Meet the Press moderator and NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert does his homework, which is one of the reasons he is at the head of his class among Sunday-morning political talk shows and is recognized as one of the best—if not the best—interviewers in TV.
Another reason for his success is that Russert sees his mission as cutting through the Washington jargon to get to the core of the issues and present them in layman’s terms.
“I don’t talk about 'S. 1483’ or 'markups in committees’ or insider talk. I try to draw people out and ask questions that the guy sitting in Buffalo [N.Y.] would ask,” says Russert, who rarely misses an opportunity to mention his hometown in casual conversation. “It is important that you crystallize a subject so people can understand it, get their arms around it and make a thoughtful decision.”
A lawyer by training, Russert had worked as an aide to Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Senate and as a counselor to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in Albany. “He thinks like a lawyer,” says Cuomo. “He’s always asking, 'Why?’ He’s got all the gifts. And he’s from an old-fashioned family that learned to get ahead by outworking you. After you stop doing your research, he’ll start.”
Russert was headed toward a career in law when, in 1984, Leonard Garment, former counsel to Richard Nixon, asked him as a favor to talk with Larry Grossman, who was then leaving PBS to head up NBC News. Grossman was seeking some frank appraisals of television news.
Russert’s assessment: “I thought some of the reporters were very good and thorough and knowledgeable. I thought some were not and somewhat superficial. I thought that some people prepared and some didn’t.”
And to this day, he says nothing bothers him more than “someone merely reading questions that they didn’t write or didn’t think about and were devoid of any follow-up.”
That’s not Russert’s style by a long shot. He has a simple but time-tested method: Remember “all the things they taught you in school. Read your lesson before class. Go to class. Pay attention so you’ll be ready for the final exam without having to pull all-nighters. I didn’t do it in school, but that’s what I do now.”
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams calls Russert the best-prepared broadcaster on TV.
“Tim has Washington absolutely wired,” Williams says, “and he follows the first rule of power in that city: Wear it softly. He builds his case, each Sunday morning, like the trained attorney he is.
“We are both Irish-Catholic kids from upstate New York,” Williams continues. “I know who Tim is, and he knows me. No one knows how to conduct an interview like Tim. If it looks easy, it’s only because Tim has worked so hard at it.”
Grossman offered Russert a job as his assistant. Soon he was working as a producer with Today show Executive Producer Steve Friedman to take that program back to the top of the ratings pile; it had fallen behind Good Morning America.
In 1988, Russert moved to Washington as bureau chief for NBC, “running my own operation rather than being an assistant.” But he had been working behind the scenes until he went on-air in 1990 with some analysis for Today and took over Meet the Press in 1991.
In December, Russert celebrates 15 years with Meet the Press. The show itself is 59, the longest-running TV program in history.
Russert’s fan club includes some of his top competitors.
“Tim developed the technique most effectively of getting the sound bites of things people have said and making sure it’s up there on a Chyron so that it cannot be avoided and it cannot be denied,” says former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, who knows a thing or two about interviewing important people.
“Tim and I share a philosophy of what news is,” says Bob Schieffer, Russert’s opposite number at CBS as anchor of Sunday-morning show Face the Nation. “We’re not too interested in bells and whistles. Tim said to me one time, 'You know what our jobs are about? We turn on the light, and we ask people questions, then listen to see what their answer is.’”
Says Russert, a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan, “When I am watching a football game and John Madden is explaining things in layman’s language—'There they are on the line … watch out for that linebacker’—that’s what I try to do with Washington: explain it to people in an understandable and meaningful way. And I think that is important work.”