Russert returns to Cleveland State for debate

Posted by Sabrina Eaton February 23, 2008 00:04AM

Washington -- Tuesday night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama won't be the only momentous Cleveland event in which NBC newsman Tim Russert has played a role.

As a Cleveland-Marshall College of Law student in 1974, Russert attended the infamous "10-cent-beer night" at Cleveland Municipal Stadium that ended in drunken rioting by Indians fans.

"I went with $2 in my pocket," recalls the "Meet the Press" host. "You do the math."

Russert is taking a more sober approach to Tuesday's final matchup between the Democratic frontrunners before Ohio's make-or-break presidential primary on March 4.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is interviewed by Tim Russert on "Meet The Press" on Sunday, Jan. 13 in Columbia, S.C.

"No less a political strategist than William Jefferson Clinton has declared Ohio a must-win, and he is right," says Russert, whose preparation for grilling the candidates at his alma mater resembles studying for a final exam.

Russert, dubbed "the quintessential Washington insider" by the Washington Post, actually grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from John Carroll University before attending CSU's law school. He partly paid for law school by booking a Bruce Springsteen concert at John Carroll before The Boss made it big.

He joined NBC after stints as an aide to former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, both Democrats.

"I was actually getting back to my roots - I was editor of my seventh- and eighth-grade newspaper," jokes Russert.

Russert says he preps for debates by keeping up with current events, examining transcripts of prior debates, and monitoring news from where the debate will occur. He says he tries to focus on "issues that are meaningful to people, and do it in an understandable way."

"I have a simple philosophy that you can't make tough decisions unless you can answer tough questions," he says. "I try to be persistent, but always civil."

He says his ties to the Cleveland area give him a good feel for issues that matter to Northeast Ohio, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures and a depressed economy. He anticipates the 9 p.m. debate will have a huge Ohio audience because it will be carried on NBC affiliates throughout the state, and also because "there is an intensity and interest in this election that I have never seen in my career as a journalist."

"It is the first time in 80 years where no incumbent president or vice president is seeking the nomination of one of the parties," says Russert. "Nobody was pre-ordained. The issues, like war, the economy, the environment, are very important to people. I can't go anywhere without people wanting to talk to me about it."

Obama's string of primary victories has given him momentum and a lead of roughly 150 elected delegates. Decisive victories in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania would restore Clinton's viability as a candidate, Russert says. Tuesday's debate will be a critical part of that.

"I think people are wondering what tack Sen. Clinton will take on Tuesday," Russert continues. "Will she be aggressive? Will she be more reflective on policy? Will she attempt to offer clear, distinct differences between herself and Obama? You never know until you get there."

Russert says the importance of Ohio and Florida in the general election and Ohio in this primary campaign "cannot be underestimated," although he expects Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada will also be crucial this year as changing demographics make them more winnable for Democrats.

Like any prominent media figure, Russert has critics. The left-leaning media watchdog group Media Matters for America says he invites too many conservatives on his Sunday show and maintains some of his debate questions seem scripted by the Republican National Committee. The right-wing Media Research Center contends he's too soft on Democrats.

Closer to home, backers of former long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich accuse Russert of trivializing the Cleveland congressman in an October debate by asking if he'd seen a UFO at Shirley MacLaine's house, as the actress claimed in a recent book.

"I didn't know if we'd ever had a presidential candidate who believes in UFOs before, and thought it was a serious question," says Russert, who read about MacLaine's claims in The Plain Dealer. Russert says he also asked Kucinich debate questions about the Iraq war and the economy, and the UFO query was part of a lighthearted discussion on issues like costume preferences for Halloween, the date the debate occurred.

Russert says he finds himself in Cleveland once or twice a year, and likes going to Progressive Field and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

"It's going to be great to be back in Cleveland," Russert said. "I really look forward to seeing my old friends and making new ones."


COMMENTS (7)Post a comment
Posted by kparcell on 02/24/08 at 6:34PM

We have it here that Russert's UFO question to the Cleveland Congressman was both entirely serious and just part of a lighthearted discussion - in the same paragraph! Cleveland Plain Dealer: All The News It's Possible to Invent. Hey Tim, is it too late to ask about not-for-profit health care? Oh yeah, guess so.

Posted by tapsearcher on 02/25/08 at 1:32PM

My question to all Presidential and Congressional candidates - See Open Letter to all Presidential Candidates at
( to all viewing it - please pass it on )

Posted by logitechthx on 02/25/08 at 2:26PM

Who really cares about this debate - I would rather watch "Dirty Jobs" reruns then listen to these two windbags. It will be interesting to see all the cuyahoga politicans trying to figure out who's butt to kiss after the debate. As Clinton's ship sinks, it might be a good idea for one or two of the Commissioners to support Boma

Posted by dankeene on 02/25/08 at 3:11PM

Tim Russert was at 10 cent Beer Night? About a million Clevelanders claim to have been there too.

Posted by pummels on 02/25/08 at 5:31PM

Question to all the candidates:

The Fed lowered the rate for Banks to borrow funds, yet Key Bank opened a branch in Grand Cayman. The United States has no trade market with Grand Cayaman and banks pay no taxes there. What is the benefit to Ohio and/or the United States?

Posted by flintbob on 02/25/08 at 7:42PM


Your mailings, pointed out by Mrs. Clinton today, make you a hypocrite. Saying one thing in public, than you use mailings that are wrong, deceiving and hit below the belt.

You SHOULD be ashamed of using a quote from a newspaper that the newspaper itself retracted as not being a correct quote.

The Obama health care plan is inferior. You only need basic reading skills to read the Clinton health care plan and they your mailing, and see you're either using hyperbole or are simply printing and distributing an untruth. The Clinton web site (see link below) says: The tax credits will ensure that working families never have to pay more than a limited percentage of their income for health care.

You are practicing the OLD politics of Washington and your claims of practicing the "politics of hope" and giving voters a different kind of choice have now been obliterated much like the spy satellite shot down earlier this week by the USS Lake Erie, named after that body of water on the northern border of Ohio. Obama is clearly cherry picking, parsing, asking what the definition of is, is, in order to make his attack.

Perhaps your candidacy, now rogue just like the satellite, will meet the same fate in the state bordered by its namesake lake.

Wouldn't that be eerie?

Mr. Obama, please be prepared to defend your tactics.

On Sep 9, 2004 you, Mr. Obama, said to the Herald & Review of Decatur, Illinois - "Obama said the United States benefits enormously from exports under the WTO and NAFTA."

Both you and Senator Clinton believe we NEED NAFTA, but it simply has to be renegotiated. As do most good democratic Americans.

Mr. Obama, you act like a Boy Scout on stage, but are guilty of using unfair tactics behind the scene.

Making your career, Mr. Obama, on being different, a uniter, not a divider, that's the same thing George W. Bush said.

You, both, are fakers, posers, actors.

Hopefully the voters will figure that out so you are not elected.

Posted by Toughtootsie on 02/26/08 at 12:12AM

Lets ask the experts in the economy, what would freezing interest rates do to the economy for five years? Anyone want to address this?

This is what Hilary wants to do!

I would like to say to could you be so so proud of being with Barack at the same time you accuse him of being a zerox copy cat? Talk about Phoney.

It is obvious we have had a front runner for some time now for the Democrates....why has no one acknowledged that?

In my view Hilary is a very sore loser and she just cannot bear to lose what she is really entitled to her mind that is. She is showing that she did not prepare properly in her campaign, and she is now taking it out on Barack who did.
She is willing to upset the whole democratic party in order to win when she is not truly winning. What a disgrace to the party.

To the mud slinging that has occured ....You have to be able to take what you dish out!!!