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12.06.10

The Education of Luke Russert

Charges of nepotism flew after the NBC reporter stepped on stage following the death of his famous father. Howard Kurtz talks to Russert about stage fright, weight loss and his critics.

For Luke Russert, adolescence was more than a tutorial in Beltway politics, a time of casually meeting powerful figures from Bill Clinton and Bob Dole to Ross Perot and Jesse Jackson.

It was a chance to help educate Tim Russert.

"My father really saw me as a focus group in a way, as someone who was removed from the Washington spin game," says the 25-year-old reporter, the sleeves of his blue shirt rolled up as he sips from a bottle of water. "He would often ask me what I thought about certain politicians and certain issues."

The rookie correspondent for MSNBC got a dual immersion in what he calls the "family profession," since his mother, Maureen Orth, is a Vanity Fair correspondent. But he says he felt no pressure to make the leap after his father died of a heart attack 2-1/2 years ago.

"I never viewed it as I had to pick up the torch and move forward," Russert says in the press gallery in the Capitol, the ornate building where he spends most of his waking hours. His dad "often told me I could do whatever I wanted to do as long as I worked hard and did it with honor."

He is relaxed, earnest and witty during the rare interview, granted only after months of requests (the NBC publicity team is very protective of him and discouraged me from following him while he works). On camera, though his delivery is greatly improved from his sometimes halting debut, Russert sometimes seems like a class cutup standing up extra straight and trying not to let a curse word slip. That has the effect of restraining his personality, in contrast to his father's passionate performances.

"It's a growth process," admits Russert, who served as MSNBC's lead reporter yesterday on the tax-cut negotiations. He started as the cable channel's House reporter in the spring of 2009.

"I do get nervous, just like anybody does, because the subject matter up here is very serious. It's not like during a cooking segment where I say I use three eggs in my omelet instead of four. You're always nervous you're going to say something that isn't entirely accurate."

He knows what some colleagues and detractors say—that he wouldn't be in this job if not for his last name. "I just try to really block that out," Russert says. "The news media is a results-oriented business. I don't think a company like NBC would pay me if I wasn't qualified and wasn't able to produce on this level…

"There will always be people who will say, 'Oh, he's only gotten where he is because of his father,' and that certainly helped. But I've been able to stay here because of me."

He came of age in a different town and a different era. While Tim Russert grew up in Buffalo, the son of a trash man, and once spent a summer riding along on the garbage trucks, Luke is a product of Washington's elite St. Albans School who listened to his parents debate politics over dinner and tagged along at campaign events.

When Clinton was on Meet the Press and Tim's relatives were busy posing for pictures, Orth recalls, "Luke was standing at his dad's desk, just fingering the microphone." She did not see him as destined for the news business, though, recalling him playing on the high school football team and engaging in the usual teenage hijinks. "His interest was just as much in sports," Orth says.

Luke learned early on that journalism was more than just showing up in the studio. His mother would come back from overseas trips with a duffel bag stuffed with research, which he would dutifully carry upstairs. His father would come home with stacks of photocopied newspaper articles. "I remember him sitting on the bed at night, we'd be watching sports while he did his research," Russert says.

His dad also took him to baseball, football, basketball and hockey games, where the teenager would get into intense arguments with his father's pal James Carville, which others found entertaining. At 20 he was co-hosting a sports show with the caustic Cajun on XM satellite radio.

"He was not shy at all," says Carville, who says they might revive the program that ended earlier this year. "He wasn't stumbling over words. If anything, at the beginning he was overenthusiastic. He would pop off and say extreme things. I'd say, 'You sure you want to go there?'"

Even an act of rebellion turned out all right. At 18 Luke got a tattoo on his torso, and his "heart was pounding" when his parents spotted it while he was trying on a sweater on Christmas Day. But Tim teared up and hugged him when he saw the tattoo was of his father's and grandfather's initials.

"I never viewed it as I had to pick up the torch and move forward," Russert says.

Life was good until Friday, June 13, 2008, when Tim Russert collapsed while recording the introduction for Meet the Press. On Monday, Luke was on the Today show for a 15-minute interview. "My dad would rather drink beer with my college friends than have a steak dinner," he told Matt Lauer.

There were other television interviews as well, and the chatter in Washington was about whether Luke was being a bit too public.

"It certainly is difficult, because you're still in a state of shock to some degree," Russert says. "I felt it would be beneficial…I had some responsibility to tell folks who he really was. To me he was just dad."

The move, however, paid dividends. "NBC noticed my presence…They saw me as being comfortable in front of the camera," Russert says. The following month, freshly graduated from Boston College, the network tapped him as an "at-large correspondent" for the rest of the campaign year.

To be sure, the media business is populated with the offspring of prominent journalists, but they're generally not hired right after a funeral with no experience elsewhere.

Russert got thousands of letters and the offer to write a quickie book about his dad, but there was a downside to this sudden fame. He seemed like a playboy when The Washington Post would run gossip items on "Luke Russert rockin' out at the Pearl Jam show"— or a dim bulb apologizing for "a foot-in-mouth comment" (Russert said at the University of Virginia that the school had a lot of "smart kids" and therefore leaned toward Barack Obama). Some blogs were merciless, with a Gawker writer sniping, "No offense, but what did this kid ever do besides be born to a certain father and then have that certain father die?"

"The amount of scrutiny he was under, a few months after his father's death, was very unnerving," Orth recalls. "There was a tremendous amount of pressure on this kid." But, she says, "he learned to live with it."

Capitol Hill provided a refuge. To listen to Russert talk about his job is to be reminded that his father, before getting into television, was a political operative for Mario Cuomo and Pat Moynihan. Unlike most journalists, he describes covering Congress as "a real honor."

"I have a real respect for them. While a lot of folks view them as the epitome of everything that's wrong with America now, it takes a lot to put yourself out there in the public sphere, and your family."

And then there is the human touch in this age of blogging and social networking: "I have to follow people and track them down and have real conversations with them. If you work hard enough, you can literally track down anybody."

In July, he and a handful of reporters tracked down Charlie Rangel, who was under fire for ethics violations. Russert asked the Harlem congressman whether he was concerned about losing his job. "Well, you're young, I guess you do need to make a name for yourself," Rangel snapped. "Basically you know it's a dumb question." Russert stood his ground, the exchange went viral, and Rush Limbaugh offered praise, saying: "Luke Russert does not cower. Luke Russert does not act as though he's a member of the ruling class."

For once, the focus was on Russert's work, not his pedigree. "He's really gotten his act together in the last year or so," Carville says. "I think for awhile he thought he had to go to every party in Washington."

The shaggy-haired look is gone now, and so is the beefy frame. Russert says he's lost 25 pounds by starting his day with V-8 juice, limiting his meal portions and running regularly in Rock Creek Park. The image of his overweight father is emblazoned in his mind.

"A lot of that spurred from what happened with my dad," Russert says. But, he confesses, "you still have to have the occasional plate of Buffalo wings and French fries."

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.