Luke Russert painted an intimate portrait of his dad, Tim Russert, on TODAY Monday morning — a portrait of a man who loved sitting around drinking beer with young people, a man who loved the honesty of children, a father who never let a day pass without telling his son how much he loved him.
“It was truly remarkable,” Luke told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in a wide-ranging interview that ran at length without interruption. “My dad would rather drink beer with my college friends than have a steak dinner. My friends loved him just as much as I did. Boy, did he love to eat at those tailgates.”
Luke spoke for 15 minutes about his dad with remarkable poise. He never lost his composure, not even when he was talking about being on the set of “Meet the Press” on Sunday and touching his dad’s empty chair — a moment captured in a moving photograph by The Associated Press.
“I’m going to keep that chair forever,” Luke told Lauer. “That’s my chair now.”
The memories are still raw: Russert died Friday at the age of 58 of a massive heart attack while recording voiceovers for his top-rated Sunday political interview show, “Meet the Press” on NBC. But Luke shed no tears. There were too many happy memories, too much that was good about Tim Russert to talk about.
Luke, 22, is the only child of Russert and his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, and the two were uncommonly close.
“I spoke to him at least two to three times a day,” Luke told Lauer. “It had to do with the election coming up, sports, or just about life. There was always a lot of love from him. We would always hug. There’s not a day that goes by that I have not known my father loves me. For that, I’m eternally grateful.”
Lauer said that he could never remember talking to Russert over the past 12 or 15 years that Russert didn’t mention his son, and never in a bragging way. And that always led to questions about Lauer’s own family.
Tim Russert had written a best-selling book, “Big Russ and Me,” about his father, a sanitation worker in Buffalo, N.Y. When the book was still in manuscript form, Luke sneaked into his father’s file cabinet and read it. A senior in high school, Luke said he was so taken by the relationship described in the book that he had his grandfather’s and father’s initials tattooed on his torso. That Christmas, while trying on a shirt he had gotten as a gift, his undershirt rode up and his parents saw the tattoo.
Luke said his father’s shock at seeing the body art softened when he saw what it was. Luke also said that his advice to other kids is, “If you get a tattoo, show it to your parents on Christmas.”
Tim Russert had been named one of the world’s most influential people, but, Luke said, as a young man, he was just a hard-working kid from Buffalo who worked his way through law school in Cleveland. Tim met his wife-to-be in 1976 when he was working for New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and she was a star writer for Vanity Fair.
“In the 1970s, she had a real cool job. She had a Springsteen cover story. She interviewed Bob Dylan,” Luke told Lauer. “So when my dad was dating her, he was shooting out of his league.”
Luke said his mother is coping as well as can be expected. “She grieves like a wife. I grieve like a son,” he said. “She’s a tough-spirited woman.”
Luke said that Big Russ, Tim’s father, who is in a care facility in Buffalo, is aware that his son has died.
“I think he realizes what happened,” Luke said, adding that his grandfather translated it into sports terms. “He said, ‘He was the pitcher, you were the catcher and I was the umpire. We lost our pitcher.’ ”
Luke has said that his father began taking him to Yankee games when he was just 4 or 5 months old. Together father and son attended countless games together, often with James Carville, the political strategist and pundit. Tim Russert and his son shared season tickets to the Orioles, Nationals and Wizards.
In a story on Luke, The Boston Globe once reported, "By the time he was 16, he had attended two Super Bowls, a World Series, five Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Games, an NBA final, four NBA All-Star Games, two NCAA Final Fours, an NHL Stanley Cup Final, a U.S. Open and The Preakness Stakes.”
Two years ago, Carville and Luke Russert teamed up to host a weekly XM Radio show, “60/20 Sports With James Carville and Luke Russert,” the 60/20 being a reference to the generational split between them. Luke had also interned for Conan O’Brien and for ESPN, working on that network’s highly popular “Pardon the Interruption” show.
Tim Russert said he named his son Luke after Saint Luke the Evangelist, who wrote, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
Luke Russert attended St. Alban’s School in Washington, D.C., and graduated in May from Boston College. To celebrate, Tim had sneaked away from his many duties as NBC News Washington Bureau chief as well as host of “Meet the Press” to be with Orth and Luke in Italy.
Shout-out from Springsteen
Tim was a big fan of music as well as sports, and Bruce Springsteen was both one of his favorite acts and favorite people. And Luke said that his father was thrilled when Springsteen gave a concert on Rockefeller Plaza last year and paused in the middle of a song to give him a shout-out.
“I never seen my dad happier than he was that day — he got a Springsteen mention,” Luke said.
On Saturday, Springsteen was playing a concert at the Cardiff Millennium Dome Stadium in the United Kingdom. Before playing “Thunder Road,” Springsteen addressed the crowd, saying, “I'd like to do this tonight for a longtime friend of the E Street Band who passed away suddenly.
“Tim Russert was an important, unreplacable voice in American journalism. I watched him hold our politicians’ feet to the fire on many Sunday mornings. He was always a strong voice for honesty and accountability in American government ... but beyond that, he was a lovely presence, a good father, husband, and good guy. He was a regular at many E Street Band shows and I'm going to miss looking down and seeing that big smiling face in the crowd.
“We send this out all the way back to the states tonight for his son Luke, his wife Maureen, his dad Big Russ, and all the Russert family.
“Tim, God bless you. We will miss you ....”