Advice for Luke Russert: Don’t write a book

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As Howard Kurtz recently reported in the Daily Beast, the packaging of Luke Russert, son of the late journalist and legend Tim Russert, has begun. NBC hired Luke after his father’s death in 2008, and because of all the goodwill towards Russert pere, Luke, despite a clunky TV presence and no political knowledge, has just acquired job security for life. MSNBC, where young Russert works, is hiding him from the media until he gets his training wheels off.

I only have one piece of advice: please, Luke, don’t write a book about fathers. The Russert tradition of maudlin odes to the folksy common sense of our silently suffering progenitors has passed. Another Russert volume about the timeless lessons of life, baseball, and living while learning the life lessons dad taught me and there will be a worldwide diabetic coma.

I always thought Tim Russert was something of a phony. His humility, grounded in his schmaltzy love for his hometown of Buffalo, always seemed excessive — and more than a little dishonest. I don’t deny that Russert had a golden childhood in mid-century America, when people kept their doors open and everyone knew everyone else. I don’t doubt that his father, “Big Russ,” was a war hero who worked two jobs to support his family. What I doubt is that Russert was not an ambitious man and that he reluctantly accepted fame and his elite status. Frankly I think he had a huge ego and couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Buffalo.

Tim Russert’s cornpone books and stories were a way on ingratiating himself with the elites by making him their small-town moral better. Flesh and blood journalists and celebrities, people with problems and scars, felt virtuous by soaking up some of his just-folks, American Legion hall aura. His bestseller “Big Russ and Me” is a saccharine antipode to the family-hell memoir, but that doesn’t make it any less excessive or dishonest. More than halfway through the book, Russert reveals that in 1970s, after thirty years of marriage, Big Russ and Tim’s mother Betty separated. Russert spends a half a page on it, notes that it — like everything else — made him more humble, and moves on. Did Russert feel rage? Blame someone? Get drunk? Nope. There is no moment of conflict or confrontation. He simply never asked his parents why they were separating.

Here’s another fact about Russert that I never got: he sent Luke to St. Alban’s, one of the most elite schools in the country. St. Albans, the alma mater of Al Gore, Jesse Jackson Jr. and lots of journalists, is an Episcopal school that sits on a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. In his book “Big Russ and Me,” Russert spends chapter after chapter celebrating the Catholic priests and nuns who taught him. He rhapsodizes about the centrality of the church to his life growing up in Buffalo. When he arrived as host of “Meet the Press,” Russert stayed active in the church, frequently appearing at fundraisers for Catholic charities. Again, it was the sappy watch-me-be-humble humility that is supposed to be ingratiating.

To anyone who grew up in an Irish Catholic family that takes their faith seriously, a defection to a Protestant church or school is a very big deal. I went to Catholic schools in Washington, and when I was at Georgetown Prep in the 1980s, it would have been considered unusual, to say the least, for a visible Catholic family to send their kid to a Protestant school. My own father, who was a brilliant journalist — and with whom I had many conflicts as a teenager, largely due to my rock-and-roll lifestyle — once took our entire family on a trip to Ireland to trace our family’s roots. Seeing the mother country, talking to the clergy, and reading books like “Paddy’s Lament” about the famine and the British treatment of the Irish, it became very clear that to go to a Protestant school or church was not a choice, no matter whom it would impress. It was a defection. And frankly, I believe Tim Russert did it for the same reason he did a lot of things: to get ahead, become a star.

I’m surprised that Big Russ had nothing to say about Luke’s education. An undercurrent that runs through “Big Russ and Me” is the resentment Big Russ felt towards Tim’s success. This is probably why the TV segments of Big Russ and Tim together seemed forced and uncomfortable. When Russert moved to Washington to work for Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1970s, he told his dad that he was making $57,000 a year. The reaction? “But you’re just a kid!” About his “Meet the Press” salary, Tim recalls that his father used to say, frequently, “I can’t believe they pay you that much money to bullshit.” To say that line once is funny. To say it constantly is something else. Just once you wish Tim would tell the old man that if he doesn’t like it, he can shove it. “When my new job [at NBC] was announced,” he writes, “several media reporters wrote that I was on track to become the next president of NBC News. Whenever I was asked whether this was part of my thinking, I answered honestly: yes, it was. I didn’t realize that this would make me seem overly ambitious, but I’m afraid it did. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing.” Or you could write a book about saying nothing, which helps avoid the messiness of admitting ambition — or greed, or lust, or envy.

So, to Luke: no matter what money they toss at you, let’s not have “Big Russ, Dad and Me: Lessons Learned about Humility, Faith, Baseball and Politics from Buffalo to Capitol Hill.” You made it — or rather, it was given to you. Enjoy it. But unless there’s a DWI, I don’t wanna hear about it.

Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including Damn Senators and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.

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