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Interview With Tim Russert

Aired May 23, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): He's been called the toughest interrogator on television. He's interviewed presidents and would-be presidents, foreign dignitaries and big-name athletes. He's the kid from Buffalo who became the ultimate Washington insider. A conversation with Tim Russert.

Also, one TV news magazine celebrity steps down, while another news magazine keeps promoting the network's own celebrities.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the man behind "Meet the Press." I'm Howard Kurtz.

Tim Russert was fresh out of law school when he signed on with Daniel Patrick Moynihan and later Mario Cuomo as a Democratic operative whose media skills were so effective it was said that opponents had been "Russerted."

He made the career leap to NBC News in 1984, became Washington bureau chief four years later, and in 1991 became host of the network's struggling Sunday talk show.

Russert not only took the program to the top of the ratings heap; he interviewed the likes of President Clinton, candidate George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, President Bush and every Democratic candidate for the White House this year, from Howard Dean to John Kerry.

Now he's written a book, "Big Russ and Me," about his father's influence as he climbed the ladder from South Buffalo to Oval Office interviews.

Tim Russert joins me now in Washington.



KURTZ: Since April 1, "NBC Nightly News," like CBS and ABC's broadcasts, hasn't run a single story on what John Kerry has been saying about jobs health care, education, the environment, you name it. There have been some stories about the controversies over throwing away his Vietnam medals, and one story about how Iraq is drowning out his message. Isn't "NBC Nightly New" contributing to this drowning out?

RUSSERT: Well, I think that Iraq is the central issue in the country right now. And I think the president has -- he told Bob Woodward in his book that he has, in effect, bet his presidency on the outcome in Iraq.

Does that mean it should be covered to the exclusion of other issues? No. And my sense is, in talking to the Kerry campaign, they plan to continue the roll-out of these issues. They sometimes like to change the subject from Iraq, where John Kerry, who had supported the war and then voted for the $87 billion, against it, when it would be taken from the tax cut, and then voted against it.

KURTZ: But does anybody hear what he's saying if it's not picked up by the network newscasts?

RUSSERT: Well, obviously, some places do. I mean, in local TV, it's huge.

The Bush campaign has the same complaint. They say the president goes to Ohio, the president goes to Louisiana, and the local papers are filled with his local message on the day. Those of us in network news, with 22 minutes on a newscast, we have to pick and choose. There's no doubt about it.

And at this point, I don't think anyone can question that Iraq is probably the most important issue by far of any that we're struggling with in the country.

KURTZ: You're known as a tough interrogator. Let's take a look at your interview with John Kerry on "Meet the Press" last month.


RUSSERT: You repeal the top bracket of the Bush tax cut, you get about $50 billion a year.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Actually, you get about -- you get more than that, Tim.

RUSSERT: It's pretty close: $200 billion over four years. And you go through and add...

KERRY: No, no. That's wrong. You get about $850 billion over 10 years.

RUSSERT: Right, it keeps out in later years, but initially, your full first four-year term, it's about $50 billion a year.


KURTZ: At times it sounds like you're not just questioning him but debating him.

RUSSERT: Well, you know, facts are facts, and you do your best to put it out there. After that discussion, I think we went to the overall point. The fact is, you do not have enough savings by repealing the tax cut to pay for the programs that John Kerry has advocated.

That's just not me saying it. It's your paper, the "Washington Post," which did a very detailed analysis.

KURTZ: But in terms of television stagecraft, is there such a thing as the moderator being too aggressive with the guest?

RUSSERT: Oh, absolutely.

KURTZ: And that turns viewers off?

RUSSERT: Absolutely. I believe that the -- Lawrence Spivak, who founded "Meet the Press" 57 years ago, said, "Learn as much as you can about your guest and his or her position on the issue. Take the other side. Be persistent, but be polite."

And I try not to berate people. I don't want to make them sympathetic. But sometimes facts are important.

KURTZ: Now, I've been calling it the Russert primaries, this virtual requirement now that virtually all presidential candidates, even presidents, appear on "Meet the Press" and then we all review how they did. It creates a lot of buzz here within the Beltway.

How did this show become such a big deal in the political process?

RUSSERT: John Kennedy actually called it the 51st state, which I didn't realize until after I had taken over the program.

I think it's the tradition of the 57-year history of "Meet the Press" that political people who want to be president of the United States are looking for an opportunity to talk to a large audience, to also demonstrate to the political media community that they have a sufficient grasp of the issues, that they can articulate them and explain to people what their plans are.

KURTZ: You're being diplomatic. It wasn't -- it's only under Russert that it became this sort of must-see TV; everybody has to critique the performance of presidential wannabes.

RUSSERT: Spivak did a pretty good job, way back in the '40s. But actually -- I actually remember watching Nixon and Kennedy and Castro, a little kid, on a flickering black and white TV set.

My sense is, Howard, is that in the end, if you want to be a president, you're going to have to make tough decisions and you can't make tough decisions unless you're asked tough questions.

And you try to find forums that you can put out your prefab spin, and -- and avoid trying to answer tough questions. But you...

KURTZ: But you give them an hour. It's harder to do that over a course of nearly 60 minutes.

RUSSERT: But ultimately, they realize that if they really want to demonstrate, to their own supporters and to also try to convince independent voters that they're the real deal, then they have to find a forum that people think is credible. And I hope they find it in "Meet the Press."

KURTZ: And this whole veep-stakes thing, in my view, is just out of control. Endless media speculation, very few facts.

You had John McCain on last week. He's denied probably about 100 times that he would be John Kerry's running mate. You asked him. He denied it. And you asked him again. Let's take a look at that.


RUSSERT: You can stay a Republican. You can be a loyal Republican. It would be a fusion or a unity ticket. Would you contemplate it in any way, shape or form? Would you take Senator Kerry's phone call if you knew he was calling about it?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I will always take anyone's phone calls, but I will not -- I categorically will not do it.


KURTZ: Why won't you take no for an answer?

RUSSERT: That's what he asked. I was -- I had Senator McCain on a few months ago when he said absolutely not. And then there was a front page story in "The New York Times" quoting Senator Bob Kerrey, former senator from Nebraska, saying, what I was reading there, that it should be a fusion ticket. He could stay in the Republican Party. He wouldn't have to change party affiliation.

And there are a lot of people in the Kerry campaign privately saying, "This would win the race for us." Officially, they're saying, "We have no comment."

Interestingly enough, after that exchange with Senator McCain, Senator Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware was on the program, he endorsed McCain for vice president right there on the set of "Meet the Press."

So it's an elephant in the room, the story that won't go away. And...

KURTZ: Except that the guy doesn't want to do it, and he keeps saying that.

RUSSERT: Well, you know, President...

KURTZ: Are you going to change his mind? RUSSERT: No. But President Clinton said that he wasn't going to run for president in 1992 either. And then he went around the state and had his people in Arkansas release him from his commitment.

KURTZ: Sometimes politicians rethink these things.

RUSSERT: You never know.

KURTZ: You got a lot of press last week when Colin Powell's aide tried to cut off your interview with him. He was in Jordan. For those who missed that classic television moment, let's take a brief look at that.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: Tim, I'm sorry. I lost you.

RUSSERT: I'm right here, Mr. Secretary. I would hope they would put you back on camera. I don't know who did that.

POWELL: It is really...

RUSSERT: I think that was one of your staff, Mr. Secretary. I don't think that's appropriate.


KURTZ: But you had gone over the agreed upon time, and other networks were waiting for their chance to interview Powell. And some people are saying, "Look, this was Russert doing an attention-grabbing kind of stunt."

RUSSERT: Oh, it's not -- that's not the case at all. What happened was, and it's very precise, the person on the ground said to our control room, "OK, wrap it."

Which our producer quickly relayed to me, and that's why I said, "Finally, Mr. Secretary." We asked the final question. You know...

KURTZ: But then you chose to make an issue out of it by broadcasting what we just saw. In other words, you could have edited that out. It was on tape. You chose to make a stand out of the fact that they were trying to keep to the time limit that you had agreed to.

RUSSERT: Well, it was a little bit more than that. It wasn't just keep to the time limit. The Associated Press and Reuters had listened in on that interview, because of the news value of it. It was a pool camera, so others on the ground had also witnessed it.

I've been involved in "Meet the Press" for 13 years. We always abide by time considerations. They are always rough and approximate, as we all know.

KURTZ: Sure. RUSSERT: Fox, I know -- Fox News had a 10-minute interview and they went, I think, 13 minutes that Sunday. It's all ballpark. And when you say "finally," you're signaling to your guest that you're wrapping up.


RUSSERT: And Secretary Powell wanted to answer the question. Ironically, the question was about his presentation towards -- at the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction, based on the intelligence that Ahmed Chalabi had, in fact, manufactured.

And so it was a very significant news story when Colin Powell said that he had grave reservations about his -- about his presentation. And ironically, it was the media that seized on that part of the story, as opposed to the substance of what Colin Powell answered what I felt was an important question.

KURTZ: Well, I need to move on so I don't have to cut off your interview.

The Iraqi prisoner story. A lot of Americans out there -- I'm sure you know this -- think that the media have hurt the country and are overplaying this and constantly releasing new pictures, because they love the scandal. They think it's a great story.

What's your view of that?

RUSSERT: I think it's an important story. I also think the beheading of Nicholas Berg is an important story. But Howard, we have to cover facts and the news we see.

When you have Republican John McCain, Republican Lindsey Graham, loyal Republicans, saying, "Get all these pictures out. Get all this video out."

Why? Because we can take care of our house. We can take the small minority of people involved in this and punish them, and then go to the world and say, "We are reasserting our moral authority."

KURTZ: But doesn't there come a point...

RUSSERT: This is important. We did something wrong and we took care of it. And now, those of you who are responsible for Nicholas Berg and for hanging Americans' charred bodies from a bridge, will you do the same?

KURTZ: But does there come a point, as some critics are saying, where it's overkill, where the new photos, the new videos are just a way of keeping the story at the top of the newscast and on the front page?

RUSSERT: I believe it could be overkill, sure. And you have to be very careful and measured in it. But the new release to "The Washington Post" earlier in the week, I believe, was an attempt to get the story out. White House officials had said two weeks ago that, in effect, what they wanted to do was have congresspeople talk about the pictures so that when they were finally released, it wouldn't have the same shock value. So the media strategy is part of this, as well.

We're doing our best. No one is suggesting a moral equivalency between the United States of America and the terrorists, but there was wrongdoing. And Democrats and Republicans are investigating it. That's a story.

KURTZ: When you're going to have a Democratic guest on "Meet the Press," do you get information that you can use from Republicans and vice versa, the other parties try to kind of work the moderator?

RUSSERT: I hear from everybody. I hear -- I have sources all over the country, all over Washington. And I'm equal opportunity. I'll listen to anybody. I always do my best to fact-check it, and in fact, I do fact-check it before I ever use it on the air.

KURTZ: Now some of the candidates during this race, particularly Howard Dean and John Edwards, got roughed up a bit and then didn't come on for many, many months. So in some ways do you pay a price for your aggressiveness, if people are going to shy away from the broadcast?

RUSSERT: I think some people choose not to come on any given week. We've try to get Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld the last several weeks, and he hasn't been willing to come on.

Political candidates sometimes decide that they're going to stay off for a while. Eventually they come back. But I can't...

KURTZ: Why do they eventually come back?

RUSSERT: I think they have to, in their minds, demonstrate to their supporters that they, in fact, are willing now to answer tough questions and present their views.

In fact, the John Edwards campaign told me they looked at his two appearances on "Meet the Press" as the book ends of his campaign. And they acknowledged that the first interview, he could have done much better, that he wasn't completely prepared.

But you know what? What I try to talk about it in our newsroom, is that the First Amendment says we have freedom of speech, it's also freedom not to talk. I can't force anybody to come on "Meet the Press." If they don't want to come on, I understand.

We have a lot of people that want to be on every week. And we don't want them.

KURTZ: You have the opposite problem. People lobbying to get on "Meet the Press." Right.

We need to take a break. When we come back, Tim Russert on his new book, the influence of his father and his transition from politics to big league journalism. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES and our conversation with Tim Russert.

You write in "Big Russ and Me" that your father was a big influence on you growing up. Does he give you any advice about "Meet the Press"?



RUSSERT: But he's got a lot of common sense. I tell my political friends he is the most accurate and cheapest focus group they could ever find.

When I first took over the show, he said, "Pretend you're talking to me." Just don't get caught up in all the Washington fancy talk and parlance. And try to keep it basic, as he would say. Put it in black and white, meaningful, understandable.

Election night of 2000, when I broke out my little board and tried to talk about the Electoral College...

KURTZ: Florida, Florida, Florida.

RUSSERT: Yes. It was very much reminiscent of my dad, who had kept a little pad on his dresser, working out his mortgage, utility bills. And that's what I tried to do, have some clarity.

He also, every Monday after his gives me his analysis of the show, ends by saying, "I still can't believe they pay you all this money to B.S. on the air." So -- so he keeps me in my place.

KURTZ: Only a father could say that.


KURTZ: Now, people view you as this very well plugged in Washington insider, which of course you are, but you grew up in Buffalo. You rode the garbage trucks in the summer, which was a profession that your father also practiced.

Does that affect how you do your job today, or is that just the distant past?

RUSSERT: No, it's very much -- Buffalo is not just the geographic location for me; it's a way of life. And my mom and dad and three sisters still all live up there.

And I was always amazed when I came to Washington, I'd say, "Where are you from?" They'd say, "I'm from Washington." I'd say, "But you weren't born here. I mean, tell me where you're really from." And it's a way of approaching the job. I think the training I had with the Sisters of Mercy and the Jesuits and law school: preparation, discipline, accountability, trying to immerse yourself in work, showing up prepared for class, showing up prepared for "Meet the Press."

And also I think seeing what happened to that city when steel plants closed and people came upon hard times, and how people are trying to make ends meet, it has a profound effect on me.

KURTZ: Now, you work pretty hard, as everybody knows, as evidenced from watching you on the tube. Your father had two jobs. Did that -- did you inherit those workaholic tendencies, do you think?

RUSSERT: Yes. My dad was a garbage man and a truck driver for 30 years. When he retired from the one job, he had 200 sick days that he never took. And I asked him why. He said, "Because I wasn't sick."

I learned more from the quiet eloquence of his hard work than I've learned from anything else.

KURTZ: Now, Bill Clinton famously met JFK when Clinton was a young man and got that handshake photo we've all seen. And you did the same thing, although there are no pictures. I'm not sure I should believe this story, but how did you, as a young guy in Buffalo, happen to meet the president of the United States?

RUSSERT: Are you -- you can ask Big Russ, if you have any doubt in your mind, he'd put it on the line.

My dad was sitting in his chair, reading "The Buffalo News," and before Dallas, they used to print the itinerary of the president. And it said he was landing in Niagara Falls Airport near Buffalo and getting off at Smith Street (ph) exit.

And my dad said, "You know, the motorcade is going to have a hard time negotiating that turn." And he packed us all in the station wagon and drove down to this little corner and put me on top of a mailbox.

And sure enough, at 3:05, the sirens are blaring, the motorcycles roaring, motorcade came by, open bubble top. And there's John Kennedy. My dad pushed me off the mailbox, and I shook his hand. And we all got in the car, and my dad took out a White Owl cigar and said, "Finally, a Russert has met a president of the United States."

KURTZ: Now, you also wrote about the transition that you had from being a Democratic aide, first to Pat Moynihan, later to Mario Cuomo, and then going to -- becoming an NBC News executive.

But how do you suddenly rid yourself of all your partisan opinions and become, to coin a phrase, fair and balanced?

RUSSERT: I think it's a fair question. In South Buffalo, when you're born in 1950, you're born a Democrat and baptized a Catholic. And then you go through life.

It's -- television and journalism is replete with people who had government experience, whether it's John Chancellor or Diane Sawyer or Bill Moyers or myself.

But when I left in 1984, I left for good. I -- it was one turn in the door, if you will.

I was the executive behind the scenes at NBC for four years before I came to Washington. Bernard Goldberg has written two books about bias in the media. He's devoted a whole chapter of his recent one to the objectivity of "Meet the Press."

What I've done is I'm not affiliated with any party. I immerse myself in the issues. I know what the conservatives think, what the liberals think, what the Democrats think, what the Republicans think, and I try to master both sides of an issue to a point where I'm totally confused as to what I think.

KURTZ: Your first reaction, your gut reaction when you were asked to take over "Meet the Press" 13 or 14 years ago? Stunned?

RUSSERT: Michael Gardiner, who was then the president, asked me to draw up a list of people, inside and outside, when Garrick Utley, who had been doing it, moved back to -- to New York.

KURTZ: You're like Dick Cheney leading the vice presidential...

RUSSERT: Yes, right.

KURTZ: You got the job.

RUSSERT: Yeah, it's pretty similar. Yes.

KURTZ: But you didn't think you were suited for television?

RUSSERT: I didn't have any training. I had never done local television. Most people have rugged jaws; I have these cheeks. And I had never taken voice lessons or coach lessons or any of that kind of thing. And I was unknown.

And if you're going to host a program, you want to have someone who can relate to the country and draw in viewers and things of that nature. But we gave it a try. And some people bet against it, and I don't know if anyone bet on it. I don't think I even would have, it was such a long shot. But I gave it my all.

KURTZ: I guess it worked out for you. Tim Russert, thanks very much for joining us.

RUSSERT: Thanks, Howard.

KURTZ: Good to see you.

Up next, is a certain TV news magazine turning into a showbiz showcase? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It's been a big month for TV magazine shows, some of which haven't had to look very far for their subject matter.


KURTZ (voice-over): CBS gave Don Hewitt quite a send-off this week, as the legendary producer steps down from "60 Minutes." A prime-time special recounting his career.

There were plenty of highlights, such as the pep talk that Hewitt gave Bill and Hillary Clinton before their famous 1992 interview about the Gennifer Flowers mess.

DON HEWITT: I think at some point all you have to be as candid as you know how, and from there on they say, I said it on "60 Minutes." If you want to know what I have to say on the subject, go get a tape and listen to it again. I've said it all.

KURTZ: For some reason, there were no lowlight times, such as Hewitt's decision to hold back a 1995 tobacco industry expose in the face of legal threats.

But Mike, Morley and the gang had done great work over the years, and at least the special didn't pretend to be anything other than a celebration of Don Hewitt. "60 Minutes," which debuted back in 1968, spawned the era of network news magazines. "20/20," "Primetime Live," "48 Hours," "Dateline NBC." They dish up a mix of news and entertainment, and lately in the case of "Dateline," entertainment pretending to be news.

First there were two "Dateline" programs devoted to Donald Trump and NBC' "The Apprentice." Exclusive interviews with the Donald and all the would-be apprentices. Then there were exclusive interviews with the cast of "Friends," as Jennifer Aniston and company bid farewell to their NBC sitcom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now "Friends" is about to go out the way it came in, on top of the comedy heap. The magic was there from the very beginning.

KURTZ: And who can forget the exclusive interview with Kelsey Grammer, as NBC's "Frasier" bid the world adieu.

Is the news division shilling for the network? NBC News President Neil Shapiro told me these were legitimate programs, because there was huge cultural interest in the hit shows, and that "Dateline" would be happy to interview stars from other networks if only it could get the kind of access it has to NBC's top celebrities.


KURTZ: Maybe we can get Larry King to do a special on the great work we're doing here on "RELIABLE SOURCES." I'll be happy to write the copy. Up next, your e-mails.


KURTZ: Several of you e-mailed us last week in response to our hour-long special on the prisoner abuse scandal.

Peter is following the story from Tokyo. He writes: "It would have been criminal not to show these photos and videos of what happened in Iraq's prisons under U.S. management. If the U.S. and coalition are claiming the moral high ground in the invasion of Iraq to remove a vicious regime, then this torture and barbaric behavior by elements within the U.S. government and military is unacceptable and has to be stopped. Without the press and Internet distribution of the photos, distressing as they may be to all worldwide, hiding them would have been a greater crime."

And finally, Jean writes: "More time has been spent by the media over the prison situation versus the brutal killing of Mr. Berg. I feel it is going to be impossible for the United States to ever win a war again with the news media spending every ounce of their energy criticizing our, or at least my, country over every negative occurrence. You, the media, must become more patriotic in your reporting, if it means some propaganda."

Well, Jean, I'm happy that we're not in the propaganda business.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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