By David Bauder
The son of the late political pundit can be seen on the NBC News Web site.
NEW YORK — The reporter who sat across from John McCain and Barack Obama for separate interviews that aired on NBC’s “Today” show Friday was only 23.
Was he nervous?
“Not necessarily,” Luke Russert said. “I had prior relationships with both of them.”
He asked both Obama and McCain about whether community service should be mandatory for young people. They said no, but both presidential candidates said the United States missed a real opportunity to teach citizens about sacrifice after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Matt Lauer debriefed him about the interviews.
No one would have figured on seeing a Russert on the “Today” show this political season after the shocking death of Luke’s dad, Tim Russert, of a heart attack June 13.
Offered the chance to report on youth issues for NBC News, the gregarious young Russert dove into the assignment with gusto, toting a microphone backstage at the Democratic and Republican conventions. Many of his stories have appeared on the “Nightly News” Web site and he blogs on iCue.com.
“He’s one of the rookies of the year,” said NBC News President Steve Capus. “Here’s a man at the worst possible time in his life who stepped into the spotlight with great poise, strength and a sense of humor, with a love of politics and a love for NBC.”
Would a young man at his age and with his credentials secure such a high-profile job if his last name wasn’t Russert? Doubtful, of course. But NBC News might be expected to act paternally toward a person its employees watched grow by the side of its beloved Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” host.
He often accompanied his dad on assignments (“as a 10-year-old, I was as tall as Ross Perot,” he recalled), riding McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” during the 2000 primary campaign and meeting Obama at a forum on public service in 2006.
But it’s not as if Russert didn’t bring something to the table. The recent Boston College graduate has worked in media since he was a teenager, co-hosting a sports talk show on XM satellite radio with political consultant James Carville. Before his father died, he had already lined up a job covering the presidential campaign for another XM station. He chose to go to NBC when it offered more exposure.
The Russert name also undoubtedly helped land last week’s interviews with the two candidates, particularly important since many McCain supporters have been seething about NBC News. In small talk before the interview, Mc- Cain said how much he wished Luke’s father was covering the election. Obama hugged him and asked how he was holding up.
“Everybody in the political world knows Luke Russert,” Capus said. “They knew him before [his father’s death] and they know him after it. Here is a guy who is going to get his calls returned.”
Capus said he had a couple of gut-check talks with the young Russert, aware that it could appear NBC News was adding pressure to his life by making him subject to whispers that he was getting ahead through nepotism. Capus didn’t think it would be a problem, since he was getting a limited assignment, not his dad’s host slot on “Meet the Press.”
Russert’s certainly aware that people would be watching him closely.
“It’s extremely important to go to work each day knowing you’re going to leave it all out on the field, to use a sports analogy,” said Russert, who shares his father’s love for the Buffalo Bills.
“The last thing I want to do is appear not qualified, to appear that it was just a nepotism hire, to appear that everything was just handed to [me],” he said. “I certainly acknowledge that the last name doesn’t hurt. But at the end of the day, I don’t think a company like XM or NBC would be willing to spend money on me just for the sake of nepotism. I actually have to produce.”