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Book Review: Big Russ & Me - Father & Son: Lessons of Life by Tim Russert
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Book Review: Big Russ & Me - Father & Son: Lessons of Life by Tim Russert - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Big Russ & Me - Father & Son: Lessons of Life by Tim Russert

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Big Russ & Me - Father & Son: Lessons of Life by Tim Russert

For sixteen years, Tim Russert served as moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, the longest-running program in television history. His death by heart attack in 2008 while in the NBC studio was covered extensively by his own network and rival networks alike, and posthumous honors by the Kennedy Center and others followed in later months. If media coverage is any indication, Russert's death left a gaping hole in the political journalistic landscape. Some called him a people's journalist, advocating on behalf of the citizenry while sitting across the desk from Washington's most powerful players.

Russert was also the best-selling author of 2004's Big Russ & Me--Father & Son: Lessons of Life (2014, Weinstein Books), a memoir recounting Russert's early life in Buffalo, particularly within the framework of growing up his father's son. "Big Russ," a World War II veteran and survivor of a plane crash claiming the lives of ten American servicemen, worked most of his post-war life in two concurrent jobs, as a sanitation worker and as the driver of a newspaper delivery truck. Russert shares memories of his father through short stories and direct quotes, impressing upon the reader primarily that his values-centric upbringing was the critical component in his living a rewarding life. This tenth-anniversary edition, published six years after Russert's death, takes on the added tinge of the sadness of his death at 58, especially in references to his son, for whom he says he wrote the book in a "Dear Luke" letter that serves as the the afterword.

Russert's son Luke is a journalist today, and Luke Russert's preface to this edition changes the effect upon the reader as more a reflection on Russert as father and public figure than the tribute to the "Greatest Generation" it originally offered. As a result, the most poignant sections of the book illustrate the way values are passed from father to son, and then again to the next son, as when Russert explains his love of baseball and memories of trips to the ballpark with his father, then follows them with his own memories of taking his own son to the games.

Perhaps these sections ring with resonance also because sports as metaphor serve well in these passing along of traditions. The author doesn't seem tempted to explain the importance of every piece of the story when talking about the New York Yankees or Buffalo Bills. Where he exercises less restraint, the prose tends to take on more of a back-in-my-day timbre, the sort most readers have heard from their own parents around the dinner table a million times. Russert doesn't only tell us what his father made him do when he shattered a neighbor's window with a baseball, he explains why, then caps off the tale with a one-sentence moral, not unlike the endings of Aesop's fables.

The homespun tone gets a little tiresome before long, and Russert's quoting the wisdom of his parents in such phrases as "don't get too big for your britches" and "pride goeth before the fall" hastens the effect. The fault doesn't lie so much in the quotes, but in the feeling that Russert seems to think he's passing along precious pearls of wisdom younger generations seem to have missed out on. Add to that a writing voice lacking the elegance Russert often closed his Sunday morning programs with, and you have what feels like the script for educational afterschool television programs meant to teach the reader Important Lessons About Life.

It's really not until later in the book, when Russert's stories include his experiences as a Washington journalist, that it exudes the vibe of not-just-anyone's-story. We have all hit baseballs through windows or committed some kind of juvenile act of mischief bringing embarrassment to our families, but few of us have taken our sons to the Oval Office to meet the President of the United States and talk about baseball. Perhaps this is Russert's point: that the early portion of his life is just like everyone else's, but that taking the ingredients of a common upbringing, he was able to rise to uncommon professional heights, all the while sticking close to the values impressed upon him in the beginning, and attempting to pass them to his own son in a completely different world. It takes a little while to get to that stuff, and Big Russ & Me is not a book that will knock you over with beautiful sentences, but darn it if it won't leave a tear in your eye and a strong desire to call your father.


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Book Review: Big Russ & Me - Father & Son: Lessons of Life by Tim Russert - Executive Leadership Articles

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