Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Book Review: Big Russ & Me: Father and Son: Lessons of Life by Tim Russert.

Big Russ & Me surprises for what it isn't.

This book has been lauded as a beautiful encomium to Tim Russert's father (of the same name) and to fathers generally. But that gloss doesn't capture what this book really is.

It's Tim Russert, Jr.'s memoir.

In recounting his path which led to the heights of politics and television news, he does occasionally weave in tributes to his father--a hardworking, blue-collar veteran from Buffalo, New York. Junior recounts sage, common-sense advice he received from his taciturn father over the years. They usually come in phrases of about three words. Examples: "What a country!" and "You gotta eat!"

However, as their professional paths diverged, Russert suggests that his father was not always correct. When the younger wanted to pursue his ambitions through change and risk, his father would counsel taking the safer, secure route. Describing a job Tim, Jr. wanted to take, he said: "'Dad, I'm going to try it. It's a great opportunity, and I'll let you know how I'm doing.' 'Okay' was the best he could offer. I was trading security for challenge, which always made Dad uneasy." (p. 256.)

In a somewhat surprising contrast, Russert's admiration for his professional mentor Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is uniformly glowing. Discussing Sen. Moynihan, Russert employs reverential language and even refers to him as his "intellectual father." (p. 258.) He professes admiration and love for him. (p. 287.) As a result, an apt alternative title for this book might have been "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," but that was already taken.

Russert's trademarked authenticity comes through as powerfully as his beloved Bills would break through an opponent's line in their heyday. Notably, Russert dedicates a chapter to the team, and in doing so, eloquently shows how fathers and their sons can bond over sports.

Russert intersperses some hilarious vignettes. A sample from his days as a political aide:

"[W]hen a reporter wasn't able to reach a source, I would provide that person's phone number. 'Here it is,' I'd tell them. 'If he asks you where you got this number, tell him it was in the files. So make sure to put it in your files, and then take it out and call the guy.'" (p. 260.)

Perhaps Russert's legal training emerged here in this hair-splitting. But it also emerged in his work on "Meet the Press." His questioning of those appearing on his show also seemed reminiscent of a skilled lawyer's cross examination--but always in a respectful and fair fashion. "[T]he key ingredient in learning the truth [is] to ask the right questions." (p. 266.)

Russert himself ultimately concedes the book is not solely about his father. In the epilogue, he writes his son, Luke: "I wrote this book for your grandpa. As I finish it, I realize how much it is also for you." (p. 332.)

The book carries no pretensions, just like the man. He argues persuasively for competence, but also for care and civility. He set an admirable example for all, especially fathers. He is truly missed.

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