SCIONS AUGUST 1, 2013
As last winter’s congressional budget talks collapsed with the debt limit on the horizon, 27-year-old Luke Russert put the situation in perspective for MSNBC. “I have never seen anything like it in my three-and-a-half years on Capitol Hill,” he declared with conviction. It was a moment teed up perfectly for Washington’s many Russert-haters, who love to point both to Russert’s lack of experience and what they see as his accompanying lack of humility. Russert was famously hired fresh out of Boston College by NBC News the same summer that his father, “Meet the Press” legend Tim Russert, passed away suddenly—and many of his peers in the media have never forgiven him for it.
“I was Tim Russert’s wife for a really, really long time, and I don’t think I ever got the reaction that I get for being Luke’s mom,” said Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, who tweets under the handle @LukeRsMom. “From the moment it was announced he would be working for NBC, which was his choice, but never planned for, ever, people just piled it on and piled it on and piled it on. And it was painful for me as a mother to see that.”
Russert senior’s funeral, at which Luke spoke affectingly and with poise, is the opening set piece for Mark Leibovich’s This Town, which chronicles the city’s political-social strata in the Obama era. Leibovich calls Russert "the mayor," and writes that “Tim possessed all of the city's coveted big-dog virtues: He was not to be fucked with. He seemed happy and excited and completely confident at all times, and why not? His killer persona combined a Guy's Guy exuberance with gravitas. Tim had a great table at the Palm and drank Rolling Rock from a bottle and ate good, manly food that wasn't drizzled with anything.”
His son shares a lot of those qualities: the confidence, the exuberance, the dudely dudeliness, the obsession with Springsteen and the Buffalo Bills and with the authenticity they confer. “Swagger” is a word that comes up frequently in connection to Luke. Tall and broad both of shoulder and forehead, he dresses traditionally, “like an usher in a church at a boys’ school,” sniped one Hill reporter. (Russert said he gets his white shirts for $19.99 and boasts that he has “never paid for a monogram in my life.”) When he’s talking about Washington’s politics or the media business, his voice takes on a studied, deeper, news-anchor timbre. When he’s relaying an anecdote about reporting or Buffalo, he slips into a folksy drawl that can sound almost Southern. (“When there’s a dad who’s coming home from soccer practice, he’s listening to MSNBC on the radio, ah’m just trying to give him the story.”) Other times, when he is bantering, the drawn-out, laconicness becomes more surfer-bro. His favorite descriptors include “wild,” “interesting,” “absolutely extraordinary,” “very much so,” and, most often, “fascinating.”
But these traits have not made him quite as popular as his father was with his own peers. In fact, Luke-hating is a bit of a Washington bloodsport. A young congressional staffer, upon hearing that I was writing a story about Luke, gleefully began forwarding me a series of emails from her coworkers poking fun at Russert’s most bro-ish tweets. (“God speed Lilly Pulitzer. How many relationships started bc a guy noticed a Lilly dress? Guessing thousands!,” he tweeted upon the occasion of the preppy icon’s death.) A thirty-something Capitol Hill reporter cloaked his distaste in the guise of concern for wasted potential. “Luke is quickly mastering the art of purveying conventional wisdom, and it's a shame.” Fellow reporters related the meanest anecdotes they could think of—“but not for attribution, OK?”
The exceptional level of attention and schadenfreude paid to Russert (a favorite target of the blog Fishbowl D.C.’s pathologically vicious Betsy Rothstein, among others) began almost immediately after his father’s death. Nepotism, quick unearned rises, and old-boy preppiness (the charges most frequently leveled at Russert) are hardly a new phenomenon in the capital city, though. What looks on the surface like ordinary cattiness against a young, advantaged correspondent might just be a symptom of something larger. Young D.C. doesn’t dislike Luke Russert per se; young D.C. is upset by the image of the city it sees reflected in him. Meanwhile, he is precisely the old person's idea of what a young person in Washington ought to be. As Leibovich wrote in his book of Russert's funeral performance, "you could almost hear all of Bethesda and Chevy Chase hissing at their inert teenage/college-age sons, "WHY CAN'T YOU BE MORE LIKE LUKE RUSSERT?"
That's exactly the problem. The rising generation of establishment Washington, the one that blogged and Obama-campaigned and quinoa-friendly-group-housed its way into the city, doesn’t see itself as terribly related to the current, aging establishment. It is a generation that prides itself on meritocracy, and one that has a different vision of what the good life looks like. “The city that I live in—where people live on the Green Line or in Bloomingdale/Eckington/LeDroit Park or out on H Street NE—is a very different city from the one Leibovich profiles,” Matt Yglesias wrote in his review of This Town for Slate. “And the now-dominant political paradigm is one in which ideology and partisanship carry much more weight, and personal connections and relationships carry much less.”
Russert’s perch, though, reminds the city’s younger residents that Washington has not changed quite as much as they like to think. What they don’t realize is that their distaste says more about their own anxieties than it does about him.
When his father died, Russert decided working hard was easier than processing his feelings (which he said he’s done; his mother wishes he had taken more time to do so). "The last thing that I wanted to do was remove myself completely from my existence,” he told me. “There are people who have horrific things happen to them and they kind of disappear for months. Where they go into a real insulated, kind of darker world. I’m a big aficionado of the Kennedys and from reading a lot of Kennedy books, I made a decision that I did not want to remove myself completely from what I was doing, or my opportunities. Bobby Kennedy, I don’t think anyone would have faulted him from walking away from being attorney general, but he continued to do it, and that was kind of inspiring to me. You’re gonna take your hits, but you should keep moving on.” Russert has a tattoo on his arm that reads LK 12:48 (“To whom much is given much is expected”), a Gospel verse that both his father and the Kennedys were very fond of. He quoted it at his father's funeral, following it up with a joke. "And after seeing the make of some of the suits and dresses in the room, a lot is expected from this crowd."
The first beat Russert worked for NBC was, essentially, campaign youth reporter in 2008, and even on the Hill, he’s continued to work the age beat: In December, he asked Nancy Pelosi, who happened to be flanked by all the House’s female Democrats at the time, why she hadn’t stepped aside. "You, Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Clyburn, you're all over 70,” he said. “Is your decision to stay on prohibiting younger members from moving forward?" Pelosi deftly turned the question to her advantage: “ Let's for a moment honor it as a legitimate question, although it's quite offensive. But you don't realize that, I guess." The exchange became a sensation on Twitter, perhaps for its illustrative qualities: Both the critics and proponents of his reporting style say that one thing that sets him apart on Capitol Hill is that “he is not afraid to ask pointed questions in a very loud voice,” as one colleague put it. “It was a perfectly credible question asked in an extremely inartful lumbering way that allowed the speaker to wiggle out from under it,” said a less charitable competitor. “He got in his own way.”
“I think honestly if someone else had asked that question it wouldn’t have been as big as it was,” said Luke. “I think there’s a desire by people to sort of frame it as “Nancy Pelosi goes after Luke Russert ... DUN DUN DUN,” he continued, adopting a movie-trailer narrator’s voice. Russert’s close friend, Politico’s Jake Sherman, expanded on that. “There’s always gonna be people on blogs and shit like that who want to spout off whether it’s out of jealousy or what. I mean, there’s a lot to be jealous of. He’s a 27-year-old on television who’s good at what he does, and has a great job. There’s always a desire to knock that down.”
Russert can occasionally seem like he’s deliberately courting derision. He loves Twitter, where he posts pictures of his pug, discusses his large hat size, and holds forth on sports perhaps more often than politics. Once, during the height of the fiscal cliff debate, he tweeted a series of re-worked Bruce Springsteen lyrics. “Last tweets are me just noticing it's easy to rearrange "Badlands" to fit the #fiscalcliff” he noted. (Springsteen played at his father's funeral.) He is quick to draw—and hashtag—tribal connections. “Irish girl like you?” he asked in wonderment upon hearing that I wasn’t a fan of Boston; “Katie Holmes to me will forever just be a sweet #Catholic girl from Toledo,” he tweeted when the actress divorced famous Scientologist Tom Cruise.
Russert lives on the border between Georgetown and Glover Park, tony neighborhoods favored by an earlier generation of journalists and largely shunned by this one, which prefers (or is forced for budgetary reasons) to stay just ahead of the crest of gentrification in places like Bloomingdale or Shaw. Of the city's latter-day gentrifcation, Russert sounded more like an observer than a participant. “This day and age, DC is more inclusive in the sense that there’s a lot more mixing of the races ... Columbia Heights, which was very vibrant Latino neighborhood. Young professionals go there now.”
Many of his closest friends are from his days at St. Albans School, a crowd that tends to populate Nantucket-red-filled bars like Georgetown’s Smith Point (a favorite of the Bush twins) or George. He doesn't disclose any political affiliation, but he is culturally conservative in some senses. Nonconformity is foreign to him, say Hill colleagues. Even if, as he told me, he skateboarded as a teen and “wore flannel before flannel was cool,” the cri de coeur of the modern hipster. (It was, of course, also cool in the '90s.)
“I’ve never in my life seen Luke do a fratty thing,” said Sherman, who shares Russert’s reputation for being less nebbishy than many of their colleagues. “He’s not going and doing keg stands, like nothing close to that ever.” He may not have been invited on the evening last year when Russert, accompanied by entourage, walked into a Georgetown bar and announced he was buying shots for the whole joint.
Russert can be very charming. One rather green Capitol Hill reporter, who’d at first passed along a few secondhand tales of Russert’s bro-ishness, later sent an email detailing his kindnesses towards her, his impressive but not bragged-about connections on the Hill, and his skill at freestyle rapping. He has been linked via the gossip mill to Chrissy Mara, whose father owns the New York Giants, and at least one other young reporter, though he told me he doesn’t date other industry people. Chivalry, or something like it, has been his downfall at least once. In August 2010, Russert’s car was stolen in the very wee hours of the morning in Georgetown. He was walking a “friend” to the door, according to the police report (a romantic interest, as it was recounted somewhat salaciously to me), but must not have planned to linger overly long. He left the keys idling in the ignition for the thief. When I asked about the incident, Russert replied with a rather unsubtle reminder of his nice-Catholic-boy-ness. “I grew up going to Mass every Sunday in the neighborhood where the car was stolen. I would have never thought thieves would have been as brazen to jump into a running car with its blinkers on while the driver was no more than 15 feet away.”
NBC brass is rather protective of Russert. When we had lunch, the network sent a minder to sit in on the meeting—not a typical procedure for someone with mid-level name recognition, and particularly unusual for a journalist in the business of asking difficult questions of others. MSNBC has (idly) threatened to dock airtime for writers at publications who have criticized him. Russert doesn’t exactly rebel against their protection. When I emailed him directly with some follow-up questions, the publicist replied instead.
It’s not just his bosses. The Washington of This Town loves Russert. In college, Russert did a Sirius sports radio show with James Carville. He splits his Wizards season tickets with CNN’s John King. And when I wondered whether there was anyone who’d been a particular help professionally, it wasn’t NBC segment producers’ names that tripped off his tongue first. “Tom Brokaw has just been a wonderful mentor,” said Luke. “I’ve never really thought of him as an NBC person because I grew up with him being around the house. … Tom Brokaw, not anchor of NBC news, but just Tom Brokaw, has been great.”
There were others: “Professionally, Chuck Todd’s been wonderful,” Luke continued. “Bob Schieffer is great. Gwen Ifill has always been good with advice for me and giving me helpful things to say.” He has an especially jocular relationship with Speaker John Boehner, who, when Russert asked him on Valentine’s Day what the speaker had gotten his wife for the holiday, replied, “Same thing I got you, honey," and blew Russert a kiss.
To be a pet and acolyte of the older generation’s establishment figures doesn’t exactly endear him to his contemporaries. If there is a “mayor” of his generation’s Washington, it is the careful Ezra Klein, who, as his own MSNBC career began to take off, reached out to Russert after his father’s death to make amends for a much-quoted crude tweet he’d written about Tim Russert (which Klein said was taken wildly out of context). Russert was not receptive. “I do not have a professional or social relationship with Ezra Klein,” he told me (through the aforementioned spokesperson) when I asked about the exchange.
Russert knows how he got in the door at NBC. But he points out that the network is a profit-making enterprise, not an after-school program for the children of celebrities. And anyway, unlike other famous political children—Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager, for instance—he’s doing a lot more than fluff segments.
“They sort of forget the fact that a lot of us could not do that job. It is a specific skill set [to be on TV],” a former Capitol Hill reporter said of Russert-haters. “And he has the skills. He's good.” Her assessment was shared by a slim-ish majority of the Hill reporters and operatives I spoke to, who also praised his hard work and dogged reporting; others preferred a grade closer to adequate.)
For his part, Russert levels the same criticisms at his peers that many older journalists tend to. “One thing that’s lost now is a lot of writers they sit behind a computer screen in an office. They very rarely try to meet people in person,” he complained. “They very rarely even call someone on the phone. It’s all email. I think when you do that you lose the story. You become just a spin-ster, an opinion person. To me that’s not journalism, that’s just watching cable TV and commenting.”
He also can sound older than his years when talking about climbing the ladder. “People in TV freak out about airtime,” Russert told me, “but when they give you the contract, you’re not paid on commission.” He continued, his voice getting expansive. “Now, should you want to be on? Yes. Everyone’s competitive; everyone wants to be on TV, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if I’m on 100 times instead of 106 times, it’s not the end of the world for me. … I’m more than content doing the things that are doled out.” It’s an attitude that, to Russert’s detractors, could sound an awful lot like entitlement.
Or, another view: Aggressive striving isn’t the most fun to be around, and so perhaps it’s for more than just his last name that old Washington finds him more appealing than new Washington. He feels more familiar to them than the rest of his contemporaries do—for now. That also approaches one other reason Russert makes some of his peers uncomfortable. For all the badmouthing they do of the Tom Friedmans and Wolf Blitzers of the world, it is their perches they are gunning for. Ambition’s reward, in Washington, ends up being a place in the establishment—whether that was the ambitious person’s original aim or not. Russert embraces his without compunction; what his critics fear, maybe, is that someday they will too.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NoreenMalone.