Tim Russert was not the unalloyed saint of tough journalism that his celebrators describe in posthumous tributes, but he was at least a classic American success story, of the sort that we still enjoy pretending is common: Blue-collar kid from Rust Belt town becomes enormously successful thanks largely to brains and hard work. The story of Luke Russert, alas, is a much more common one in American life: No-account kid of successful person has more success thrust upon him.
Pretty much immediately upon the death of his father, Luke Russert inexplicably had a full-time broadcasting job, supplanting his part-time broadcasting job co-hosting a satellite radio sports talk show with James Carville. (That was a real thing that actually existed. Can you imagine a human who would want to listen to that?)
Russert isn't the only famous child in media. He isn't even the only famous child at NBC, which also employs Jenna Bush Hager and Chelsea Clinton (who renewed her three-month temporary contract earlier this year, despite barely producing any work for the network). Fox has Peter Doocy, Chris Wallace and, here in New York, Greg Kelly. ABC has Chris Cuomo, and CNN Anderson Cooper. A.G. Sulzberger is a reporter for the New York Times. Some of those people are fine journalists, by the way. Nepotism has always been a major force in journalism and media -- it is a fact of life and one that would be exhausting to be continually het up about -- and plenty of nepotism beneficiaries are wonderful writers and talented people. If you're raised by interesting people and get a good education at home and at the finest schools, you really ought to turn out pretty smart. But Russert is emblematic of the sort of nepotism that gives nepotism a bad name. He's not a wonderful writer or a particularly talented person. And unlike Chelsea Clinton and her very silly "reporting good news about people who do charity or something" beat, he's actually got a real journalism job that someone else without the name Russert could be doing much more effectively. He's not even particularly good on TV.
Russert in some respects more closely resembles a second-generation politician than a typical dynasty hire in journalism. Like Al Gore and Harold Ford Jr., he is a graduate of St. Albans -- the elite Washington all-boys private school that molds little moderate politicians and self-consciously imitates the old New England boarding schools that used to serve the WASPs who ran the country -- and like a junior Kennedy he's decidedly less impressive than his tragic father. Russert spent his college years at Boston College acting basically like a well-off young meathead. (His sole notable achievement during those years was being the subject of one of the Internet's very first "embarrassing Facebook photo of the child of a notable person" stories.) He was hired at NBC, in what most took to be a slightly unconventional corporate expression of grief, within months of his graduation with a communications degree.
He seems dimly aware that nepotism won him his job, but in denial as to the fact that it's allowed him to keep it. As he told Howard Kurtz in 2010:
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."
Denial of his extraordinary genetic luck for the sake of his self-respect is a common trope with poor Luke. He was using the same line in 2008, barely after he was hired: "Did my name get my foot in the door? Absolutely, I'll be the first to admit that. But has my performance and ability got my butt through the door? Yes." (In the same interview, Russert revealingly compared himself to Joe Buck, a second-generation sportscaster with an astoundingly enviable career, whom no one on Earth actually likes.) He also claimed to have absolutely no clue how he managed to score two much-sought-after (unpaid, natch) internships as a college student, at NBC and at Michael Bloomberg's City Hall. "I went through the application process like anyone else," he told the Times. (Russert had at least one other killer internship, too, at ESPN.)
But our target here is Russert, and he is not personally responsible for NBC's decision to bequeath him a broadcasting job. If we focus on the work and not the means by which Russert got the job, things don't look much better. Initially, at least, the grown-ups on the air always seemed to be holding Russert's hand as he tried to remember his lines, as if he were a child and not a fully grown college graduate and professional. It's obvious that everyone who knew his father loves Luke. But everyone's affection for the kid is not transmissible through a television set, alas, and Russert's appearances seemed like some rich guy's kid's piano recital suddenly taking place in the middle of a professional orchestra's concert.
His initial role was as MSNBC's semi-official "young person" correspondent, because reporting on what he himself was seemed the least ridiculous thing to have Luke Russert suddenly doing in a national cable news network's presidential election coverage. And in his role as a young person reporting on what young people think of presidential politics, Russert sounded like an old person -- like an old Washington lifer -- talking about what he thinks the young people today are all about. (No self-respecting young person, to use one brief example, uses the term "millennial.")
Here's an early report:
This is like a master class in pointless political pseudo-analysis. All the resources and staff of MSNBC at his disposal, and the package still looks and sounds like it was put together for a high school civics class presentation. (I mean, except that Larry Sabato shows up halfway through. I guess it is professional Washington journalism!) Kids are turning off their reality TV and tuning into the real-life Amazing Race! Facebook and stuff, some experts say! Only time will tell. For MSNBC, I'm a person with no business having this job.
(This is the piece that Russert concluded by making a minor gaffe that set the right against him, for a moment: The "smartest kids in the state" go to UVA, he told Matt Lauer, so they naturally favor Obama. This was actually just poorly stated conventional wisdom, not really "liberal bias" -- by "the smartest kids in the state" he meant, he later explained, kids "from affluent, highly educated households.")
Months after hiring Russert, Steve Capus, president of NBC News, called him one of the network's "rookies of the year," which doesn't reflect well on NBC's 2008 rookie class. (Russert returned the favor with effusive praise for his boss.)
On the basis of his impressive reporting and ease in front of the camera still being named Russert, Luke was promoted, after the election, to congressional correspondent. That's the contempt with which NBC News views the occupation of journalism. To make Luke Russert a congressional reporter is to say, "We believe that this job requires no particular knowledge, training or skills. If a German shepard could be trained to speak, it could perform this work." (That's true of most cable news work, granted, but it really doesn't have to be.) Proper reporting on the House of Representatives is actually difficult and largely thankless work, generally done by very hardworking and underpaid reporters. The assignment was transparently NBC's attempt to help Russert develop chops, and what it has yielded thus far is the time Charlie Rangel called Luke dumb, which MSNBC turned into a two-day story.
NBC seems to be keeping Russert employed in the hopes that he'll eventually develop an ability to simulate gravitas. Hopefully "Meet the Press" will still be on the air by the time Luke has mastered his serious face.
His Twitter feed presents a perfectly dull person with perfectly banal thoughts. When he drifts into attempted solemnity it's usually more amusing than his actual attempts at humor. (More quality insight, right here.) It's precisely what you would imagine the result would be if the elite Beltway press somehow collectively raised a child from birth -- which is, in effect, what actually happened. He subscribes to every shibboleth of Washington conventional wisdom and shows fealty to all the proper institutions.
When Jeff Himmelman wrote that the legendary Bob Woodward had misrepresented a few facts in "All the President's Men," Russert was outraged on behalf of the institution of Bob Woodward:
Pathetic the chattering class is trying to sell books and papers on issues of no substance attacking the most storied career in journalism.
— Luke Russert (@LukeRussert) May 1, 2012
Luke. "The chattering class" is you. (And Bob Woodward, whose singular goal for the last 35 years or so has been "trying to sell books.")
A popular reoccurring trope in Russert tweets and interviews is his deep respect for the politicians he is lucky enough to cover. "No matter how much I disagree w pols," he writes, "I always respect their desire to stand up for their views & put their family through hell 2 win."
To Kurtz, again:
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."
What if some pols' views, if they even have any to speak of, are not worth standing up for? Was putting the family through hell worth it then? The 435 people who make up the House of Representatives are, on average, no nobler or wiser than any randomly selected group of 435 Americans. In many cases the members of Congress are much dumber and more craven than the people they represent (they're also, on average, richer, whiter and much more likely to be male). To Luke Russert, though, they are noble public servants, and to love America is to respect its political elite. This is a classic symptom of Beltway myopia: mistaking the politicians for democracy. The greatest moment in politics, for Luke Russert, was the time the president argued in circles with Eric Cantor for a while, on TV, and no one came away having changed their mind.
Because he is being groomed to be a simulacra of his father, and because he is merely a jukebox for the cliches and conclusions of the elders grooming him, Russert can get tripped up when attempting to be Broderian on the fly. Dylan Ratigan threw him for a loop when he challenged him on the eternal wiseness of bipartisan-approved "free trade" deals -- Russert just laughed, nervously and idiotically, when faced, for what was probably the very first time in his life, with actual arguments against making it easier for American corporations to gain access to cheap and easily exploitable foreign labor.
Ratigan: My Colombian, the Colombian deal’s my favorite. That’s a big job creator. Whaddya say we do a deal with the only country in the world that openly murders all labor organizers, to ensure that they will never ask for a raise ever.
L’il Luke: Well, Colombia, though, in all fairness, Colombia has had massive strides in improvement in terms of their security. I mean, you’re bringing up something that George Miller–
Ratigan: But I’m saying the murder rate of union organizers on a per capita–
L’il Luke: Well, that’s why there’s Democratic opposition in the House for it right now and they have to figure out that, you know, technicality there.
Just a little technicality! A minor bump on the road to a reassuring, job-creating compromise!
Dylan was just having a bit of fun with Luke, there. A few months later they bonded over their shared love of Seriousness About The Deficit. From Luke's pious, pitch-perfect, impossible-to-parody script on a sad display of partisanship:
If you look at the backdrop, Dylan, just look at the stats. Federal revenue now is at its lowest level since 1950. If you extend the Bush tax cuts the way the Republicans want, you get $3.8 trillion added to the deficits. If you add them the way Democrats want, you get $3 trillion added over the next three years. If you don't do anything to Medicare or Medicaid or social security, those programs will not be solvent.
Both parties don't want to tell the American people it's time to drink their tough medicine.
Both parties are going to try to take 2012 as the avenue to have this debate further. But as this debate goes on and on and on, the real difficult decisions, the real ideas of how are we going to cut this deficit, they go unanswered.
All so folks can can get re-elected, continue to get their $174,000 salaries, and the beat goes on and on. The special interests get rich, the parties can argue and argue and argue.
Really, nothing sums up contemporary American media and politics better than a twerp like Luke Russert sternly announcing that we'll all soon have to get used to taking our "tough medicine."