Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself, by Luke Russert (Harper Horizon, 272 pp., $28.99)
Tim Russert represented a gold standard of nonpartisan journalism. Though his personal views were likely left of center (he worked for Democrats, including Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan), he was scrupulously fair, grilling Democrats and Republicans alike on Meet the Press until his untimely death in 2008. While reading his son Luke Russert’s new memoir, Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself, I felt nostalgic for an era when partisanship didn’t invade every crevice of public life. Indeed, I’m old enough to remember a time when you could read a book about travel or sports or art and not have to endure the author’s politics along the way.
Tim Russert went to my high school in Buffalo. Luke grew up in New York and D.C. but is a Bills fan, like his father (and me). I wrote a book about wanderlust and call myself a pathological traveler. I was eager to read about Luke’s three-year journey around the world and predisposed to like the book, but it was mostly disappointing.
Shortly after his father’s death, Luke Russert was hired right out of college by NBC News, his father’s employer, to cover the youth vote in the 2008 presidential election. The younger Russert then went on to become a congressional correspondent, covering Congress from 2009 to 2016. To his credit, Russert acknowledges the nepotism that helped him get his foot in the door.
At 30, eight years after his father’s death, he quit his job at NBC and drifted around the world, traveling to dozens of countries on six continents over a period of three years in what he calls a “quarter-life crisis.” He financed his travels with savings, inheritance money, and an insurance settlement that he received after his father’s death. Russert’s descriptions of his travels are often dull. Three years’ worth of international journeying should have yielded better stories than those he offers. A coup attempt takes place while he’s in Zimbabwe, for example, but he has almost nothing to say about it.
Russert also frequently digresses into politics in a way that his father never would have done, particularly in a book that’s supposed to be about personal grief and travel. He lectures a guy he meets in a Maine bar about how transgender bathroom laws might hurt some people’s feelings. He concludes, during a visit to Hiroshima, that America was wrong for dropping an atomic bomb there. He lectures about climate change and feels so strongly about nesting turtles that he assaults a French tourist who took flash photos of one on a beach in Sri Lanka. Russert explains his behavior by saying that he was being an “ugly American.” Actually, he was just acting like a jerk.
In Senegal, Russert visits the Door of No Return, where thousands of enslaved people were shipped to the Americas. He says that his Irish, Italian, and German ancestors “disliked the practice (of slavery) almost entirely because of wage stagnation, not morality.” It’s an “uncomfortable reality too many white folks ignore,” he says. How does he know that his ancestors felt this way? Russert never says; he just throws his family tree under the bus. At the door, he says he “feels the pain of the past.”
The years of strife in America related to slavery, the Dredd Scott decision, the Civil War, segregation, the lynchings of the Civil Rights era, the continual need for movements like Black Lives Matter, the modern day manifestations of racism which bind themselves to slavery, systemic inequality, race-baiting in politics, voter suppression, blackballing an NFL quarterback who took a knee to protest injustice, in some sense it all traces back to this door.
It takes some doing to tie the struggles of Colin Kaepernick, who has compared NFL players to slaves and made millions off his inability to get signed by a pro team, to the symbolic starting point for the Transatlantic slave trade, but Luke Russert gives it his best shot.
After Luke has traveled for a year and a half, often solo but sometimes with his mother, who foots the bills for the trips they take together, he finds himself cut off financially; his mother says she’ll no longer pay for any more trips because she wants him to get a job and settle down. But travel is a drug, as Russert correctly observes, and he stays on the move. Three-plus years into his vagabonding lifestyle, he reflects that he’s getting fat and hasn’t found happiness.
Russert moves to San Francisco, where he takes up skateboarding and champions the city, which he believes is unfairly maligned by conservative media. “I take umbrage when it’s ridiculed in the national media for its issues,” he writes. “Yes, there are unhoused folks down on their luck who need to have better access to social services. Yes, some streets could use a scrub but overall, there’s no place like San Francisco. Here I can be myself. I can be quirky and experimental.” He does not reflect on the potential connection between the huge numbers of homeless and the ample provision of those social services.
How does Russert justify writing such a book? “If I could inspire one person to better themselves or better understand themselves to take a risk, change direction or just realize it’s okay not to have everything figured out, to keep missing their lost loved ones, to be vulnerable, a project like a book might help me unlock my purpose. The journey has been for my benefit, but I see how it can help others.”
Maybe Look for Me There will resonate with readers mourning the loss of loved ones. Its best sections give us behind-the-scenes glimpses of what a wonderful father Tim Russert was. Right before he died, he was at his son’s new apartment, getting his cable and Internet hooked up for him while Luke was in Italy. And while many memoirists airbrush their lives, Luke Russert deserves some credit for honesty. He shares the details of a one-night stand on Easter Island. He details the pressures of having a demanding mother. He reflects with candor on the difficulties of having a famous dad. He acknowledges that he became somewhat of a lazy slob on the road. And he all but admits that he became a privileged, spoiled brat.
Russert also examines some of the dark sides of travel. Many people hit the road to cope with grief or in the wake of divorce or career problems, but few can escape their problems, as Russert admits. His forthrightness about becoming addicted to travel and producing social media content to fish for “likes” was compelling.
Look for Me There reveals a sort of generational divide. In Tim Russert’s day, journalists and public figures of all sorts understood the value of remaining nonpartisan when possible. Now, particularly among Millennials and Gen Z, liberals and progressives in journalism and seemingly every other field look to announce their politics whenever they can. I respect Luke Russert’s desire to be his own man and escape Tim Russert’s long shadow, but his memoir would have been better if he’d taken a page from his father and left the politics out.
Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images