11/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
Every Monday morning Meet the Press host Tim Russert makes his most important telephone call of the week. It's not to a network executive or a White House source but to a retired garbageman in Buffalo. "Hey, Dad," Russert asks, "what did you think?" Says Russert, 48: "I have a simple rule when I'm at the Meet the Press table: Did my father understand this? He has a very good read on what happened."
Dad's read seems to be working. In the seven years since his son has been its host, the program's audience has gone from 2.8 million to over 4 million—and it regularly trounces its ABC rival This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. This despite Russert's belief that he doesn't look like he belongs on-cam-era. "People on-air have rugged jaws," says Russert. "I have cheeks."
But it's his reportorial teeth that get the job done: Russert has distinguished himself as one of Washington's toughest interviewers. When he faced former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard turned Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke in 1991, Russert asked him to name the state's three largest employers. When Duke blanked, Russert fired back: "You mean to tell me you want to run for governor? Can you name one?"
Despite the pointed questions, Russert's fans include some pretty high-profile politicians. President Bill Clinton wrote to Russert after a 1993 appearance, saying, "I think I enjoyed this." Says regular Meet the Press guest Bob Dole: "You don't feel like you're walking into a bear trap, but you also don't get off the hook easy." Adds longtime Clinton ally James Carville: "You're going to take some head shots [from Tim], but no kidney punches."
Russert's greatest booster, however, is his 13-year-old son Luke. When Luke was born, says Russert's wife, journalist Maureen Orth, "Tim fell madly in love." Russert carves time out of his 11-hour workdays for his son. They particularly like shooting hoops in the alley behind the family's brick-colonial, Washington, D.C. home. "I get a lot of time with him," says Luke.
As a boy in the '50s, Russert remembers his father, Tim "Big Russ" Russert, now 74, watching Meet the Press in the cramped, three-bedroom, Buffalo home they shared with mother Elizabeth, now 69 (his parents divorced about 20 years ago), and his three sisters. Russert would eventually earn a political science degree in 1972 from Ohio's John Carroll University, and four years later a law degree from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
Back in Buffalo, in 1976, he joined Daniel Patrick Moynihan's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Impressed with Russert's organizational skills, Moynihan asked him to join his Washington staff as an adviser. "I packed up my 1972 silver Gremlin with no floorboards, and off I went," recalls Russert. At the 1980 Democratic presidential convention, Russert, by then Moynihan's chief of staff, met Orth, a writer for Newsweek. "He was coming up with these great stories and quotes," says Orth. "That's a great way to flirt with a reporter."
It worked. The couple began dating and three years later, in 1983, eloped to Spain. The following year Russert landed a job at NBC assisting the president of news. He later went on to become executive in charge of the Today show. Appointed Washington bureau chief in 1989, Russert was soon making regular guest appearances on Meet the Press. When then-moderator Garrick Utley opted to host the weekend edition of Today, NBC brass handed Russert the job.
With five years to run on his reported multimillion-dollar contract—and with his self-titled interview program on CNBC—Russert believes the best is yet to come. For a start he'd like to interview the Pope, Clinton again and then have a crack at Boris Yeltsin and Fidel Castro. "People are always asking, 'Don't you want to be in prime time?' " says Russert. "[But] the answer is no. There's nothing I'd rather do in television. Nothing."
Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.