Book Review

In 'Big Russ,' newsman shares his father's wisdom

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael D. Langan
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2004

Big Russ & Me: Father and Son — Lessons of Life, By Tim Russert, Miramax, 336 pp., illustrated,

$22.95In serviceable prose, Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of "Meet the Press," pays attention to what nuns at Holy Family and St. Bonaventure schools in South Buffalo and West Seneca, N.Y., taught him in the 1950s: Honor your father and mother.

There's no high style in "Big Russ & Me"; it's water from the tap of life, part Bible, part Baltimore Catechism, and the rest canny street smarts. Russert says he's learned so much from "Big Russ," his father, "and I feel so grateful to him, that I wanted to write a book about the two of us, and also about the other important teachers in my life, who have reinforced Dad's lessons and taught me a few new ones."

What were Big Russ's lessons?

They're listed at the top of each chapter. Here are some of them:

"My Father's War" (World War II) is headlined by his father's remark, after young Russert learns he was in a B-24 plane crash in England: "It was a lot tougher for the guys who died." In the chapter titled "South Buffalo," Big Russ tells his son: "People are people, and if they like you, they'll give you the benefit of the doubt."

His favorite tribute to America? "What a country!"

Russert's father had two jobs most of his working life, working for the City of Buffalo Sanitation Department during the day and driving a truck at night for the Buffalo Evening News, among other stints, to keep food on the table, kids in Catholic school, and a roof over the family's heads.

Big Russ never had a second thought about living his life "by the grace of daily obligations." It was what a father did.

In the chapter "Respect," Russert recalls his father's advice at the table: "If you embarrass yourself, you embarrass all of us." His father would say, "Don't get too big for your britches" and "Don't get a swelled head." "Mom would remind us that `pride goeth before a fall.' " And Dad again: "We all make mistakes, but if you go out there and do something you know you shouldn't be doing, that's a tough one." One gets the idea.

Sister Mary Lucille Socciarelli, a.k.a. Sister Lucille Kennedy (because she liked the Kennedys so much); Father John Sturm, prefect of discipline at Canisius High School; and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan come in for high praise. They underlined Russert's father's lessons.

Sister Lucille channeled Russert's excessive energy in grade school, putting him in charge of the newspaper. Father Sturm kept Russert in line at the Jesuit high school he attended. Caught taking a bite from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at his locker, he faced Sturm's wrath: "Russert, mercy is for God. I deliver justice." Senator Moynihan taught Russert, his aide, qualities one sees every Sunday morning on "Meet the Press": to respect true intelligence, ask good questions, and disagree agreeably.

These learned behaviors came into play when Russert took an assignment as a panelist on "Meet the Press" in 1990. He didn't think he was right for TV: jowly rather than handsome, cheeky (in more than one sense), not matinee-idol slim. Nervous, he called his father the night before and asked for advice. His dad told him: "Just be yourself. Pretend you're talking to me. Don't get too fancy. Don't talk that Washington talk."

Russert again checked in with his father before he interviewed Vice President Cheney at Camp David in Maryland right after Sept. 11, 2001. He was thinking about how the country would deal with terrorism in the future. But Big Russ, speaking of the vice president, cautioned: "Just let him talk. Let him help us get through this." It was a great interview.

One comes to admire Russert for having the easy grace to report on his father's consistent role in his life. The older Russert's quietly eloquent message of hard work, discipline, preparation, and accountability is golden advice for anyone. Its impact on Russert is obvious, and he extends it to his son, Luke, 18, who's about to go to college: "These days, whenever I'm asked to give a commencement address, I remind the students success is not just reserved for rich people or those with Ivy League educations, but is also available to sons and daughters of working people, immigrants, and pioneers. What a country!"

"Big Russ & Me" is a book about family ties; the importance of good example; the cohesiveness of Buffalo, the City of Good Neighbors; and the endurance of love.

Michael D. Langan grew up in Buffalo in the '40s. His memoir, "When I Was a Boy," is about growing up without a father.

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