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Big Tim and Me

By James Ostrowski


May 23, 2004

Before I discuss Tim Russert’s new book, let me quote from my own new book:

My father [a Democrat running as a Republican for state judge in 1976] didn’t know it at the time, but we also had a “dirty tricks squad.” Besides leaking information to the press about prominent Democrats supporting my father, the kids and friends would get together and crash Democratic rallies and hand out placards for my father. At a rally attended by then-candidate for Vice-President, Walter Mondale, fists nearly flew. Another incident stands out in my mind. I got wind that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was going to campaign for the U. S. Senate at a local shopping plaza in a heavily Democratic district. Naturally, I was there when he arrived, handing out my father’s literature. If the shoppers thought I was with Moynihan, who was I to disabuse them of that notion? Caught off guard, Moynihan’s advance men looked on with displeasure but could do nothing as I was breaking no law. One of the advance men, then a mid-level operative for the machine, has gone on to fame and fortune: Tim Russert, host of “Meet the Press.”

So there, my bias is revealed. While I was trying to get my father elected as a Democrat running as a Republican, Russert was a key operative of the Democratic machine that, in my view, had unfairly denied the nomination to my father.

Two years later, I ran a very competitive race against the incumbent Democratic Assemblyman from South Buffalo, also a member of the Democratic machine. Twenty-six years later, Russert’s appearance in South Buffalo is sponsored by the fellow who succeeded the guy I ran against in 1978, and the former incumbent is seen posing with Russert on the website of the organization now run by the successor. Russert is still running with the same crowd, the local Democratic political machine that I’ve been fighting since I was a teenager, and that gave him his first big break working for Moynihan in ‘76. So forgive me if I don’t join most of my fellow South Buffalonians and say “all salaam” to Tim Russert.

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Now, with that out of the way, let me talk about Russert’s (and Bill Novak’s) book. I liked the book, for the most part. It is a wonderful ode to life in South Buffalo in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Russert is seven years older than me and from a neighborhood about a mile away, but as far as I can tell, he gets all the details right. Just to show the reader how much Russert and I shared the same world, I had two Irish cousins who ran funeral homes in South Buffalo and Russert mentions both of them in his book. Tucker Reddington thus gets the distinction of being the only local person (other than Russert himself) who is mentioned in both books.

In those days, kids walked to school, unheard of now. (That’s when virtually every home they passed had a mother in it; they’re mostly at work now—to pay the household taxes.) We had pogo sticks, played relievio, jumped garages (if our parents only knew), and gave each other wacky nicknames. I had one but will never tell. We were baby boomers so there were always a million kids around to play football, baseball, and basketball. (Now, we have two kids per family because we can’t afford more—taxes again. Actually, we pay for three kids per family, but one of them is someone else’s kid.) Soft drink was “pop,” not soda. We spent many summer days in Olmsted’s Cazenovia Park, though we had no idea who Olmsted was. The neighborhood was, for all intents and purposes, crime-free! Everyone worshipped JFK. You were either Irish or tried to pass. (I’m half.)

The details of life in that simpler, in many ways happier time, are well-recounted by Russert. As for his father, “Big Russ,” he is by all accounts a fine fellow whose work ethic and common sense wisdom shaped his stupendously successful son. Russert assiduously followed his father’s advice through the years. I wish I could say the same for my own father’s wise advice. But, as Milton Friedman once told me, “Advice is easy to give, but hard to take.”

Russert starts to lose me though about midway through the book. He is at Canisius, which he describes as the “city’s elite Catholic high school.” (So much for Nardin and my St. Joe’s.) He says the Jesuits there encouraged free inquiry and challenging established ideas. That put me on notice. For the rest of the book, I kept waiting for some evidence that Russert had taken that lesson to heart. I found none.

Russert grew up idolizing centrist-liberal Jack Kennedy. Then Bobby. He later works for the centrist-liberal Democratic political machine that had backed Kennedy in 1960. His big break comes when he “volunteers” to work for centrist-liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1976. This is how he describes it in the book and how he described it on the Imus Show. Funny how a mere volunteer became, as I recall it, Moynihan’s top campaign aide in Western New York so quickly. Then Moynihan just happens to put Russert in charge of his new Buffalo office, an office he created as pay-back for the support of the local party chair who once worked with Russert’s father. Then he goes to work for Mario Cuomo. Now he is the centrist-liberal host of Meet the Press.

What established ideas has Russert ever challenged? A cynic might say that, having tasted the life of a sanitation worker for a few summers during college, Russert decided, “Heck with that! I am going to figure out who has the power and tell them what they want to hear.” I can personally attest that it is not good for one’s career to find out who the powerful people are and tell them what they don’t want to hear.

All of this is reflected in Meet the Press. Almost every guest is a powerful government official. Panelists are drawn from mainstream media figures. The range of opinion discussed on the show is extremely narrow. Centrist Democrats battle centrist Republicans over the tiny details of precisely how Big Government should crush individual liberty. Russert appears to have left his Jesuitical pugnacity back at Canisius High School. Yes, he will have a go at the occasional marginal figure such as David Duke, but that makes my point.

In the days after 9/11, when Russert was doing his usual shtick of letting government officials blather on, I sent him an email and urged him, in the face of the disaster that his guests had recently presided over, to broaden his list of guests and peruse some of the websites that were offering incisive commentary on 9/11. I am still waiting for a response.

In the book, Russert talks plenty about Vietnam but never seems to take a stand on it. I was seven years younger but recall the War as the issue of that time and I was always against it, as was everyone in my family. Even though Russert was draft age, he equivocated: “I saw an enormous difference between World War II and Vietnam.” So did everyone else, but what did you think of Vietnam? I guess we’ll never know. And we’ll never know, from this book, that his heroes--the Kennedy’s--got us into Vietnam in the first place. (You’ll have to read mine.)

So Russert gives us a vivid portrait of a fine old Irish-Catholic neighborhood at its peak—the fifties and sixties. However, because of his apparent inability to challenge his own cherished political beliefs and background, he is at a loss when it comes to explaining what happened to that world and what’s wrong with Buffalo and America today—start with political machines and centrist-liberals.

That’s the “lesson of life” I draw from Big Russ & Me: Father and Son: Lessons of Life.