NEW YORK — In 2004, Tim Russert wrote “Big Russ and Me,” a memoir about his father, a hardworking truck driver and sanitation man from Buffalo, N.Y. Now, the host of “Meet the Press” is releasing “Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.” WWD spoke to him about the state of fatherhood in America today, presidential politics and whether a “mother figure” could ever make it to the White House.
WWD: Why another book on fathers and children?
Tim Russert: When I wrote the first book, I thought it would be read mostly by people who had a similar upbringing, Irish Catholics from Buffalo and maybe Irish Catholics from Chicago or Boston. And I was overwhelmed by the response. It didn’t matter what people’s ethnicity or religion or geography was. It elicited over 60,000 letters or e-mails, and after I read them, I realized I had no choice. I had an obligation to share these people’s letters, their lessons. The country benefits when we’re able to present to them a book that is for a father at any age. We’re hearing through the voices of daughters and sons what was important in their lives. If there’s a full appreciation of fatherhood, of what is important, we’ll all be a whole lot better off.
WWD: Do you see fatherhood as being devalued in America today? There was a cover story in The New York Times Magazine last year about a burgeoning political movement of men who feel they’ve been slighted in divorces, removed from the picture, victimized. Do you see this as a real problem?
T.R.: I do think fatherhood can be demeaned and trivialized. A lot of cartoon characters are made into doofuses. And the fact is, where I grew up, the fathers are not doofuses. They’re hardworking people who sacrifice endlessly for their kids, and their kids are deeply, deeply appreciative.
WWD: So the Simpsons are bad for America?
T.R.: No. Look, I laugh at that, too. But that’s a cartoon and a caricature, and I don’t think most fathers are caricatures….If there’s a lesson from Sept. 11, it’s that it’s the people who get up and go to work every day who are the unsung heroes of our civilization; it’s the people who put the badge and the helmet on and went up the stairs because they saw that that was their obligation, that there was life bigger than their own.
WWD: On the other hand, one could argue that Sept. 11 has been used to reassert a kind of patriarchy, a “father knows best” mentality, particularly in regards to the Bush administration and its response to critics of the war in Iraq.
T.R.: Well, this is not a political book.
WWD: Fine, I’m still going to ask my next question. Do you think the backlash against the Bush administration could help create an environment in which a woman could make it to the White House? That a “mother” figure would be more appealing?
T.R.: It depends on who the woman is. Could Hillary [Clinton] win? Yes. Could Condi [Condoleezza Rice] win? Yes. It all depends on who the nominee is. I don’t think there’s any blanket rule.
WWD: How likely do you see the ascent of Joe Biden [Democratic senator from Delaware] and George Allen [Republican senator from Virginia]?
T.R.: It’s a wide-open race. This is the first time in 56 years that you will not have an incumbent president or vice president seeking nomination. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is clearly the front-runner, but in every presidential primary I’ve covered, an alternative to the front-runner emerges. At this stage, it’s wide open.
WWD: After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Dick Cheney’s first interview was with “Meet the Press.” President Bush’s first Sunday morning interview was with you, right before his reelection. Has it gotten harder for Washington’s toughest interlocutor to book members of the Bush administration as the war drags on?
T.R.: There is no doubt that the frequency by which Bush administration officials have chosen to give interviews has declined dramatically as the war becomes more and more controversial. The vice president has not been on in more than two years. [Donald] Rumsfeld hasn’t been on in six months.
WWD: As a journalist, do you feel a responsibility to bend in the opposite direction three years after the invasion of Iraq? Is it harder to take what the Republicans say at face value?
T.R.: Well, in terms of [weapons of mass destruction], it’s important that everybody who said there were WMD explain themselves. Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and John Kerry all said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and chemical, biological weapons and was working on a nuclear program. And what’s been lacking is a hardheaded, bipartisan approach. Everybody has an obligation to step up here and acknowledge mistakes.
WWD: Do you see that happening?
T.R.: No. There was resistance to the Sept. 11 commission, there was resistance to having an investigation into what went wrong with the weapons of mass destruction and lately it’s been happening with Katrina.
WWD: The question of accountability and honesty has been personal for you. Last year, you played an important role in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, told Patrick Fitzgerald he had learned of Plame’s identity through you, which you said was not true. [It seems to be a key piece in the obstruction of justice charge against Libby.] The New York Times said, “If the charges in the indictment are true, it is by no means clear why Mr. Libby would have told investigators and the grand jury in March of last year that Mr. Russert was his source, except that he might have believed that Mr. Russert and the other journalists involved would not testify.” Does this seem like the right theory to you?
T.R.: I don’t know. I haven’t discussed it with Mr. Libby. All I know is what Patrick Fitzgerald has laid out, and that Mr. Libby had at least six or seven conversations with journalists before he talked to me. And I have said repeatedly, he’d called me to complain about something he saw on cable TV. I don’t know what he was thinking or why he said what he said. But it doesn’t add up. And I’ll do what I have to do. The great thing about telling the truth is that you only have to tell the same story. You don’t have to remember anything else.
WWD: You began as a Democratic political operative, working for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Democrat from New York. Could you ever see re-entering politics?
T.R.: No, that was 24 years ago; it was a long time ago.
WWD: And the show? How much longer do you want to do it?
T.R.: Well, I have a contract through 2012, that’s another six years. But there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
WWD: At the recent Gridiron Dinner in Washington, you gave a performance dressed in drag, wearing a blue dress and blonde wig —
T.R.: That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I had my slacks on.
WWD: Anyway, you seemed to be poking fun at the blonde political pundits who dominate cable news talk shows. What do you think of cable news shows today, and, specifically, people like Monica Crowley, Ann Coulter and Nancy Grace?
T.R.: Cable news is what it is. It gives people the opportunity to be pamphleteers if they want to be pamphleteers. If it encourages people to participate, that’s very positive. If it alienates people and creates a poisonous atmosphere, that’s a downside.
WWD: But hasn’t it done a little more of one than the other?
T.R.: Well, it becomes humorous after a while. You ask the exact same questions with the exact same guests. And you’re either a left-wing lapdog or a right-wing madman. They see it through their ideological prism.
WWD: But do we get any closer to the truth?
T.R.: Well, I think you learn when the Joint Chiefs of Staff say things are going pretty well in Iraq. I think you learn when the president says it’s a war of necessity and not a war of choice. After we had not found weapons of mass destruction, I think you learn a lot from that. I think you learn a lot when Clinton says North Korea will not be allowed to have a nuclear bomb, and they later build two. When you watch opinions being shared in an animated way on cable, some people enjoy that. And the wonderful thing about television is that you have the ultimate weapon. You have the clicker. You can turn it off. You can change the channel.