Tim Russert is awfully cheerful for a guy who spends every Sunday morning being lied to by the most powerful people in America.
But then, why shouldn't he be? ``Meet the Press,'' the once-somnolent interview show he began hosting six years ago, is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a youthful spring in its step, thanks largely to the deceptively cherubic Russert.
In an interview during a recent visit to Boston, Russert proudly describes ``Meet the Press'' as an ``oasis,'' one of the rare venues on television where a solid hour is still devoted to ``public affairs, those big words.'' That, Russert suggests, is why the show has surged from a distant third in the ratings to a neck-and-neck race each Sunday with ABC's ``This Week,'' and even finished atop the ratings last season for the first time in 16 years.
But a hitherto suppressed national hunger for public affairs is a less plausible explanation for that success than is the 47-year-old Russert himself, a Buffalo-bred former political aide turned newsman who is the hottest thing on Sunday morning TV. By reenergizing ``Meet the Press,'' the institution that John F. Kennedy once described as the ``51st state,'' Russert has emerged as a major inside-the-Beltway player while not losing his regular-guy appeal to the millions of Americans who despise nothing more than inside-the-Beltway players.
``He's better able than anybody I know to live in two worlds,'' says NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. ``He has a house in a tony neighborhood in Washington, and his heart's in Buffalo.''
So is Russert's father, 74-year-old ``Big Russ,'' a former sanitation worker whose opinion of the show the son solicits every Monday. ``Never got out of high school, but he has a great gut,'' his son says admiringly. ``He will always have the question that the guys at the legion hall are talking about.'' So if Russert's own questions to policymakers often seem unusually rooted in the real world for a Washington-based show, Big Russ is the reason.
``Someone will come on and talk about Medicare, saying it's going to grow 10 percent a year, and then I say, `Let me talk about someone who's 74 years old and pays $38 a month in Medicare premiums' -- without saying this is my father -- `how would he be affected?' '' says Russert. ``And that's what really throws politicians, because they never get down to the micro.''
Beyond the Monday news stories that often result from that sort of skillful Sunday grilling of politicians, Cabinet officials, and other heavy-hitting newsmakers, it certainly hasn't hurt that Russert has become a witty regular on ``Imus in the Morning,'' where he manages to make public affairs, those big words, seem kind of . . . fun.
``I would think that a lot of people who've heard me on Imus perhaps have said, `Hey, that's interesting, let me give this guy's show a look,'' says Russert. But he admits he has another, less lofty motive for appearing on the show. ``I love to insult him. I'm always very civil on `Meet the Press,' and polite. Imus is someone I can insult, and people cheer me.''
The upshot is that after spending the 1980s a distant third -- behind ABC's ``This Week with David Brinkley'' and CBS's ``Face the Nation'' -- ``Meet the Press'' has rebounded in a big way under Russert.
``For a time, `Meet the Press' kind of went down into a trough, and ABC was able to steal the playing time,'' says Brokaw. ``But Tim brought it back very smartly.''
Smartly, aggressively, humorously: Russert has a lot of moves, and he has used them all to make his show, and himself, an important force in Washington and beyond.
``In television, it's important to understand someone's personality and know how they've answered questions before, so what I try to do is take their answer and use it in my question: `Senator, I know you've said that, but let me ask you this,' '' says Russert. ``And then they don't give you the boilerplate because you've already said it, and they look kind of dumb repeating it.''
As soon as he was named moderator of ``Meet the Press'' in 1991, Russert called Lawrence E. Spivak, the show's founder, and asked the 91-year-old Spivak to describe the show's ``mission.'' ``It's simple,'' Spivak replied. ``Learn as much as you can about your guests' positions on the issues, and then take the other side. If you do that faithfully every Sunday, you'll always have balance.''
But the pols have often been knocked off balance during the ``Tim Russert era,'' as longtime ``Meet the Press'' panelist David Broder calls it. Still bearing traces of the political operative he once was, Russert is able to shake some truth out of elected officials who incline toward spin and obfuscation, while somehow making them like him enough that they'll come back again.
Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee who has been a guest on ``Meet the Press'' more often than anyone else, says Russert presides over a ``lively, moving, provocative'' show that is highly influential with ``opinion makers'' in Washington. ``He's tough on Democrats even though he worked for Democrats,'' Dole says during an interview with the Globe. ``You try to get your points across, but Tim won't let you stray away; he'll bring you right back to his question, because it's his show!''
``He puts the questions in a way that for the most part is provocative without being argumentative,'' adds Broder. ``He doesn't try to debate these guys, but he does try to put the questions in a way that cuts off the easy avenue of escape.''
Vice President Al Gore will probably be back, even though during his recent appearance Russert crisply informed Gore that his long-winded answer to one question ``sounds like a commercial paid for by the Democratic National Committee, but let me ask my question again and see if I can get you to answer the question.'' (President Clinton, who has agreed to an interview in the Oval Office on Nov. 9, should expect equally tough treatment.)
US Representative Bill Paxton, a Buffalo Republican, will probably be back, even though he had barely settled into his seat in his last appearance when Russert barked at him: ``Was there a coup to overthrow Newt Gingrich, and what was your role in it?'' When Paxton blandly averred that he had played no role at all in the failed bid to topple Gingrich, that he had in fact been the most loyal of lieutenants, Russert snapped, ``Let's set the record straight.'' He then introduced a newspaper report quoting GOP dissidents as saying Paxton had encouraged their rebellion.
But toward the end of the program, Russert showed the convivial side that keeps the pols coming back for more. When he pressed Paxton on whether he planned to run for president, the congressman joked that he was instead eyeing a TV career. ``Is there room for a kid from Buffalo on NBC on Sunday mornings?'' asked the wiry Paxton. Replied the Buffalo-native Russert, with a big grin: ``If the fat one can make it, so can the skinny one.''
In person, Russert is not fat -- husky, maybe -- but he has definitely made it. In addition to ``Meet the Press,'' he has his own talk show on CNBC, plus his regular duties as chief of NBC's Washington bureau. Russert, who is married to Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, rises at 6 a.m. each day, races through the six newspapers delivered to his house, rides his exercise bicycle, drops off his 12-year-old son, Luke, at school, and is at work by 8:30.
Within that pell-mell schedule, he now must try to find time for appearances to promote a new book, ``Meet the Press: 50 Years of History in the Making,'' for which Russert has written the foreword.
It's a long way from the wards of South Buffalo, where he cut his teeth as a young political operative before moving on to become an aide to US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Joseph F. Crangle, former chairman of the Erie County Democratic committee, got Russert his first job in politics, organizing field operations for Moynihan's Senate run.
``He always had a sense of what the average person was thinking,'' recalls Crangle. ``He was a product of the Good Mercy nuns, but also of the trench warfare you have in urban, Democratic politics. He got in from the rough and tumble of South Buffalo politics, where they're the first to pull you up so they can pull you down.''
That experience and his subsequent stints with Moynihan and Cuomo gave Russert a tough partisan edge. The tough edge remains, but the partisan leanings have either disappeared or been submerged, to judge from the kudos he gets for evenhandedness from the Republican likes of Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and talk show host Rush Limbaugh. ``I'm equal opportunity in terms of being persistent and trying to elicit answers from people,'' says Russert.
Still, Russert faced considerable skepticism within journalistic circles when he left politics and became a vice president at NBC News in 1984, and even more when he began working as an on-air reporter in 1989. He has ruffled some feathers in his climb to the top; some have called him an ``air hog.'' One joke around NBC is that pretty soon ``Meet the Press'' won't have any guests at all, just Russert, alone at center stage.
But the consensus among those who work with Russert is that he has earned his stripes as a reporter while utilizing his newfound clout to his network's advantage.
``I've worked in Washington for 13 years, for two newspapers and now for NBC, and I just don't know any better reporters than Tim Russert,'' says NBC Washington reporter Gwen Ifill, who formerly worked for The New York Times. ``He spends a lot of time working his sources on the phone. He often has ideas I hadn't thought of, or access to people who call him because of `Meet the Press.' '' In addition, Ifill adds with a laugh, many politicians are ``afraid of him.''
As a questioner, Russert prides himself on not crossing that fuzzy line between tough and prosecutorial. But he admits that he crossed it in 1991 when David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party leader who was a candidate for governor in Louisiana, appeared on the show. Russert challenged Duke to name the three biggest employers in Louisiana, and when Duke was unable to do so, Russert began jabbing his finger at him and shouting: ``You don't know the biggest employers in your state!''
The next day, Russert was feeling down about it, so naturally he called Big Russ, the opinion leader he values most among the hundreds he has talked to. ``I said, `Dad, you know, I think I went too far. I've got to be objective and fair in this stuff. I think I made a mistake. And he said: `Don't worry about it. If you're going to make a mistake, make a mistake with a Nazi.' ''