spinning wheel of names. “Look, here it is,” he would say. “If he asks you where you got it, say it was in the files. So put it in your files, take it out, and call him.” The Jesuits would be proud.

With Moynihan facing a potentially difficult reelection fight in 1982, Russert took a leave of absence as chief of staff to become campaign manager. “If you were writing a military history,” explains Moynihan, “Tim would be among those commanders who are brilliant at forcing their antagonists into untenable positions by exerting pressures that they don’t entirely recognize at the time.” Commander Russert’s most memorable maneuver was the Caputo Gambit. Russert anticipated that Congressman Bruce Caputo would be Moynihan’s strongest Republican challenger. He prepared for battle by reading every Caputo clip he could find, assiduously marking down each vote, fact and assertion on yellow legal pads. “Inconsistencies began to emerge,” says Russert. What materialized was Caputo’s contradictory claims about a military career. Russert mentioned this discrepancy to two journalists who were to have lunch with Caputo. The first thing out of Caputo’s mouth after he opened his napkin was that he had served in Vietnam. The reporters checked it out. It was false. Caputo was kaput. Moynihan went on to win with the largest majority in a midterm election in the history of the Senate.

That same November a plucky lawyer from Queens named Mario Cuomo was elected governor of New York. With Moynihan’s blessing, and Mrs. Moynihan’s observation that “everybody has to grow up and leave. home,” Russert went to work for the new governor. He was drawn to him by the question that Cuomo himself seemed to personify: Can government be effective and efficient and still be progressive and compassionate? Officially, Russert was Counselor to the Governor, a title concocted by Cuomo that barely suggested the myriad ways that Russert served him. Russert participated in the formulation of policy and legislation, ran the press office and was Cuomo’s principal spokesman. Russert was all things to Cuomo, but not to every reporter. Some local journalists, muttering that Russert only schmoozed with national types and TV reporters, grumbled that Russert was better at swapping stories than pushing papers.

In the jargon of television, Cuomo might be described as a “high concept” politician. Russert honed that concept. “Tim is excellent at synthesizing things and then articulating them,” says Cuomo. That is precisely what he helped the governor do at the Democratic convention in San Francisco. “He was able to help me make my case in a way that I could not have done by myself,” says Cuomo. Russert was credited with giving him so-called national exposure. Much of that consisted of orchestrating television coverage and organizing Meet Mario breakfasts for VIPs the governor might not have met otherwise. “Tim has great credibility,” says Cuomo generously, “and I borrowed some of that credibility.”

But NBC wanted to borrow it also. Not long after Larry Grossman was named NBC News president, his friend, the Washington lawyer and former Nixon White House counsel, Leonard Garment, suggested Grossman look up Russert. Give him a call, Garment told his chum, he’s an Irish mensch. The rabbinical-looking Grossman and the boyish, bearish Irishman hit it off. “They have one big thing in common,” says Garment, “they both have fun while succeeding.” Grossman called Cuomo to make him an offer for his valued counselor. Cuomo, realizing he could not stand in the way of such an opportunity, reluctantly said okay.

The fifth-floor executive offices at NBC News are a study in muted power: beige carpeting, beige walls, beige desks, beige executives. Russert’s expansive office is situated next to Grossman’s — prime real estate in the geography of office politics. Grossman is the fifth president of NBC News in eleven years. The thoughtful, bearded savior of PBS, Grossman is an advertising man by profession. Like Russert, Grossman was never a newsman. But Grossman knows that television is not a vocation of long apprenticeships; a tyro like Russert can adapt quickly.

Even among NBC veterans, there were few raised eyebrows when a news neophyte like Russert came aboard. The general view was that his lack of journalistic credentials was balanced by his experience in the political arena. No one seemed overly concerned about possible political bias. Grossman acknowledges that after hiring Russert the first question he was asked by the NBC board of directors was whether the new vice-president would be partisan, but he finds the whole issue tedious. “Look, we’re all grown-ups here,” Grossman says wearily. Russert’s counterpart at ABC, David Burke, suggests there is a built-in safeguard against bias. “News people are the most cynical in the world,” says Burke, “and they will double-think anyone’s motives. Their very skepticism is one guarantee that people who have crossed the line will be held to a tough standard.”

Crossing the line, though, may well be the wrong metaphor. Actually, the connection between politics and the media is incestuous, so intertwined that it is hard to separate one from the other. Such coziness seems to bother almost no one. And why should it? asks George Will. “What I think is supposed to be at jeopardy here,” says Will, “is the moral purity of the media. But you have to believe in that first. I can believe many things — six impossible things before breakfast, Lewis Carroll wrote. That I can’t believe.”

Little more than two months after joining NBC, Russert is worried less about purity than about numbers. He is charged up by the fact that NBC News has been in second place, behind CBS, for three straight weeks. The network’s new theme, NBC News on the move, is his anthem as well. Along with Grossman, he is determined to return NBC to the glory days of Huntley and Brinkley, when theirs was the news to watch.

Russert’s commitment to that task begins before sunup.

6:30 a.m. His alarm goes off, and he groggily watches the tail end of NBC’s early-morning news program, NBC News at Sunrise. Leaving his brownstone apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he buys the three New York papers. During the twenty-minute cab ride to the Cardio-Fitness Center at Rockefeller Center, he reads as much as he can. A believer in recycling information, he asks the driver, “You want these papers?” The cabby looks at him as if he were trashing the backseat. Russert takes them.

8:30 a.m. The Cardio-Fitness Center: Clad in the required uniform — a pale-blue T-shirt and navy-blue shorts — Russert is doggedly pedaling an AirDyne stationary bicycle while watching Jane Pauley wind up the Today show on a television screen above him. After the workout, he walks across the street to NBC and stops by the Today set to chat with the show’s producer, Steve Friedman. Friedman laughs when Russert tells him that the guys at Cardio-Fitness pedaled faster during the show’s rock & roll segment on Little Richard.

9:15 a.m. Grapefruit juice, no coffee. He scans The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. His office is orderly now, but by 5 p.m. it will resemble a battlefield strewn with crumpled newspapers, the casualties of the day’s events. He stops by Grossman’s office to discuss strategy for an upcoming affiliates’ meeting.

9:45 a.m. The first meeting of the day in a day full of meetings. In the medium of television, meetings are the method. With styrofoam cups of coffee steaming before them, eight NBC News vice-presidents, the executive producers of Nightly News, Today and Sunrise, sit in Breuer chairs around a long, rectangular table in room 508. At the head sits Grossman, wearing what appears to be a varsity-letterman’s sweater with the NBC insignia emblazoned on it, making him look like chief cheerleader. Joe Bartelme, the general manager for U.S. news, and Jerry Lamprecht, the general manager for foreign news, run down the day’s stories. Grossman rubs his beard. “Anything else?” he asks. The meeting is brief, fifteen minutes, and terse. On the way back to their offices, Russert and Grossman discuss a correspondent who has been doing an impressive job. “He’s a strong writer, very poetic, and an avuncular presence on the screen,” Russert says. Grossman nods.

10:45 a.m. Russert meets with an advertising executive about promotional ads. He finds them self-serving and tells the fellow to have the copy rewritten. At the moment, Russert’s principal chore is to be the point man in NBC’s aggressive effort to integrate and promote the news organization. “The idea is that news should get a fair share of what in effect is internal promotion,” says Russert, “with each individual show, Nightly News, Today, Sunrise, feeding the others.” Russert evaluates every on-air promotion and is the prime mover in the NBC NEWS ON THE MOVE campaign. One part of the plan calls for NBC entertainment stars, like the Great Communicator Bill Cosby, to tout NBC News in brief spots. “Isn’t it just as important to see someone talking about NBC News as a ten-second promo for Punky Brewster?” says Russert. “It’s just like politics. You institutionalize an image and people come to believe in it.”

12 noon. The editorial board meeting. Clustered about a round table at the north end of Grossman’s office are executive vice-president Tom Pettit, senior vice-president John Lane, Brokaw, John Chancellor, NBC’s éminence grise, Grossman and Russert. Instituted by Grossman, the board is a kind of collective corporate conscience cum big-boy bull session. They examine the merits of current issues and stories and look ahead to future ones. Brokaw, anchorman of the Nightly News, values Russert’s presence for a number of reasons. “I feel like he’s someone I went to high school with,” says Brokaw. “But, more than that, Tim is someone who can come in my office, look me in the eye and tell me something I may not want to hear.”

3:30 p.m. The Nightly News scheduling meeting on the fifth floor. The news producers discuss that evening’s lineup of stories. Russert attends this meeting in order to keep abreast of what’s happening. He mostly listens, injecting the occasional wisecrack. “It’s important for news executives to respect the integrity of the producers and their show,” he says. “You just can’t say, I think you should lead with such-and-such a segment. They would throw you out the door. As they should.” Afterward Russert meets with a corporate honcho to discuss the contracts of various on-air talent and review some of NBC’s efforts to stay out of the ratings cellar. “Ratings are what this business is all about — being there first,” he says, clenching his fist. For Russert, the uncompetitive life is not worth living.

5:45 p.m. The vice-presidents gather once again. “We rehash the day, find out what’s on people’s minds and talk about upcoming stories,” Russert says. When the meeting breaks up, Russert vainly attempts to answer a stack of messages. At 6:15 p.m., as he is on his way out the door, the phone rings. His secretary has gone, so he picks it up himself. “Mis-ter Chan-cel-lor,” he says, spreading out the syllables in comradely salutation. He listens, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “I agree. Let’s talk after the show.”

6:30 p.m. Russert, Lane and Pettit wander by Grossman’s office to watch the first network feed. If they are dissatisfied with the show, it can be revised for the 7 p.m. broadcast. Several months ago, after the unexplained crash of an American plane in Central America, a report came over the wire that Barry Goldwater, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, was making an announcement at 6:30 p.m. The clarification would be too late for the first feed. “I knew that if the chairman was briefed,” recalls Russert, “the vice-chairman was also briefed. The vice-chairman happened to be Daniel Patrick Moynihan.” Russert rang Moynihan and garnered enough declassified details to enable NBC to lead with the story. After the show, Russert’s evening may be devoted to a dinner party, or perhaps a different passion: movies. On a rainy Sunday, he might see three films. And, on the off chance that a rerun of Cool Hand Luke is on television, he will watch that, as he has already, eleven times before.

11:30. At home. Russert’s nightly dilemma: What to watch? What to watch? Carson? Nightline? Or his beloved Honeymooners? Switching channels just wasn’t the answer. Technology rescued him from his nightly existential quandary. Last December he had three television monitors installed in the living room. He ends the day as he begins it, bathed in the glowing light of a television screen.

Television news has replaced politics at the center of Russert’s life and imagination. He already seems to regard his new field with the same veneration he had for his old one. Russert confutes the stereotype of the detached network executive insulated in the steel-and-glass cocoons of Sixth Avenue. He is a populist in the world’s most popular medium. For him, popularity is not synonymous with inferiority: “The public is not beguiled.” He mulls this over. When he concentrates, he leans forward in his chair, hunched over, legs spread, like a high-school coach diagraming a play in the dirt. “They know what they want, and what they want is usually right. I really believe, for example, that the better candidate wins.” Russert is a democrat with a small d. Perhaps that is why he takes so much ribbing from his former boss about joining the glossy world of network television. According to Governor Cuomo, a stand-up comedian manqué whose deadpan delivery is flawless, “There are just two things Tim has to do: get his weight under control, and never, never, lacquer his nails.”

He doesn’t have the time or the inclination to anyway. Nor does he have the temperament to worry about those who may suspect him of having a hidden political agenda. Russert signed a standard, three-year NBC executive contract. It expires in October of 1987, just in time, suggest some old political hands, for Russert to hitch his star to the Cuomo for President bandwagon. “I’ve always lived with rumors and speculation,” he says. “I made a conscious decision to leave politics for the media. I have embarked on a new career. The decision surprised a lot of people. To suggest that this is all part of some Machiavellian scheme is absurd.”

Ah, but the question is, What would Metternich, not Machiavelli, say about it? Russert is fond of recounting an anecdote about the cunning Austrian statesman. The story is instructive. “Metternich was woken up in the middle of the night,” Russert says, with a hint of impish glee, “and told that the Russian ambassador had just dropped dead. Metternich rubbed his eyes and said, ‘What could be his motive?'” Russert chuckles. If he has ulterior motives, he is keeping them to himself.

Right now, his allegiance is to NBC and the news. Russert considers his desertion: “In politics, you know what the press is going to ask, you know what they’re going to pounce on and how they’re going to take what you said and interpret it. Having anticipated that for eight years,” he says with a knowing smile, “it’s now pretty much the way I thought it was.”

The one thing that he feared might happen, didn’t. Russert dreaded post-politics decompression. “Politics is the kind of profession that you’re making ten decisions per minute: yes, no, yes,” he says. “Suddenly, people leave politics, and the phones don’t ring.” He has discovered that the metabolism rate is just as frenetic in television. “This is the closest thing there is to the day-in, day-out concern in politics about what’s going on in the world,” he avers, turning up the volume on the center monitor for a report by an NBC correspondent on Capitol Hill. “You don’t have a week to think about it,” he announces with enthusiasm. “You have to decide what things mean in a few minutes. It really is blood and guts.” He grins. “It’s wild.”

In This Article: Coverwall, NBC, Politics

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