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CNN LARRY KING LIVE
The Best of Tim Russert
Aired June 15, 2008 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LARRY KING, CNN HOST: One of the most powerful journalists in the world has passed on, but he leaves quite a legacy. A tribute to Tim Russert.
Tim Russert died suddenly on Friday and he was only 58 years old. He rose from humble beginnings in Buffalo up through the ranks of NBC News.
Now, most of you know him as the moderator of "Meet the Press," but there was a lot more to Tim than that. We're going to spend this hour looking at all the other aspects.
Here's the best of Tim Russert.
KING: How many years in a row now you're number one?
RUSSERT: Five years on Sunday morning. That's a long haul, each and every Sunday.
KING: Does that surprise you, too?
RUSSERT: It's hard work. We started off in third place amongst the networks but there's no secret to it, Larry. It's all about preparation and trying to get the best guest, talk about the most important subject, and people gravitate I think and watch when there's an expectation that you're going to do a professional job, whether it's a Democrat, Republican, Liberal or Conservative, take the other side, challenge them, always be civil.
We don't have yelling and screaming on "Meet the Press." It's just not part of what we want to be. It's 59 years old now, the longest running television program in the history of the world.
KING: Lawrence Spivak.
RUSSERT: And Martha Roundtree, Spivak and Roundtree.
KING: It was a radio show, right?
RUSSERT: Yes, it was for two years. I love to go back and watch the archives.
KING: I like when you do that.
RUSSERT: Yes, Jimmy Hoffa has one of the best, Jimmy Hoffa sitting there at the table and people are challenging his integrity and he says "Let me tell you something. Anybody at this table match your integrity against Jimmy Hoffa." So, if they ever find the body we have that tape cued up.
KING: All right, some things current, what do you make of Charlie Gibson now being the anchor of ABC's Evening News?
RUSSERT: He's a great newsman. I knew him when he worked on Capitol Hill here in Washington and...
KING: Big Oriole fan.
RUSSERT: Yes, he is. And I think that he did a wonderful job at "Good Morning America," a temporary assignment which turned out to be eight years. But now, he'll be at ABC.
Katie Couric, my buddy, leaving NBC, going to CBS. And Brian Williams, America's anchor, my anchor at NBC. Who would have thought? Who would have thought a year ago if we had said Tom Brokaw's leaving, there's going to be a change at NBC, that you would have Peter Jennings leave us and Dan Rather leave the anchor chair, three new anchors in 2006? No one predicted it.
KING: And Schieffer, who you recommended to get that job.
RUSSERT: Oh, you know, I was on Don Imus and the radio program, you know, I-Man and he said "What's going on at CBS?" This is after Dan Rather was going to leave. And I said, "I don't know what they're going to do. They're talking about experimentation and bringing new people in from the outside."
I said, "You know what I would do. I'd bring in my buddy Schieffer. He's terrific. He's a solid news guy. He does a great job on "Face the Nation." He can fill that chair. He can cover the news. He won't be surprised by anything."
And Bob called me up and said, "Where did you get that idea?" Well, a couple days later he called me up and said "Guess what? This may happen." And a lot of people were in there pulling for him inside of CBS because they knew who he is. He is a solid guy and he's a real honor -- brings real honor to that organization.
KING: What a job he's done.
RUSSERT: Terrific, absolutely terrific.
KING: How will Katie do?
RUSSERT: I think well. There will be a lot of interest in her, a lot of scrutiny, but it's so novel, it's the first solo woman to anchor the evening news. And I think that will create endless curiosity. She's a real professional. She's been on the "Today Show" for 15 years. She understands live TV. She understands preparing for interviews. She understands the news flow.
And I think all these anchors are tested early on in their careers, God forbid, because there's always a disaster, always a crisis. When Brian Williams went down to New Orleans with Katrina, he proved to the world what we all knew inside of NBC, that he was a passionate newsman who understood news, could articulate it and explain it in a meaningful and understandable way.
And, I think we're now at network TV in a very good position because we have, with Charlie and Katie and Brian, three extraordinary competent anchors but I'm for NBC.
KING: What do you hear about Mr. Woodruff?
RUSSERT: I received a nice, wonderful note from Lee, his wife. The ironies here abound, Larry. When I got the terrible call that David Bloom had been killed in Iraq, I was on the phone and asking had anyone talked to Melanie Bloom, David's wife and they said Lee Woodruff, her best friend, was on her way to Melanie's house to be with her. When Bob Woodruff was hurt in Iraq it was Melanie Bloom who traveled with Lee Woodruff to Germany to greet Bob when he arrived from Iraq.
He's making progress and he is with his family and everyone's hoping and praying for a full recovery but make no mistake about it that was a very, very serious injury.
KING: Is it a sure bet he'll be back?
RUSSERT: I only know what I read from ABC and everyone has the expectation that he'll return to work at ABC and the sooner the better for all of us.
KING: You mentioned how there's not a lot of acrimony, there's certainly disagreements on "Meet the Press." How come there is so my acrimony in Washington?
RUSSERT: You know that's a great question and I wish I understood it. I used to watch Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey debate on the Senate floor, this conservative, this liberal, robust debates. They they'd go to the cloakroom and have a drink together.
RUSSERT: They respected one another. You know a little point in history that most people aren't aware of: Barry Goldwater in 1963 went to see President Kennedy and said, "Mr. President, I'm going to be the Republican nominee next year. I'm a conservative. You're a liberal. Why don't we travel around on Air Force One from city to city and debate so people know we have different philosophies, different ideologies, but we respect one another?"
That is so gone now. A lot of it might be because of television and the way we cover everything so closely and radio and the Internet and cable and so forth. A lot of it I think is how you get elected through negative ads so by the time you get here you have such a negative feeling about the other person or about the campaign they ran. A lot of is the 435 House seats in Congress. About 380 of those are already safe seats the Democrat or Republican cannot lose because they guarantee 60 percent of the vote the way they've been carved out. So, there's no incentive to work across the aisle.
KING: Karl Rove suggests the president's low rating are due to a sour mood, do you buy that?
RUSSERT: Yes. The day we went to war in March of 2003, I was sitting there with Tom Brokaw and I said, "Tom, George W. Bush has now bet his presidency on the war in Iraq."
And I got a call from the White House saying, "Boy that's a little -- a big statement." I said, "I believe it. I believe it deeply." I think whenever a president goes to war it either works or doesn't work. It can be relatively easy or difficult.
This war has proven to be a lot more difficult and a lot more complicated than the war planners ever imagined in terms of weapons of mass destruction, the intensity of the insurgency, the level of troops.
And so the president now has to deal with that and cope with that. You can't just send an army to war. You have to bring a whole country to war and right now the majority of Americans are against the war in Iraq.
KING: Because he hasn't sold it well?
RUSSERT: Well, it's difficult to sell because the primary rationale was the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Now it wasn't just the United States who believed that. Countries like France, Germany, Russia, who were opposed to the war, believed he had stockpiles.
But all that being said you have to adjust the circumstances and continue to educate people and explain to them what you're doing. What is your mission and what your exit strategy is.
KING: The more you do the lower the polls go.
RUSSERT: It's pretty hard. I also think that Katrina complicated things for George W. Bush in a large way because as commander-in-chief the one thing you have, the one asset you have is that people trust you as a leader.
And what we have seen is dramatic erosion for this president after Katrina where people looked at it as a very incompetent administration as well as the governor and mayor of New Orleans.
KING: Our guest is Tim Russert, the best. It's an honor to know him and have him as a friend. We go back a long way, dinners at Cuomo's mansion.
RUSSERT: Oh, my God.
KING: "Wisdom of our Fathers" is the book. We'll be right back.
KING: We're back with Tim Russert, the author of "Big Russ and Me: Father and Son, Lessons of Life," published by Miramax. We long were expecting a book from you. Why this topic?
RUSSERT: You know, Larry, I was asked to write a political book about `Sundays With Tim,' or `Behind the Scenes at "Meet at the Press"' --
KING: `Sundays With Tim,' I like that.
RUSSERT: I didn't want to do that, because I always try to be objective, and I didn't want to make judgments about my guests and the quality of their appearances and whether they were candid or not.
And back in 1997, I went back home to Buffalo, my hometown, and did a piece called "Going Home," about spending New Year's Day at the American Legion Hall with my dad. And a year later, I went to the American Legion convention and received an award, and I called up my dad spontaneously, I said, this is the real Tim Russert.
And the room just exploded. These grizzly veterans with their big paws wiping their tears away. And I started writing about my dad, who left school in the 10th grade, went and fought in World War II. He was -- his plane, a B-24 Liberator, crashed. He barely survived, spent six months in a hospital. Billy Sajocki (ph), a young Chicago Polish kid, saved his life, with two British men by rolling out his body, burning body on the tarmac.
And then he came home, Larry, and he didn't whine. He didn't complain. He took on two full-time jobs as a sanitation man and a truck driver, to raise and educate his four kids. That was his mission, and I wanted to affirm his life. I wanted to say to the whole world he's a man of few words, but by the quiet eloquence of his example, his hard work, his decency, his loyalty. He built the middle class in this country, and he gave me a chance to become the first member of my family to go to college. And this is a day, a month, Father's Day of 2004 to say thank you, Big Russ. Thank you for all you've done.
KING: Were you affected by Brokaw's book on the great generations?
RUSSERT: Very much, and in fact, the irony of this is when Tom was over in Normandy with the anniversary, he was on "Meet the Press," we were cross-talking, like we are tonight, and Tom said, "You know, Tim, it's people like your dad and others, they really are the greatest generation." It was the first time he used that term.
And so I began to look into my dad's own military career. I didn't know much about it. In fact, when I was in high school, Larry, he gave me a yellowed-up newspaper clip about the plane crash, and then took it back. He never wanted to spend much time on it.
I was able to find the brother of one of the pilots, who really basically re-enacted the entire thing for me. And everything flew -- everything evolved from that.
I realized just what a seminal moment that was in my dad's life. And we had a great Thanksgiving a few years ago. The Pentagon has a wonderful program where if you left school to go fight in World War II, you are allowed to have your high school degree retroactively. And 60 years, 60 years later, we presented Big Russ his high school diploma from South Park High School in South Buffalo, New York.
KING: World War II veterans, of all those, tend to be the most humble and the least likely to talk about their experiences. What did Big Russ think of you writing a book about him?
RUSSERT: He wasn't sure. He was very tentative. I didn't show it to him until it was completely finished. His first reaction was, "I cannot believe there is a book with my picture on it." And for that, he was enormously proud, I know that.
It's interesting, I think, for him to see things from my perspective. You know, Larry, when you're growing up, and your father is trying to teach you things, many times you roll your eyes and kind of close it off saying, you know, what does he know? He's just a father.
Well, the older I get, the smarter my father gets. And particularly since I have my own son, I really now understand completely that those lessons of life, about working hard, that the world doesn't owe you a favor, that you should be mindful and respectful of other people -- when my dad retired from his first job, he went to fill out his pension forms and they said, Mr. Russert, you have 200 sick days. I said, dad, 200 sick days, why didn't you take them? He said, because I wasn't sick. What kind of luck you have when you take a sick day when you're not sick? And if I called in sick for the one job, then I'd have to stay home for the second job. And I'm lucky I have two jobs, not just one. His glass is two-thirds full, Larry. His glass -- the most optimistic man I met to this very day.
KING: My father died when I was 9 1/2. What did I miss?
RUSSERT: So, so much. You had him for those nine precious years, but I'll tell you, going through teenage years without a dad had to be very, very hard, because you needed someone, at least in my life, to teach me how to drive, to try to tell me that there was a way of behaving, a way of conducting yourself as a gentleman.
There is a way, Larry, in which my mom and dad reinforced teachers. In seventh grade, it was Sister Mary Lucille at St. Bonaventure School who called me up in the empty room and said, Timothy, we need a vehicle to channel your excessive energy, and she started a school newspaper and made me the editor. And said, "This is a chance to do something positive." And my parents reinforced that. Or when Father Stern, the prefect of discipline at Canisius High School, put me against the locker and I said, "father, please, don't you believe in mercy?" He said, "Russert, mercy is for God. I deliver justice."
I had to go home and explain that to Big Russ. And you talk about a neighborhood watch system, I couldn't move. I had parents, teachers, relatives, all on the same page, saying, "You got to work hard. You got to be disciplined. You got to be accountable. And if you do all that, you're going to be all right."
KING: But you had confession.
RUSSERT: Larry, someday explain to me the difference between Jewish guilt and Catholic shame. There is none.
How do you measure yourself as a father?
RUSSERT: It's a hard challenge. When I wrote "Big Russ," I reread it and realized I had written it as much for my son as for myself. I wanted to take those same values and same lessons of preparation and discipline and accountability and instill them into my son. I lived in South Buffalo. He lives in Washington. Opportunity and access.
And I'm much more emotional with my son because I remember how much I missed that when my dad was off working. So I'm grabbing him all the time and roughing him up a little bit and telling him how much I love him. But I say to him -- his mom says it all the time as well. You're always, always loved but you're never, never entitled. There's no sense of entitlement. You're not just going to walk through this earth thinking it all revolves around you. You have an obligation to understand that it's something bigger than yourself. To whom much is given, much is expected.
When he went off to college, I wrote him a little note and I said three things. Work hard or study hard. Laugh often. And keep your honor. That's the only advice I'm going to give you. And it's something I try to live in my own life. Don't always succeed but it's my best shot.
He read the book. Came out in May of '04. Christmas Eve of 2004, we went to midnight mass together. We came home and my wife, Maureen, runs in the room and said you won't believe what I just saw. Luke has a tattoo. I said, a tattoo, are you kidding me? We talked about this. I told him about the health consequences, that he should wait until he can make an informed decision, that we should talk more about it.
Luke, get in here. No. I said, Luke get in here. He walks in, his hands locked on the side. I said lift up your arm. No. I said lift up your arm. He lifted up the arm and in very small block letters stenciled TJR. My dad's name is Timothy Joseph Russert, mine is Timothy John Russert. He said after I read your book I wanted you and grandpa by my side. fell in the chair. I started sobbing. We're laughing, crying. I said, that's the most beautiful tattoo I've ever seen.
But it meant so much to me that he really now understood where my dad came from, sanitation man, truck driver and where I'm trying to come from, that I stand on my dad's shoulders and Luke stands on mine. It's a bond by blood and now it's a bond by book. And there's nothing -- writing these books has changed my life. It's a journey that I never expected but it's changed my life.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSSERT: These are really my roots, south Buffalo, New York, once a booming steeltown, where live centered around hard work, hard times, football and family, where my grandfather arrived with no formal education. He survived the depression and supported his family as a water department boilerman.
TIMOTHY "BIG RUSS" RUSSERT: He was willing to take anything. He worked hard, proud.
RUSSERT: Grandpa wanted more from my dad. My father made it to the 10th grade, volunteered for World War II, then worked two jobs for 37 years to support and educate me and my three sisters.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: The book is "Big Russ and Me, " the guest is Tim Russert.
Why aren't you junior?
RUSSERT: He's Timothy Joseph. I'm Timothy John. He used to be Big Tim and I used to be Little Tim. Then I became 6'2," so we called him Big Russ and I became just plain old Tim. And now my son, my 18- year-old son, calls me Big Guy. So we have Big Russ and Big Guy.
KING: Is your son a Yankee fan or an Oriole fan?
RUSSERT: We had season tickets for the Os. During the dark years, he became very disillusioned. He had been pulling for the Yankees, but he's going to be heading up to Boston, so I think he's conflicted about his baseball choices.
KING: And you rout for -- don't you like the Os, too? They are back now.
RUSSERT: I grew up a Yankee fan, living up in Buffalo. And I loved Yogi Berra, he's my favorite, number 8. And then obviously with Camden Yards and with Cal Ripken -- Cal Ripken, Larry, I write in my book, kind of in so many ways, tried to represent the same values as my dad. I'll never forget the night that Ripken broke Lou Gherig's record, and I explained to my son this was not a record of high fives or home runs or dazzling speed. It was about getting up every day and going to work and putting in an honest day's work. And it really is so reminiscent of my own dad.
KING: As George Will wrote, "Men at Work."
RUSSERT: Nothing like him.
KING: You have an early political experience, you get to touch JFK, worked for Patrick Moynihan, you work for Mario Cuomo. You grow up in a strong Democratic city like Buffalo. How do you maintain your objectivity?
RUSSERT: It's been 20 years since I was involved in politics. What I do is what Lawrence Spivak said, the mission of "Meet The Press" was 20-years-ago -- 57-years-ago when he founded the program. He said, "Learn as much as you can about your guest and his and her position on the issue and take the other side." And that's exactly what I do. I do it with Democrats, Republicans, independents.
Bernard Goldberg did a long take out in a book about the media and devoted an entire chapter towards my approach to objectivity, and I think people, I know people across the country who watch "Meet The Press," it's not a program where I offer my opinions or my views. It's the guest who is important.
KING: But is it hard?
RUSSERT: You know, at this point, I have spent so much time learning both sides of every issue, that I probably confuse myself. I don't know what -- because these are complicated, difficult issues, and I understand the viewpoints of Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and I'm able to articulate questions I think which bring out the best of those representatives.
KING: Did you ever listen to or watch "Meet The Press" as a kid?
RUSSERT: You know, I remember sitting on my mom and dad's lap in south Buffalo, Woodside Avenue, watching this flickering black and white TV set. And I remember John Kennedy and Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro, but I can assure you, I was much more interested in Davey Crockett and Howdy Doody and all of the other things as a young boy. I never dreamed that one day dad, I'm going to be moderator of "Meet The Press." Never entered my mind.
LARRY: It was a radio show first, was it not?
RUSSERT: It was for two years, Lawrence Spivak, and Martha Rountree, absolutely. And now interesting enough, many a radio stations are going to begin reairing it on radio again. So back to the future.
KING: What do you make before we go to break and take calls, of the whole Sunday morning competition thing? RUSSERT: I think it's great. It's one of the few areas left on network television where can you have a full hour dedicated to a serious discussion. It's very, very competitive. I watch all my colleagues who are on the other networks. I learn from them. And I think we all perform in a invaluable public service, where people who have real jobs all week long can turn in on a Sunday morning, see the nation's leaders, and be asked what do they have in mind for us?
Where are they going to take this country? I love it.
KING: How old is Big Russ now is
RUSSERT: Eighty-years-old and going strong.
KING: Good health?
RUSSERT: Yes, you know, he fought prostate cancer like everyone does around that age. But he's a tough guy. Working those jobs all those years made him strong as a bull. And he still enjoys going over the South Buffalo American Legion Post 721, which was the center of our social life, and we're going to have a big book party there, 5:00, Wednesday night, Larry, free beer.
KING: And a very proud father, indeed. We'll be right back with Tim Russert and go to your phone calls. The moderator of "Meet The Press author of "Big Russ and Me: Father and Son, Lessons of Life." Miramax is the publisher.
Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TIMOTHY "BIG RUSS" RUSSERT: I'm very honored to have him as a son. Nothing I wouldn't do for him. He knows that. And I don't think there's anything he wouldn't do for me, you know?
QUESTION: Forty years ago you were chasing down JFK's limo for a handshake.
RUSSERT: And yet how much we are still so much the same.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Does your father comment, Tim, on your work?
RUSSERT: All the time, Larry. Every Monday he does a complete analysis of "Meet the Press," and then concludes the conversation by saying, I still can't believe they pay you all this money to B.S.
KING: The question I'm asked the most, I guess, we'll ask of you. Who would you most like to interview?
RUSSERT: I was asked that question, and, as I was writing this book, it was my dad, because I wanted to draw him out about his views on a whole lot of things. You know, his favorite expression in life, Larry, is, What a country, and I can almost see his heart beating when he says it and it's from the fall of Adolph Hitler to having a very good chargrilled hotdog. He just has this innate optimism that he brings to life, and it's infectious.
KING: By the way...
RUSSERT: And so he is the most accurate and cheapest focus group you could ever dream of. If he calls someone a phony, it's over. You don't get his vote and you never recover.
KING: What about mom?
RUSSERT: Mom is doing well, 75, up in Buffalo, central part of my life. You know, when my dad was working these two jobs, it was mom who was home, putting us at the kitchen table, making us do our homework, all the while cooking. So if we wanted to trade our pen for a fork, which was a big deal in our household, we had to finish our homework.
KING: How long they married?
RUSSERT: Long time. I better mention my sisters, B.A., Betty Anne, Kathy and Patricia, who used to be Patty but now she's Trish, it's like Prince, you know, formerly known as. She's now Trish.
KING: Bakersfield, California for Tim Russert. Hello.
CALLER: Hi, Tim, I want to commend you on your book. I think it's marvelous.
RUSSERT: Thank you.
CALLER: My uncle was shot down over Germany, and was a prisoner of war for about a year and nobody knew anything. When he came back, one of his eyes had been shot out and he has a hole in his back the size of your fist from flak.
KING: What's the question?
CALLER: He won't talk to anybody. I was wondering if your dad ever opens up to anything like that, his buddies or something?
KING: It's very common, they won't talk about war experiences, World War II veterans, very often will not talk about it.
RUSSERT: Right. They're proud what have they did but it's behind them. Mission accomplished, on to the next one.
Larry, you know, it still burns inside what they went through, when my dad turned 75, I said, Dad, I always dreamt about buying you a new car, and I sent him catalogues for Lexus and Mercedes and other cars and I flew home to take him to buy his new car and we got in his old one, we drove around a couple blocks and pulled into a big sign that said Jack Atkins Ford. And he walked in and said, Charlie, show him the car I want. It was a black Crown Victoria. I said, Dad, this is a cop car. He said, Charlie, open the trunk. You could put two cases of beer, or two suitcases and it's got a real spare, not one of those doughnuts.
So we drove it off the lot and we're driving home and I said, Dad, why didn't you want a Lexus or a Mercedes? He said, because we beat those guys in the war. I want an American car. I said, what about a Cadillac? What about a Cadillac? He said, if I drove home with a Cadillac, the neighbors would say, oh, the kid made it big and so now Big Russ is trying to be a show-off.
Even in accepting my gift, he was teaching me a lesson. That's how grounded he is.
KING: What's going on in the business, Tim?
RUSSERT: Well, it's an interesting time, it really is. You know, when I grew up and when Big Russ had that little flickering black and white TV set, 174 Woodside Avenue in South Buffalo, where we used to watch Jackie Gleason together and "Meet the Press" together, the June Taylor Dancers. There was NBC, CBS and ABC was just starting out. At 6:30 you wanted to watch Uncle Walter or Huntley and Brinkley.
Now my son comes home and jacks up the cable or jacks up the satellite dish. He's got 300 stations to choose from. The information spectrum has exploded. And if he doesn't like anything on those 300 channels, he goes on his Internet. And he's got the whole world at his fingertips.
Larry, when Bill Clinton became president of the United States, 1992, there were 50 pages on the World Wide Web. There are now 5 billion and growing.
Take magazines. There was "Time," "Newsweek," "U.S. News & World Report." Walk through an airport now, there's a niche magazine on everything.
So, it's all having an effect. I think the network audience is by any standards is getting smaller and yet it is still one of the largest places to reach out to 5 million or 10 million people.
KING: Can you forecast tomorrow, though, with blogging and technology? Can you actually tell me what it's going to be like?
RUSSERT: No. But the one thing I do know is that we'll be here. You know, the notion that network news was dead and was written 20 years ago. I have a few that I think has born out to be true. That is when cable, the three news channels came on, led by CNN some 25 years ago now, I think, they complement what I do.
If people watch you interview Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice on a Wednesday or a Thursday, they'll say, that's interesting. I want to know more about that person. And a few weeks later they'll say, I want to watch them on "Meet the Press" or vice versa. I think it's is important that people now have an opportunity to know more about their country and more about their leaders, more about the world than ever before.
KING: And `no comment' doesn't work anymore.
RUSSERT: I don't think so. You can try to stonewall, but it doesn't work, because we are everywhere. Probably sometimes, we're places we shouldn't be.
And sometimes it's a cumulative effect. You know, when you look up in the newsroom and you see all the news -- cable news channels and all the networks covering the same story, the same footage, it is overwhelming. It's a tidal wave. We have to always remember that the person back home in their living room and kitchen is just watching one channel. And so we have to tell the story in a meaningful and understandable way and in a respectful way.
KING: Let's discuss anonymous sources. Supposing someone that you highly respect, know a long time, is a general. He tells you, "I saw military men stuff the Koran down the toilet." Do you run with that?
RUSSERT: You need to check that one. As we found out with "Newsweek." A story that is so sensitive that you know could have worldwide repercussions must be checked out, must be vetted.
I'd would take that story, I would obviously go to the Pentagon. I'd go to the White House, because it's that serious of an issue.
Larry, we've had a lot of stories at NBC that we were prepared to go on the air with, and we were warned that it would affect national security. And so you're cautious about that because you don't want to jeopardize the lives of men and women on the ground.
Sometimes you find out a week or two later that you were misled, that you were being waved off the story for political reasons, not for security reasons. Then you do the story.
Other times you never report it. And it's the hardest thing in the world to spend a lot of time to invest your energy to come up with the story, then the last thread doesn't check out or you realize that you really could be jeopardizing American men and women on the ground and you hold the story.
KING: And what's the deciding point?
RUSSERT: It's a hard one. It truly is. You have to sit around in a newsroom and in the executive offices, debate it, discuss it and say to yourself, look yourself in the mirror and say: If this story was reported -- for example, there was a big debate years ago that if you were a reporter out in the field and you became aware that there was an ambush scheduled, planned against American troops, would you hold that story and wait for it to happen in order to report it or would you advise the American military?
I don't have any problem with that. I'd advise the American military in a second, in a nanosecond. We're journalists, but we're American citizens first.
On the other hand, when you come across a story where someone in the Pentagon is providing information that you do check out, you realize that it confirms, ironclad way, that a senior official had been misleading the country, I think you have an obligation to report it and all the consequences that flow from that as long as you're not putting people's lives at risk at that particular moment.
And I can cite example after example where that has been done and people will say: Please don't do that, but you realize they're trying to protect themselves politically and not the security of the nation.
KING: If it was just like a six-sentence item in "Periscope" like a throw-away page...
RUSSERT: Yes. That's the problem. You always have to be -- you know, more and more in magazines they'll have the "Periscope" items the up/down arrows or the style section gossip page. You need the same standards. You've got to get information and check it and check it and check it. John Chancellor, a great newsman for NBS News, my first day on the job at NBC 20 years ago, he said: You say your mother loves you; check it out.
KING: Scottsdale, Arizona, for Tim Russert. Hello.
CALLER: Hello. Thank you for taking my call.
CALLER: Does Mr. Russert think that the fact that the news is now managed by this administration has caused people to stop watching the news?
KING: You believe it's managed -- you think it's managed, Tim? Every administration tries to manage it, don't they?
RUSSERT: Oh, do they ever. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and George Bush -- every president tries to get their story out, most favorable to them, and sometimes they'll find forums or vehicles that are friendly to them, in terms of rallies, inviting only Republicans or only Democrats. But you work through that and you work around it. Your job is different. Your job is to try to find the best you can, the truth and report it, about Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives and let the chips fall.
KING: Do you have to be cynical?
RUSSERT: No, but you have to be skeptical. And I respect politicians. I do. I think they give up an awful lot to enter that particular profession. It is an honorable profession, but in the same light, these are people who are extremely ambitious, and they're extremely self-centered, and they want to be re-elected. And we are surrogates for the American people.
Very few places in the world have the kind of protections, particularly the Constitutional protections we have in this country as a free press, and we have an obligation for all those men and women who work hard all week long in real jobs, that when they turn on CNN or turn on NBC or pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio they realize that someone else is working as hard as they are, trying to get to the truth. And it is not an easy job, but you know what, Larry, it's the best one you could ever have. It's a vocation, being a journalist.
KING: Yes, you're not kidding.
Wichita Falls, Texas. Hello.
CALLER: I've been following your conversation very carefully and I see how you are defending the media and its efforts be accurate, and report with clarity and truth. But how do you think the so-called nuclear option, if it may occur, how is that going to affect the truth that we find, that we seek, in the media today?
RUSSERT: Well, we'll report what happens in the Senate. If, in fact the filibuster is done away with for judicial nominations, it won't mean there won't be a debate about those nominations, but it will mean that they will, in fact, be approved by a simple majority.
However, I do think that this will have an effect upon the legislative calendar and other political nominations by the president. We can't stop reporting.
You know, people often ask me, why don't we have political conventions that are meaningful anymore? And I will say because the parties decided to have primaries. That's not the media's decision. We cover what the parties decide. We cover what the president decides. We cover what Congress decides. It's not the media that in any way establishes the political direction or the legislative flow in this country. It's the politicians.
KING: Why are we such an easy target?
RUSSERT: Well, shoot the messenger. Both sides will go out of their way to say, well, you know, that's the media. But Larry, we can't let ourselves be in a situation where we're trying to win a popularity contest.
Every Sunday morning, I will interview somebody, and if it's a Republican or a Democrat, I'll get a thousand e-mails and there will be hundreds saying, you left-wing lapdog and a 100 saying you right- wing madman, and it will be the same question to the same guest. People look at things through their own ideological prism. We now are so divided politically that people want to confirm their own beliefs, and when they watch an interview, where you're asking tough questions of a Democrat or Republican, it bothers them.
But when they take a deep breath and they step back, they'll say, you know what? That's what we really need in this country. You can't make tough decisions unless you answer tough questions. I've been all over the world. I've to be a lot of countries where you pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV and it is nothing but happy news. You know what? You don't want to live there.
KING: We'll be back with more of Tim Russert. "Big Russ and Me" is in paperback. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM BROKAW: We've got -- Tim gets his board out, 565 votes, the Secretary of State is the one who is saying this, and that's probably why we're not seeing the governor appearing in Austin, yet. And they know it in Austin.
RUSSERT: Well, but the vice president made his concession call, and the usual practice is to let him go first.
BROKAW: Right. And there's no Constitutional requirement that, if you've made the concession call, that you lose, as we learn tonight.
RUSSERT: There can be a second call, is that what you're saying?
BROKAW: It doesn't have any application when a network projects something.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Wyoming, Michigan. Hello?
CALLER: I'd like to say what an honor and pleasure it is to speak to two of the greatest men on TV.
KING: Thank you.
CALLER: And even with all the technology nowadays, Tim Russert is the greatest thing on Election Night. Election Night isn't worth watching anymore without Tim Russert.
And I would just like to know, with all the technology, please tell us you're never going to get rid of your dry erase board.
RUSSERT: You know, that's an interesting story.
KING: How'd that come about?
RUSSERT: Thanks, Larry.
And thank you, ma'am.
Election Night 2000, we suddenly realized that it was going to be such a close race, the Electoral College was going to come into play. And I realized that most Americans hadn't heard about that since civics lessons back in 7th or 8th grade. So I took out the back of a legal pad and started writing things down.
My dad has, on his dresser, a pad. Any time there's anything serious, he takes a piece of that paper, sits at the kitchen table, writes out his utility bills, his taxes, his tuition, whatever it is. He always says: Make it understandable. Make it meaningful. Keep it simple. I could hear his voice. And then they realized when the legal pad got filled up, they threw me a grease board. Someone ran across the street to Staples or some place.
I started working a small grease board. I filled that up, and they threw me a bigger one. I realized it was down to eight state, then two states, then I wrote down: Florida, Florida, Florida.
Larry, you'll love this.
After it was all over, we were out all night long -- 6:00, 7:00 in the morning. Finally the next night I got home. I walked in and my son said to me: Dad, you know, those boards are really amazing. I would like to have that. And I said: Well, the Newseum has called for one -- the museum dedicated to journalists. And I said, I do have another one and I'm really honored, Luke, that you would want this memory of your dad's journalistic career. He said, You know what that thing's worth on E-bay?
KING: One more call. Barberton, Ohio.
CALLER: Hi, Larry.
I'd like to thank you and Tim for taking my call.
CALLER: My question is: why is there so much anger, disdain and discord among the Democrats and the Republicans? I seem to think it is more in the House. Politics is, of course, compromise. Why can't people get along? We're paying them. And they should work for us.
KING: Henry Clay could not exist today.
RUSSERT: It's a lesson that we were taught all through life about finding common-ground consensus. But here's what's happened. There are 435 members in the house of representatives. All but about 40 of those seats are so-called safe seats, that they're either a Democratic seat or a Republican seat. You have no threat about losing a general election if you have one of those seats. The only political concern you have is a primary from your right, if you're a Republican, or from your left if you're a Democrat. So you're always worrying about being ideologically pure to avoid a party primary.
There is no reward for reaching across the aisle and finding common ground and consensus because then you will polarize or antagonize your party base. It's a real problem. It's a real dilemma and one we have to work through, otherwise we'll never get anything done.
This country is one that built the greatest education system in the world. We had vaccinations that have been invented and distributed. We put a man on the moon. We won a war. We won the Cold War. We know how to do things when we come together.
After September 11th, Democrats and Republicans on the steps of the Capitol spontaneously singing "God Bless America." We united. There's no reason we can't do that on the big issues confronting our country now. We just have to be willing to make that step.
KING: We're going miss you, Tim.
And to Maureen and Luke, our sincerest condolences.
It's Sunday. It's not "Meet the Press."