Russert would’ve enjoyed this political football
Luke Russert’s cell phone would ring just about every morning. His father Tim was on the other line, ready to discuss anything and everything. Politics, not surprisingly, was a main topic for the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and his 23-year-old son.
Tim Russert died in June, in the middle of a presidential election that has captivated America like few others. There is no doubt in Luke’s mind, though, what his father would have most liked to talk about this fall.
“The 5-1 Buffalo Bills,” Luke laughed. “He absolutely loved the Buffalo Bills.”
Tim Russert, forever a Buffalo guy, sure would have loved this, then.
If you thought the odds were long that Barack Obama would lead in the polls, or John McCain would win the Republican nomination and continue to charge forward, or that the whirlwind that is Sarah Palin would’ve emerged at all … well, how about them Bills?
One winning season this decade, a no-name quarterback, a journeyman coach and guess who’s looking down at the New England Patriots in the standings?
It’s the kind of success that would’ve made Russert, arguably the most trusted and even-handed journalist in Washington, go straight partisan at the end of Sunday morning’s “Meet the Press” and make one of his famous soliloquies about his team.
No matter how serious the topic just discussed or how powerful a world leader he had just interrogated, he never was afraid to smile for the camera and shamelessly note how America would be a better place if the Bills would just win that afternoon.
His guest routinely would be left in a puddle from the cross-examination as Russert gleefully signed off with “Go Bills!”
Each fall “Meet the Press” became a Bills pregame show. He even took it on the road for Super Bowls, causing guests to fly to a far-off stadium for an outdoor interview.
A chapter in his New York Times bestselling book “Big Russ and Me” was called “The Bills” with the subtitle “Wide Right,” a term that was akin to profanity to Russert.
In 1994, before Buffalo made its fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance, he offered a deal to the viewers saying if they rooted for the Bills and the Bills won, he wouldn’t mention the team on the air for one year.
Then he and his father, Big Russ, prayed for a victory, right on NBC.
Buffalo, of course, lost. Russert’s fandom never wavered, though. After he passed away, the highway outside the team’s Ralph Wilson Stadium was named after him.
Luke says he now finds himself in airports and grocery stores and has people walk by and offer a “Go Bills!” as a nod to his father. It’s brought up as often as “Meet the Press.”
“He wasn’t just a fan who would watch when things were going good,” said Luke, who grew up in Washington but couldn’t help but follow his dad’s pull toward the Bills.
That included last season, when the Bills made a rare appearance on “Monday Night Football,” only to blow a sure victory to the Cowboys. After Dallas kicked the winning field goal on the final play, Luke called his dad.
The unshakable newsman was shaken.
“He was just sitting there going, ‘Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.’ ”
It says much about untrustworthy Washington politicians and opportunistic celebrities that Russert gained so much credibility by doing something a majority of Americans do naturally – root for a football team.
It’s an era, though, where candidates switch hats based on voting patterns – or even pull for both teams – and Hollywood types magically show up in the stands of winning cities. Nothing seems real with that crowd.
Russert was what he was. You always knew what you were getting.
It’s a trait that carried over professionally and is why people of all political persuasions wish he were around to make sense of these turbulent and confused times. He was the true “no spin zone” interviewer, grilling anyone who dared take a seat across from him. He dominated the ratings for years, of course.
Like any child who has lost a parent, Luke misses those phone calls most of all. He wishes he could have just one more, whether it was to discuss Obama or McCain or Trent Edwards’ incredible second-half quarterback rating.
“He said, before he passed, this was the most interesting election of his lifetime,” said Luke, who works as a correspondent for NBC and hosts a sports talk show on XM/Sirius with James Carville each Friday at 1 p.m. ET.
“He would’ve loved to have covered this election, all its intricacies, its twists and turns.”
The one interview he would’ve been relentless in his pursuit? The elusive Gov. Palin.
“He would have really enjoyed interviewing her,” Luke said. “Who knows if he would have scored it?”
We’ll never know. Although it stands to reason that if he did, no matter how intense the back and forth would’ve been, he’d have ended the show with a cheer for his suddenly successful-again football team.
“A lot of people come up to me and say the Bills have a special 12th man, an angel helping them out,” Luke said. “I sort of grin and say, ‘Well, I guess he took a day off (in the loss to) Arizona.’
“He was probably working on the heaven ‘Meet the Press’ edition.”
Sure, presuming politicians are allowed into heaven.