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 following 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 following the shocking death of Luke's dad, Tim Russert, of a heart attack on 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 about his experiences 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, McCain 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."
From the time he dreamed of being a "SportsCenter" anchor at age 10, Russert figured he'd go into the family business. His mom, Maureen Orth, writes for Vanity Fair. Dinner table conversation would be about school and friends, but also about the Contract for America.
At the Democratic convention, Russert found three young Muslim women for a story about their support for Obama, and found young Republicans in St. Paul. Much of his material appears online, partly because he claims no interest in joining the often cutthroat fights for airtime among experienced reporters.
His blog allows for a more opinionated outlook. After watching McCain deliver his convention speech, Russert wrote that the candidate "reminded me of the old war vet you meet at a bar who tells you his life story and then says something along the lines of: `Son, make this country better for us.'"
Most important is that he's out hustling at a time in his life that many in his situation might retreat to their rooms, closing the door behind them. He believes hard work is the best cure for misery.
"It keeps your mind off of a tough event," he said. "If you're busy, you don't sit and think. It's important to think, it's important to reflect on a tragic event. But I also think it's important not to harp on it all day. One has to go on and live their life as best they can and take the lessons from those lost and go forward."
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org
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