RUSH: You know, it’s said that the country’s ‘never been more divided than it is,’ and I think most people’s historical perspective begins when they’re born. You can I’m sure go back in American history and find easily as ribald a period of time if not more so than today, but still that is people’s reality. Do you think an event like this can have any lasting unity beyond Friday when the internment takes place?
RUSSERT: I hope it can, and I think it might. I heard that from Democrats and Republicans. Because there was a sense that when Ronald Reagan was president, he was a conservative Republican and he was proud of it, and he was unabashed in laying out his conservative principles and philosophy — and yet he was also willing as he would say, ‘If I can get three-fourths of a loaf I’m going to take it, stay with my principles, and move on.’ I remember when (New York Democrat Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom I knew very well, and (GOP Senator Kansas) Bob Dole went to President Reagan with a compromise on Social Security to keep it solvent so people would continue to have it for years to come and President Reagan said, ‘Can we get (Democratic Speaker of the House) Tip O’Neill?’ and the four of those men — two Democrats, two Republicans — sat down and fashioned a compromise, which guaranteed the solvency of Social Security for a long time to come. That’s Ronald Reagan and that’s his legacy. I think that if more people here realize that there are ways to approach government where people can keep their principles and yet be willing to find common ground and consensus, the better off we’re all going to be.
RUSH: Well, where were you in the ’80s in terms of your career? Were you working in Washington yet?
RUSSERT: Yes, I had finished law school, and then I joined Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1976 and was there through 1982. In fact, I was with Jim Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, the night before he was assassinated [sic—wounded, paralyzed]. We were at a replay, if you will, of the gridiron dinner where President Reagan and Senator Moynihan had spoken with and we walked out to the parking lot together and bid farewell and the next thing I knew 12 hours later, Jim Brady was shot.
RUSH: Again, somewhat of a personal connection to the formative event. As you look back on it now, Tim, from the standpoint of your age now as an adult and what you’re doing for a living and in your life now, all encompassing things as you, look back now these 20 years do you have a different recollection of the ’80s now than did you perhaps when you were living through them going through them?
RUSSERT: Yeah, I think it’s much more macro, much larger. Sometimes when you’re covering and engaged in life on a day-to-day basis, or hour-to-hour basis, you don’t fully appreciate the size or scope or magnitude of an individual. And, Rush, I remember as a little boy watching with my dad when Gorbachev [sic–Khrushchev] took off his shoe and started banging it at the United Nations —
RUSSERT: — yelling, ‘Your children would grow up in communism,’ and my dad sat there shaking his head, saying, ‘No, sir. No, siree. No, sir.’ This is Big Russ, the World War II veteran.
RUSSERT: And I had forgotten that imagery until, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ and it’s exactly the kind of resolve and determination that I saw in my dad, who is now 80, as I saw in President Reagan. You know, it’s funny because people talk about Reagan Democrats. I know Reagan Democrats. I grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. People who were born Democrats and baptized Catholic, and in the ’60s and the ’70s, they believed deeply that the Democratic Party left them, and that’s very much the way Ronald Reagan experienced it a little bit earlier, in the ’50s, and the reason people, these Democrats, these ethnic Democrats embraced Ronald Reagan was not because they had a checklist of his issues or philosophy or on a one-to-ten scale on tax cuts and so forth, not — some did. Some did, but many others embraced him because he began to talk about the United States and what it is and what it stands for — and morning again, America standing tall. That’s what my dad grew up with. My dad’s favorite expression in the whole world is, ‘What a country,’ and that’s the language that Ronald Reagan used to explain who we were and what his vision was, and that’s why Reagan Democrats embraced them so vigorously.
RUSH: Yeah, I know. When I hear you tell this story my first reaction is that there are some Americans who don’t think that anymore, more than we wish were the case and there are some people that were encouraging them in that feeling. There’s such a different time now from when Reagan was in office, and I think it’s a testament to the leadership and the power, the powerful nature of one man to make a country, the population at large of a country, feel proud, feel good, feel happy about their country. That’s something that, you know, President Bush tries to do this today but there are people who actually are angry that they are Americans. They’re angry at their country today. I think there was just as much animosity toward Reagan in the ’80s as there was toward Bush today. It just wasn’t as prevalent because media then was not what it is today. But my memories of the ’80s were, it was strident and it was partisan and it was hateful, and the Reagan enemies were every bit his enemies as are the enemies of Bush today. The Reagan Democrats is a phenomenon that I think everybody is still going for those voters today, Tim no matter what they’re called. Both parties are still trying to salvage those people, and get them in their camp.
RUSSERT: Yeah, absolutely. Many of them have become Republicans; some are still independents. A few I guess you could say are right-of-center Democrats but that’s an endangered species in the Democratic Party. The interest thing about Ronald Reagan again when you look back 20 years: four elections, four landslides. (laughing) I mean, it’s extraordinary — and not just small local elections. Governor of the largest state in the union, and president of the United States. There’s someone who had a connection with people.
RUSH: Exactly. That was not ‘marketing and packaging.’ That was substance.
RUSSERT: And he talked to people in a way that was understandable. And you cannot underscore, emphasize that enough. When my dad listened to Ronald Reagan he knew exactly what he was saying.
RUSSERT: Exactly. And that is so important.
RUSH: Well, you know, you tell the story about Khrushchev pounding his shoe. We’re from the same age pretty much, same parents, same generation parents. I’ll tell you, when that happened in my house, it was my grandparents and parents that blew a gasket, and when Khrushchev did that, that steeled them. They knew what they faced, and they knew what was ahead. It was a direct threat to their children and grandchildren, that move was, and they vowed, ‘It ain’t happening. We are not going to let this happen,’ and it shaped — it was almost as formative event in a single moment as was living through the Great Depression in terms of defining their future, and it sounds like the same thing for your dad.
RUSSERT: Absolutely, and three years ago, Rush, I went on the air and I said, ‘Today is a very important day. Nikita Khrushchev banged the shoe and said we were going to ‘grow up in communism.’ Today, his son became an American citizen.’ That’s called winning the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev’s son is now an American citizen and denounces the Soviet empire for all it was. You know, the other great thing about Ronald Reagan, as I sit here and talk to you and think about it, I interview politicians all the time who want to cast off their past and suggest that they were born senators or born governors or born presidents. Ronald Reagan embraced his past. He was proud of being a sportscaster. He was proud of being an actor, and he understood how formative those occupations were to making him a complete person and eventually a president who could understand people and communicate with them. Talk about comfortable and grounded. I mean, it’s extraordinary when you sit back —
RUSH: Amen. Amen! He liked himself. You know, he was not ashamed of himself, but very proud of himself.
RUSSERT: I’ll tell you a wonderful story, Rush. I was in the Oval Office with Tom Brokaw the last day of the Reagan presidency, a farewell interview. We broke down the cameras and we were just standing there talking with the president, and I said, ‘Mr. President, is there anything you believe that you uniquely brought to this Oval Office?’ And he thought a little bit and he said, ‘You know, I think I’m the only person who sat in this Oval Office who understood what he looked like photographed from every angle,’ and that was so genius, when you think about it, and what he was saying was that he understood that a president had to constantly be president. People were always looking at him, reading him, trying to follow his leadership, and that’s why when you say, ‘You’ve never seen a bad picture of Ronald Reagan,’ it’s exactly right. He carried himself as a president of the United States. His walk, his gait, his salute, his posture, and he was always, always aware of that — and to this day the one thing that people remember about Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office is he never took his jacket off. The ultimate sign of respect for that office.
RUSH: We’ll take a brief break and come back. We’ll talk to Tim Russert about his book, Big Russ & Me, a testament to his father, right after this.
RUSH: Okay, we welcome Tim Russert of NBC News and the host of the most-viewed Sunday morning program, Meet the Press. You know, Tim, before you appeared at one o’clock today I was telling the audience of the dinner we had at Shula’s Steak House down here at PGA when you were telling me about this book and we shared stories about fathers and parents and you were really excited about doing this book. You were down there with (Russert’s son) Luke, something about golf lessons, I think, for him.
RUSH: And I’ve read the book, and you tell a story about you went back home after achieving a level-of-success and you wanted to buy your dad a car.
RUSSERT: (laughing.) It was my dad’s 75th birthday, Rush, and I sent Big Russ a catalog, a Lexus catalog, a Mercedes catalog and a Cadillac catalog, and [a note], ‘Dad, as you would say, ‘top shelf.’ You’ve never had a new car. You always had used cars, or I guess they call them ‘pre-owned’ now.’ And I flew home to Buffalo for Thanksgiving, and I said, ‘Well, let’s go get it.’ He said, ‘Get in the car. Let’s go.’ He drove two blocks, and all of a sudden we pulled in the driveway and there’s a big sign, Jack Atkins Ford. I said, ‘What is this?’ and a guy appeared in the doorway in a Buffalo Bills wind breaker. He said, ‘There’s Charlie. Hey, Charlie, here’s the kid. Show him the car.’ We walked into the showroom, and there it is, a black Ford Crown Victoria. I said, ‘Dad, it’s a cop car,’ and Big Russ said, ‘Charlie, show him that truck. Look at that. You can put a case of beer and a suitcase in there. Charlie, show him the spare. That’s not a doughnut. That’s a real spare.’ So we bought the car, and we were driving home and I said, ‘Dad, I have to ask you. You could have had a Lexus a or a Mercedes. Why a Crown Vic?’ He pulled over the side of the road and put the car in park, which is a big deal for Big Russ to stop driving. He said, ‘I beat those guys in the war. I don’t want a Lexus or a Mercedes.’ I said, ‘Oh. Okay. How about a Cadillac?’ He said, ‘You want me to drive home to our neighborhood, big spanking new Cadillac, and the neighbors say, ‘Ah, Big Russ’ kid made it on NBC and now he’s showing off.” He said, ‘That’s not who I am. I’m a Ford Crown Vic guy.’ Even in receiving a gift, Rush, he was teaching me a lesson.
RUSH: Well, the reason that story resonated, and I don’t mean to intrude on your story, but something similar happened to me. When I could finally do it, I bought my mom and dad a new car. They wanted a Ford Taurus —
RUSSERT: (laughing) You’re kidding?
RUSH — and so I got ’em one. It was the happiest day of their lives. They could never believe anybody would do something like this, and later on I wanted to get my mom a bigger car, and I tried to get her a Lincoln Town Car, and I did. I insisted on it for safety. She didn’t want it. She wanted a Taurus for much the same kind of reasons that you’ve described with your father here. You know, they were a unique generation of people. They had to grow up a lot sooner than their kids did and they had to learn there were things bigger than themselves a lot sooner that I did or most of my generation did. I actually studied and paid attention to them as they were bringing me up in case I ever had to do it myself.
RUSSERT: You know the operating thesis of my book is: the older I get the smarter my father seems to get, and here’s somebody who grew up in the Depression, left school in the tenth grade to go fight in World War II, involved in a terrible plane crash, B-24 Liberator, six months in the hospital, then came home and started a second mission. He worked two full time jobs as a sanitation man and a truck driver, and he never whined and he never complained. He would say, put your nose to the grindstone and hope for the best. And to him, work ethic, hard work and optimism, they were the two stools that he stood on all through his life.
RUSH: Is this book a tribute to him or is there a reason you want people to read this, other than your dad? I mean obviously you want people to read it, but what do you hope people take away from it?
RUSSERT: I understand. It’s an affirmation of his life, but it’s more than that. I call it Big Russ & Me: Father and Son, Lessons of Life, because all the lessons that my dad taught me, about hard work, about discipline, about preparation, about faith, about accountability, about responsibility, those are just as applicable now as they were to me in the ’50s and ’60s. I have a son, as you mentioned, 18 years old. After I wrote the book, Rush, I reread it and I realized I had written it as much for my son as for my dad, and so I added a new chapter, an open letter from my son who goes out to college in the fall, because Luke’s life is different than mine. He’s growing up in Washington with more opportunity and more privilege, more access, but I say in the book, ‘Luke, as Grandpa would say, ‘The world doesn’t owe you a favor,’ or put it this way, ‘You’re always, always loved, but you’re never, ever entitled,” and that’s the thesis of the book, that in this country the son of a garbage man can sit and interview George W. Bush in the Oval Office. It’s all reachable; it’s all doable, but there’s no shortcuts. It’s hard work, preparation, discipline, accountability. When my dad retired from his first job, Rush, I drove him to turn in his pension papers and the clerk said, ‘Mr. Russert, you have 200 sick days.’ I said, ‘Dad, 200 sick days. Why didn’t you take ’em?’ He said ”cause I wasn’t sick,’ and that’s who he was.
RUSH: Now they’re mandatory.
RUSSERT: Exactly! Rush, these guys survived the Depression, won World War II and came home and built the greatest middle class in the history of mankind.
RUSH: And they beat (the Soviets), won the Cold War. Your Khrushchev story. They didn’t stop with World War II. Tim, hang on because I’ve got a break here at the bottom of the hour and just a couple more things I want to ask you about this and we’ll let you go because I know you have to move on. But we’re talking about to Tim Russert, Big Russ & Me is the title of his book, and we will be back and continue with much more with time right after the break. Remember, we’ve also got a lot of other things coming on the program today from all these stacks of stuff, some audio sound bites. So sit tight. Your phone calls as well all coming up right after we get back.
RUSH: We are back with Little Russ — the son of Big Russ — Tim Russert, and his book about his father. Say, Tim, you mentioned Luke, and I had to abbreviate the question prior to the end of the segment because there wasn’t enough time to get your answer to it. I was going to ask you about Luke and his relationship with your father. You know, there’s a great age difference there, generational divide. Does Luke ‘get’ your dad?
RUSSERT: Does he ever! and my dad now because he’s 80 and retired, finally, when he grew up, Rush, he was always working, and so he didn’t — I learned from the eloquence of his hard work. He was not demonstrative and affectionate and those kinds of things as they are now viewed upon, but the relationship with Luke is much different. Luke runs to him when he sees him, sits down next to him. My dad’s got bear hugs for him and punching him and wrestling with him, and then they talk, and they talk and talk and talk, and he opens up to Luke. Luke asks him questions about the Depression, about World War II, and now, after I wrote this book — most of the things I do on Meet the Press they go off the air on the satellite and there’s no permanence to them. This book has given such permanence to my relationship with my dad and my relationship with my son, but most important my son’s relationship with my dad, his grandpa. And he said, ‘Dad, now I really…’ He says, ‘I had no idea what Grandpa did in terms of the jobs, garbage men and truck driver.’ I said, ‘Luke, in one word, how would you describe what grandpa did for me?’ He said, ‘Sacrifice,’ and he’s exactly right, and this Father’s Day, 2004, I hope that everyone who’s had a chance to read this book will really take a few minutes after dad’s no longer with us, just close our eyes and think about that one word. These guys sacrificed everything for us. When I said to my father, ‘Dad, two jobs? Two jobs! I mean, how could you?’ He said, ‘Some guys couldn’t find one.’ Dad, six months in the hospital from a plane crash. That had to be tough. ‘It was tougher for the guys who died.’ That innate optimism just galvanized them to sacrifice and I just want to thank him and thank all the dads out there who made us what we are. I stand on his shoulders. I hope my son will stand on mine proudly, just as proudly someday.
RUSH: That’s what I was talking about earlier.
RUSH: It was never about your dad. Life was never about him. I mean, two jobs is what it took. What’s the big deal?
RUSH: He was just doing what he had to do. He wasn’t trying to impress anybody. He wasn’t trying to attract attention. He was trying to fulfill a responsibility, and he did whatever it took. Now, I want to reverse things on you. Obviously you’re proud of your dad and you’ve written this tribute to him and it’s become what it’s become. What about your dad and you? You’ve reached a pinnacle, too, and I’m sure you have done better than any parent would expect a child to do. We all hope, parents all hope they will do well, but you’ve reached a pinnacle. How has that affected him and when did he know, Tim, that you were on to something that was special in terms of his perspective?
RUSSERT: Probably when he — 13 years ago when I started Meet the Press and he began to watch a program with his son on that he had watched since he was a person growing up in the ’50s and ’60s when Lawrence Spivak hosted, and then he saw me with the Pope, and that was very, very important to him. He saw the Pope blessing his grandson and his son. Rush, I call him every day but particularly on Mondays are my favorites. My political friends say that Big Russ is the cheapest and most accurate focus group they could have because he sees right through it, and if Big Russ calls you a phony, you’re finished. ‘That guy is a phony,’ and that doesn’t mean it’s ideological. It’s whether you are willing to answer questions truthfully or honestly.
RUSH: Can you give us some names of some phonies as identified by Big Russ?
RUSSERT: They won’t come back on my program, that’s the problem. He also said, Rush, every Monday we conclude our conversation. I said, ‘Take care, Dad.’ He said, ‘I still can’t believe they pay you all this money to BS on the air.’ He just keeps me, Rush, grounded right there. He knows exactly. You’ll love this. He came up. He was in Buffalo and NBC came up and did an interview with him on the book, and there’s a chapter I have on food. My dad loves food, and the subtitle is, ‘You Gotta Eat.’ He’ll call you on your birthday, seven o’clock in the morning, ‘Happy birthday. What are you having for dinner?’ ‘Dad, I haven’t had breakfast yet.’ ‘You gotta eat; you gotta eat.’ The interviewer said to Big Russ, ‘Where did this phrase, ‘Ya gotta eat?’ come from, Big Russ?’ He said, ‘Well, my kid got it half right.’ Well, my heart sank. You know, here’s my book. I poured my heart into it, and here’s my dad correcting me. He said, ‘I actually got the expression from Dr. Mattie Burke, who used to teach me: ‘You gotta eat if you’re going to drink.” (laughing.) That’s Big Russ.
RUSH: (laughing.) Well, I mean, there’s a guy that’s honest from the front and back.
RUSSERT: Exactly right.
RUSH: It sounds like your dad is a guy that doesn’t really much care what people think of him. He’s just going to do what he wants and be who he is.
RUSSERT: All his life. That’s the way he approaches life, the way he approaches jobs, the way he approaches family, the way he approaches politics. He just sits there and reads and watches, talks to his buddies at the South Buffalo American Legion Post. There was one. He wanted to do one book signing with me at the South Buffalo American Legion Post 721 at 5 p.m. with one condition: free beer for the boys, and we did it. We had 1,200 people.
RUSH: So you did a book signing that cost you some money?
RUSSERT: Of course, in my pocket. But I rented the post hall, the bartender, the cleanup for $125 bucks.
RUSH: Is that it? Well, you’ve got that in your pocket every day.
RUSSERT: There we go.
RUSH: One quick question here, because everybody knows my sensitivity for women. What about your mom?
RUSSERT: My mom?
RUSH: In all of this and her reaction to the book —
RUSSERT: She’s terrific. As I write in the book, she’s a central force in my life. She took her job so seriously: raising her kids. So when my dad was off working the two jobs, we came home from school, and we went out in the street and played. I know this is a shock to you, Rush, but we never had ‘play dates.’
RUSH: No, I never heard of those until I met Peggy Noonan.
RUSSERT: Of course not. I know that. But we had to go back, he went back in the house at 4:45 p.m. because we had to do our homework around the table, the four of us, and we didn’t trade our pencil for a fork until our homework was done, and that was mom’s mission, and she was central to it. My parents’ priest, Father Donovan, used to say, ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,’ and mom understood that. Her influence on us was enormous, and is to this day she’ll call me up, Rush, on a Sunday afternoon after Meet the Press and she’ll say, ‘You have a sore throat, don’t you?’ ‘How did you know that, Mom?’ ‘I can tell the way you were swallowing.’ I mean, it’s eerie and that’s exactly who she is. You know, she loves the book, she’s proud of all of us. My sisters —
RUSH: Did your dad know that you were writing the book while you were writing it?
RUSSERT: Yeah, he did and he was nervous, because he kept saying to me, ‘Why you writing it? There’s no need. I’m not worth that,’ and, ‘You know, remember I used to tell you,’ and what we used to say is, ‘What we say at the table stays at the table.” We never say anything at the table except, ‘Pass the potatoes.’ I mean, there were no family secrets, Dad. But now — and I sent it to him, Rush, and I wrote a heartfelt inscription and sent it to him, and I wanted to have a final copy with a gallery and pictures and bound completely. Day one, heard nothing. Day two, heard nothing. Day three, heard nothing. It was driving me crazy. I finally called him and I said, ‘Dad, did you get the book?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m reading a chapter a night.’ (laughing.)
RUSSERT: Thanks, Dad. That is who he is, and it’s going to be great. Going to see him next Friday. I’m heading up to Buffalo for Father’s Day. It’s going to be great.
RUSH: Well, have a great time. Before you go, I need to ask you. I want to go back to business here just a second.
RUSH: You were talking about Reagan in the ’80s, and if you go back, it was Reagan’s power. I think one of the things that’s not been mentioned this week as people reflect, if you go back to the ’80s, particularly the early 80s and his first term, there was no New Media yet, basically still had the old amalgamation of the three networks. You did have CNN, but many people think CNN was just an extension, still is an extension of the primary big media, the old elite media, and yet Reagan was able to overcome the opposition there simply by that direct connection with every American that you talked about. Today there’s a whole new media landscape, whole new media landscape. There’s the big media, something called ‘the New Media’ that’s amalgamation of talk radio, Internet, various new newspapers and magazines. You’ve been working during this whole transition. You were working for Moynihan and as such you interacted with media. You obviously had an interest in it, because it’s taken you to the anchor chair at Meet the Press. How do you view this metamorphosis of media in America today? Where is it going and what’s its impact been?
RUSSERT: I think it’s very healthy for the country and here’s why. No longer is it just the three networks with a filter for the American people. Some politicians like Ronald Reagan could surpass that filter because of his just extraordinary ability to communicate. But it has now in fact been unleashed, and the information spectrum is enormous, and you can have a conservative network or a liberal network, whatever you want, whatever the marketplace will bear, and that’s healthy for it. I don’t view it as competition or in any way threatened by it. I think it complements what I do. If people are listening to your radio show and they hear you focusing on a subject or a topic and they get interested in it, my hope is they may tune into Meet the Press to hear some more or pick up a journal or a magazine or a book. I don’t think the American people have had more opportunity in its history to understand politics and current events and public affairs.
RUSH: Do you think media — and some are saying this, now, just get your reaction to it. Do you think media — both sides of it, New Media, old media — are more partisan than ever before?