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ALL IN THE FAMILY (PART 1)! Tim Russert’s father deserves your respect. His son is a whole different story:

TUESDAY, JUNE 22, 2004

FROM THE GOOD SHIPWRECK NEW YORK TIMES: How good a book is Bill Clinton’s My Life? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue; we haven’t yet laid eyes on it. But the pseudo-con empire has been happily citing Michiko Kakutani’s review in Sunday’s New York Times. Kakutani slammed the ex-president’s book, calling it “sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull.” On Monday morning, we awoke to Don Imus, saying (repeatedly) that the book must be bad. After all, he repeatedly said, the Times is inclined to favor Clinton.

Has a democracy ever tried to function with tribunes so vacant and deathlessly uninformed? Just to touch on a few high points, the Times invented the Whitewater hoax during the 1992 election—no, it has never explained what happened—and the paper editorialized viciously against Clinton all during his second term. (Yes, we’re talking about arch-liberal Howell Raines.) Meanwhile, Kakutani has trashed all books involving Al Gore or the Clintons. She reached her low point in December 1999, when she did a lengthy piece reviewing the books of that year’s White House hopefuls. How did she handle Gore’s Earth in the Balance? Naomi Wolf had no connection to the book, nor had she dealt with the issues the book concerned. But so what? The ludicrous flap about Wolf-and-the-earth-tones has recently entered our political discourse, and vacuous scribes—scribes like Kakutani—were able to speak of little else. In the course of her Times review, Kakutani devoted about 800 words to Gore’s book—and she mentioned Wolf or “earth tones” three separate times! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/2/99.) She never explained what the book was about—but she couldn’t stop pimping Naomi.

We’ll review the Clinton-spinning this week. But treat yourselves to low, mordant chuckles as pundits who haven’t seen My Life defer to Kakutani’s review, assuring us it must be right because it comes from the Clinton-lovin’ Times. Is it possible to be any dumber than Imus? As far as we know, no one has ever attempted the project, and you’ll see many other blind reviews as Kakutani’s wisdom is cited. For the record, Kakutani is a general reviewer; she never has shown any sign of knowing about the political issues involved in such books. But so what? She has always known the Clinton-Gore scripts. So, of course, has the Times, which invented quite a few of these scripts—Whitewater, Love Story, Love Canal, to name three. More on these topics all week.

One more mordant chuckle: Who except the New York Times could come up with a headline like this? Yesterday, Ralph Nader chose a running-mate. So here is today’s Times headline:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE: Beating Kerry to Punch, Nader Picks a No. 2
The Times takes a pot-shot at Kerry again. And what is so comic about that headline? There isn’t a single word about Kerry in the report which the headline adorns! The reporter, Mark Glassman, doesn’t mention the Dem—but a fearless Times editor knew his brief, and concocted a headline which tweaked hapless John. This kind of work is not unknown at the Washington Times; phantom headlines are sometimes seen there. But now, the practice migrates to Gotham, infecting our most broken newspaper.

Our current series: All in the family

ALL IN THE FAMILY (PART 1): Tim Russert’s father deserves your respect. And he surely deserves the mountains of praise his son has been heaping upon him. “[I]t was the quiet eloquence of his work—his example, his decency and his loyalty,” Russert said on The O’Reilly Factor as he promoted his new book, Big Russ & Me. In the past few months, it’s been hard to escape Russert’s accounts of his father’s lifetime of work and devotion. Millions of people like Russert’s dad worked hard to create the country we live in. Generally speaking, we’re glad when people look for ways to sharpen our gratitude to them.

But Russert’s audience deserves respect too, and Russert increasingly fails to provide it. Indeed, a reader won’t go far in Big Russ & Me before encountering oddball anecdotes designed to heap praise, not on Tim’s dad, but on Russert himself. These presentations make little real sense—but reflect the greater glory of Russert. Indeed, consider the anecdote a reader encounters right on page one of the book:

RUSSERT (page 1): NOT LONG AGO, I took part in an online conversation hosted by the Washington Post. As I sat at a computer, people around the country sent in questions about Meet the Press and other topics, and I did my best to answer them. Near the end of the hour, somebody asked me if there was one individual whom I would especially like to interview.
So far, so good. “Doing his best” (as he always does in this book), Russert fields a fairly obvious question. But as he answers, his moral superiority starts to shine through, as it so often does in this book:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): The person who submitted that question was probably expecting me to name an elusive political figure, or perhaps a fascinating character from history, such as Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus, or my first choice, Jesus Christ. But I took the question personally, and answered it immediately from the heart: more than anyone else, I would like to interview my dad.
Careful readers can possibly see the hidden arc of Russert’s anecdote. The questioner “probably” expected Russert to name a political figure, he says. (Duh. If I ask you the score of a Red Sox game, I “probably expect” you to mention two numbers.) But Russert is much more pure than that. Indeed, he “took it personally” and “answered immediately from the heart,” saying he wanted to interview his father! And as he repeats this slightly puzzling story—he had known his dad for fifty years at that point, and his dad’s whereabout were well known—Russert is quick to say that Jesus Christ would be his first choice for an historical interview. Translation? Politicians pander hard to the public. But so do press honchos like Russert.

No, that venal questioner wouldn’t have guessed that Russert would name his own father, “Big Russ.” He wouldn’t have guessed for an obvious reason; the answer doesn’t really make much sense, except as part of the marketing campaign Russert has conducted for several years, in which he crams his dad down America’s throat as evidence of his own superiority of instinct, values and character. Nicholas Lemann described the process in his recent New Yorker review:

LEMANN: [Russert’s father] himself functions less as a vivid character in a book than as an enhancer of his son’s mystique...Big Russ fades out somewhat as the book goes on, but every appearance, while presented as being illustrative of his good qualities (no filial ambivalence here!), literarily performs the function of making Tim look good, by reassuring us that he’s permanently connected to a father lode of realness.
Russert repeatedly uses his dad to boast about his own authenticity. When that e-mailer asks him an innocent question, Russert subjects him to a tale about his love for his great-and-good dad. And when he repeats the tale for us now, he makes us hear—in paragraph one—how much he loves Jesus Christ. As a potential interview subject, he even rates Christ ahead of Columbus. Did we mention the fact that major press figures sometimes pander in large, boorish ways?

How far is Russert willing to go in order to promote Ol’ Authentic, Tim Russert? Consider another puzzling morality tale—the anecdote that really opens his book, because it appears at the start of his “Introduction.”As the book opens, Russert describes his work on Election Night 2000. As usual, Russert’s outing is brilliant—and he attributes his genius performance to Dad:

RUSSERT (page ix): ON ELECTION NIGHT 2000, I sat on the NBC set with Tom Brokaw as state after state was projected for either George W. Bush or Al Gore. In trying to make sense of the election results, I started writing, in bold print on the back of a legal pad, the names of the states that were still being contested. As I added new states and crossed out others, and held up my homemade chart to the camera, I could almost see my dad nodding his head and saying, “Now I understand. Now I get it. Keep it simple. Forget those fancy computers.”
This story is typical of Russert’s book. In the anecdote, Russert engages in a bit of completely ordinary conduct—he lists “the names of the states that were still being contested.” This conduct is treated as little short of miraculous—and is then attributed to his father’s example. “The legal pad that I used on Election Day was an idea that came straight from Dad,” he explains. “As long as I can remember, he has used an 8½-by-11 yellow legal pad to keep track of the household budget.” In this way, Russert creates a three-page moral narrative out of the use of a standard legal pad. (Later, his legal pad became “excessively messy and difficult to read,” so his producer supplied a dry-erase board.) But this puzzling puffing of the mundane is quite typical of Russert’s book. Later in the book, for example, he tells us about the day, in 1962, when he got to shake President Kennedy’s hand because his father took him to a spot on a Buffalo motorcade route where Kennedy’s car would have to slow down. “I learned at least three lessons that day, and they are lessons that I still think about and follow,” Russert says. One of the lessons he still thinks about? “First, that a lot of information is right there in the newspapers.” Can it really be true that, forty years later, Russert feels he knows this fact because his father looked something up in 1962? As he throws off bromides like this, Russert seems to be doing what so much of our politics now seems to do. He seems to be conducting a careful experiment to see how low his readers’ IQs really are. How thoroughly can he talk down to his readers? Russert seems eager to learn.

And he’s willing to say what’s untrue if it adds to his own greater glory. How brilliant was that Election Night work—the work with the legal pad (and dry-erase board) that Russert’s father somehow inspired? When Russert taped a Dateline session in May, he and Stone Phillips spent some time marveling about that occasion:

RUSSERT: One of the producers actually sent out and bought a $6 board like this and threw it at me, said, “Here, use the greaseboard. It’s a little bit easier.” But it’s the Big Russ board. And I—

PHILLIPS: And you were—you were just carrying on a familiar tradition. A Big Russ tradition.

RUSSERT: Absolutely. And in the end, it was the homespun comfort, someone wrote, of that Big Russ board that helped the country get through an extraordinary, volatile election.

Wow! Someone wrote that the “Big Russ board” actually “helped the country get through an extraordinary, volatile election?” Now, that is high praise! Except that isn’t what someone wrote. It was Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post who wrote about Russert’s “homespun comfort.” And no, she didn’t make Russert our national savior. Here’s what she actually said:
DE MORAES (11/9/00): According to somewhat dicey estimates based on very early numbers—kind of like those Voter News Service stats NBC used when it was the first network to call Florida for Al Gore at 7:50 Tuesday night—NBC was the most-watched network during prime time (8-11 p.m.) on Election Night.

More than 19 million viewers rejected the ultra-slick sets and high-tech bells and whistles on the other networks in favor of the simple homespun comfort of Tim Russert and his dry-erase board over on NBC. Throughout the long night, the NBC News star madly scribbled and wiped out names of states and their electoral counts on his little white board while exchanging witticisms with marble-mouth Tom Brokaw. And sometimes you could actually see what was written on the board and then you felt really connected to Russert. It was charming.

As is her wont, de Moraes was rather sardonic this day. But as she poked fun at Russert’s performance, the Buffalo Burgher heard something different. De Moraes said this: “Sometimes you could actually see what was written on the [dry-erase] board.” Russert, though, heard a quite different drummer. Russert heard de Moraes say that his brilliant work had “helped the country get through a volatile election.” This episode captures the endless self-puffing—and the growing apparent dishonesty—that now characterizes Russert’s failing work.

“Big Russ has never been much of a talker, especially about himself,” Russert writes. In fact, he offers this thought right on page one, right in the midst of that pleasing story (about himself) in which he says that he would like to interview Jesus Christ. But if Big Russ avoided talking about himself, this is just one of many values Russert has failed to absorb from his dad. As every cable viewer knows, it’s almost impossible to get Tim Russert to stop talking about himself and his glory. In a book which pretends to honor his dad’s way of life, this is the first contradiction.

Tim Russert’s father deserves your respect. But increasingly, his son has become a dysfunctional figure, a man destroyed by the endless fawning that follows success in celebrity culture—a man who increasingly shows few signs of observing the values he brags on.

TOMORROW: Being Tim Russert has its advantages

From the annals of Nantucket swells

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE ISLAND: Yesterday, Jodi Wilgoren was up to old tricks, punishing Kerry because his wife owns an expensive home on Nantucket. “[S]ome Democrats were concerned about the image of their wealthy candidate frolicking among the fabulously wealthy here on an island where the average home sells for $1.4 million,” the predictable scribe predictably reported (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/04). And then she drove that image home with the latest of her foolish reports.

But readers, guess who else has a home on Nantucket, where the average home sells for $1.4 million? You’d never know it from his aw-shucks book—a book which sells him as Man of the People—but a major press figure by the name of Tim Russert also owns one of those sheds. In fact, there almost seem to be two Tim Russerts—the one which Russert sells to the rubes, and the one he discusses in upper-caste journals. In the August 2003 Washingtonian, for instance, Sallie Brady described the way Russert lives when he isn’t busy fooling us rubes. Her article was called, “At Play with Washington’s VIPs.” Fairly quickly, she docked at Nantucket:

BRADY: Nantucket: Big Money, Exclusive Restaurants, and Power Players in Golf Shoes...

In summer, Nantucket is a remarkable re-creation of Washington politics, fundraisers, and restaurant life, confined to a 3½-by-14-mile resort island.

Tim Russert remembers the first time he visited. It “was in 1972. I had graduated from college,” Russert recalled in a Nantucket Magazine profile. “About 20 of us drove up, and we all jumped on the [Steamship Authority ferry]...and as soon as I stepped off I said, 'This is something special.’”

Russert is part of the Nantucket NBC crowd, one of the cliques that fuels the isle's social engine. It was Jack Welch, the story goes, the 20-year chairman and CEO of NBC’s parent company, General Electric, who drew network folk to Nantucket.

Russert and his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, began summering on Nantucket in 1992. Russert has said he can go days without leaving his house except for a bike ride to get the newspapers. Then he’ll sit in his rocking chair and watch the grass blow in the breeze.

Russert does make it back for Meet the Press, the show that made him and that helped finance the Nantucket hideaway he acquired in 1999. The sprawling gray-shingled house, with rooftop sundeck and cutting garden, lies down an unmarked dirt path through a secluded forest. Hanging over the portico, a wooden sign bearing the cottage’s name says it all: SUNDAY MORNING.

Russert’s boss, NBC CEO Bob Wright, is also on the scene...Although Welch retired in 2001, he’s still a power magnet. He holds court from a massive gray-shingled home festooned with window boxes, near Sankaty Head Golf Club. It was there that Welch once played Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, only to discover that two of the richest men in the world routinely bet only $1 a round.

Weirdly, Russert’s book doesn’t say a word (that we can find) about the island he loves so well. It’s almost like Big Russ & Me describes a different man from the one who ispart of the cliques that fuels the isle’s social engine,” the man whose “sprawling gray-shingled house...lies down an unmarked dirt path through a secluded forest.” But then, Russert seems to say one thing when he speaks to the rubes, and another when he deals with the swells. In November 2001, for example, he described his love for Nantucket in another profile for—you guessed it—the Washingtonian. He also told his profiler, Chuck Conconi, about his favorite restaurant in Washington. It’s “Tesoro, which means ‘Treasure,’” Russert explained. “It has the best penne arrabbiatta in America.”

No, there isn’t much talk about penne arrabbiatta in Big Russ & Me, either. Indeed, when Russert sells himself to the rubes, he knows not to mention his life with the swells. On March 13, for example, he discussed Bush and Kerry on his cable show, Russert. Dan Balz and Ann Kornblut took part:

BALZ: I think they genuinely do not like one another and that this is going to be a tough campaign, in part, for that reason. I think, as I said, that Kerry has a certain amount of contempt for the Republicans and for the way President Bush has conducted himself. And you have to believe that Bush has a certain amount of contempt for Kerry and where he comes from and what he stands for—I mean, a kind of a Northeastern elite, which, you know, which Bush has run from for most of his life.

RUSSERT: But it is ironic. They are both sons of privilege. Both went to prep school, both went to Yale. Kennebunkport is not far from Nantucket. I mean—

BALZ: But as Bush has always said, you know, his father was Greenwich, and his father was Connecticut, he is Midland. I mean, that—he may have that in the blood, but he grew up in west Texas, and that is a much different environment than—than growing up the way John Kerry did.

RUSSERT: Have you seen much change in John Kerry, in his pedigree, as to running away from it or embracing some new kinds of rhetoric?

KORNBLUT: I don’t think he’s run—I—he can’t run away from it. It is who he is.

According to Balz and Kornblut, Kerry’s a swell, but the president isn’t. For Russert, meanwhile, Nantucket symbolized the fact that Kerry is a son of privilege. And Russert certainly ought to know. You’ll never catch him telling the rubes. But he has summered there twelve years himself.

Lemann describes this Selling of Russert in his New Yorker profile. “Big Russ & Me is not so much a it is a highly effective extension of the Russert brand,” he writes. “The brand wouldn’t be successful if it weren’t genuinely appealing, and Russert in these pages is characteristically forthright, unpretentious, respectful, and values-laden.” This celebrification (and selling) of our most influential newsmen should be a point of extreme concern. Of course, there wouldn’t be so much wrong with this if Russert did competent journalistic work. But despite all his boasting about Big Russ Values, Russert has ceased to be a respectable scribe. He doesn’t just stretch about himself, imagining that critical praise, for example. He stretches—and deceives-about Major Pols too, as we’ll see a bit later this week. Of course, the Nantucket crowd—and some who hope to get there—aren’t inclined to tell you that. They politely hide beneath their desks as Russert makes a joke of your discourse—as he invents words of praise for himself, and as he simply lies in your face, falsely saying that Dem White House hopefuls had been accused of criminal conduct. (Falsely saying it—and knowing it was false.) Since you’ll only read about it here—since others are too polite to pursue it—we’ll return to this episode from Russert’s Real Life just a bit later on in the week. Which lesson absorbed from his father’s life told Tim that this was correct conduct? Or had he picked up some “values” on Nantucket too—“values” he likes to obscure?