Luke Russert’s Washington Fairy Tale Is Missing an Ending

From a Washington Post story by Kara Voght headlined “Luke Russert’s Washington fairy tale is still missing an ending”:

It unfolded like a Washington fairy tale: A beloved king dies. The kingdom rallies behind the son, who undertakes duties that might prepare him to eventually ascend the throne. Then, one day, an elder approaches him with an urgent warning: Leave, while you still can.

In this case, the avuncular wise man was John A. Boehner, then the Republican speaker of the House.

“You’ve got to learn something else,” Luke Russert recalls Boehner telling him in 2015. “You can’t just live in the political bubble your entire life, because there’s no ‘real’ there.”

A tall order for someone born into the political bubble. Russert is the scion of Washington media royalty: Tim Russert, political wunderkind turned Sunday show superstar, and Maureen Orth, a celebrated journalist of Newsweek and Vanity Fair fame. By the time Boehner shows up like a chain-smoking Ghost of Beltway Present, Luke has spent eight years at NBC, diligently upholding Tim’s legacy, one Capitol Hill TV stand-up shot at a time. (Sen. John McCain called him “Skywalker” — a nod to both his first name and, as fate would have it, the outsize legacy he’d inherited.) A key reason Boehner was even speaking to him was because he’d known Russert’s parents. “He was one of my boys, and I took care of my boys,” Boehner said in a brief interview. “I just thought he could do a lot more with his life than follow members of Congress around.”

“That starts that thinking a little bit, which is, ‘Who am I independent of my parents, and who am I independent of my father’s legacy?’” Russert says. “I needed to see who I am for myself. And I can’t do that here.”

What’s a fairy tale without a quest? Sometime after Boehner’s intervention, Russert stepped out of his father’s shoes and booked it to faraway lands for some three years of nearly continuous continent-crossing travel. And when we say he booked it, we do mean that literally. Because Russert has come back from his odyssey in a very Washington way: with a book to sell.

The book, which came out this week, is titled “Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself.” Think “Eat, Pray, Love” meets Prince Harry’s memoir, set against the backdrop of Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” But if “This Town” detailed just how willing Washington’s aspirants are to mortify themselves for swampy glory, Russert’s book depicts the opposite: the lengths to which a swamp creature by birth will go to escape from it.

I caught up with Russert on a Thursday afternoon in late April, not far from his childhood home, in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. This is where Russert is living these days, where he is preparing to be welcomed by the media — including an appearance on “Meet the Press,” his father’s old show. He greets me outside Vace Italian Delicatessen (a favorite pizza spot from his youth) in shorts, boat shoes and an athletic performance T-shirt, looking dressed for the back nine, not Capitol Hill.

There’s an instinct to search his face for signs of his father, recognizable in Russert’s hazel eyes and the woolly curve of his brow. Others in Washington had the same impulse 15 years ago. Tim’s funeral was Luke’s baptism in the Washington spotlight: Then a 22-year-old recent college graduate, he delivered a much-lauded eulogy for his father. “That single eulogy, that remembrance, will change my career trajectory — and my life,” Russert writes in his book. “Out of my worst day will come my biggest opportunity.”

The problem was that, after he seized that opportunity, it kept pulling him in a direction that, over time, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go. Russert describes suddenly finding himself at the White House correspondents’ dinner with Anna Kendrick on his arm, the way many of his millennial peers might describe waking up in their childhood bedroom a decade after college graduation.

“I was totally serviceable and did the best job I could, worked very hard,” he says of his journalism career. Eventually, the adrenaline of breaking news gave way to a distaste for transactional back-scratching and pedantry of congressional procedure. Boehner’s wisdom, about the elusiveness of “real” in this kingdom, made sense. “I think about my future, about marrying somebody deemed ‘worthy’ by DC society, seeing my kids go to the same high school as I had, then attending the same galas I’m attending now, getting older, never leaving, ending up in the same cemetery as my dad,” Russert writes. “It suddenly feels terrifying.”

When he began his worldwide journey in October 2016 — right before everybody started questioning what was real in Washington — travel was the salve Russert sought for his lingering grief over his dad and antipathy toward politics. He found a daredevil edge when he charmed his way into entering Bolivia without the requisite visa. He learned in a bar in Cambodia what most political obsessives spend time in bars trying to forget: that America’s “greatest export,” as Russert puts it, ships from Hollywood, not Washington. There’s plenty of cringe in the book, too — most notably when he tours Angkor Wat, the vast Buddhist temple complex, and learns the story of Prince Siddhartha. “At the risk of comparing myself to Buddha, I focus on how I, too, am privileged and was sheltered from the worst suffering of my village by my father,” he writes.

Russert had grown up closer with his doting father and assumed he resembled him in all ways. In his travels, he discovers more in common with his mother, who is more curious and risk-taking than Tim had been. “It took some time away from Washington, time away from the life I had known, to really understand my mother — and I fault myself a little bit for that,” Russert says. “In grief, you get caught up in a very strong relationship with your dad and get caught up in the day-to-day life of Washington.”

He also begins to see his father as mortal, too. “When I was at NBC, sometimes it was difficult to differentiate the man I knew as dad versus the man who people would think of as this hard-hitting moderator of ‘Meet the Press,’” he says. “It wasn’t until I got away that I started more introspection as, ‘Okay, this is Dad as my friend and my father.’”

Eventually, Russert’s time in the wilderness feels aimless, in a different way. He learns a lesson familiar to any wanderer who seeks transformation through travel: Wherever you go, there you are. He feeds off the highs of social media likes and shares and starts rushing through the journey to get to the Instagrammable destination. He drinks himself into stupors at far-flung dive bars. He has a disorienting chance encounter with an ex-girlfriend in Russia, in summer 2018. They’d broken up years earlier, because she had wanted to travel the world and Russert had wanted to climb the ladder at NBC; her sudden appearance in Red Square, on a trip with her husband, leads Russert to conclude that his “all-or-nothing lens” on the allure of burden-free travel is “a bunch of bulls—.”

His lowest point comes a few months later, in Abilene, Tex., when a night of Long Island iced teas gives way to insulting bartenders and boorish antics at a honky-tonk. After inhaling an artery-clogging Whataburger order, Russert wakes up fearing his fast-food diet would give him a heart attack, that he’d die the way his father did. “This isn’t what this journey was supposed to be about,” he writes. “This isn’t self-growth, and it’s far, far away from self-care.”

Russert crawled out of his hole the way people with time and money can: therapy, running and writing the book. He’d initially conceived of it as a tome of travel essays. “I may aspire toward some wannabe Hemingway with a splash of Bourdain,” he writes as he sets off on his journey. (The end product, although a thoughtful personal reflection, does not evoke either man.)

“I realized that it wasn’t just necessarily about me traveling,” Russert says now. “It was much more of a transformational experience. Having the time to write that all out allowed me to see that.” He wrote the book over several years in his mother’s pied-à-terre (his term) in the tony Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. He is self-aware enough, at least, to recognize the ways in which his tale reflects privileged circumstances — low points and all. “I know that there’ll be somebody who picks it up and goes, ‘Well, this guy had such an advantage from the get-go, I don’t care about this,’” Russert says. “I totally respect that; I understand, without a doubt. But there are a lot of universal lessons there.”

His memoir might well exasperate readers who clawed their way into the kingdom that Russert willingly renounced. It also may be a relatable read for anyone who found themselves pulled down a path they never intentionally sought. That can happen here, too, at all different parts of the professional ladder. That’s not a fairy tale, but it’s a common story.

And where does the story end? For now, where it started: in green rooms at NBC, where Russert has made several appearances to promote the book. Next week, the upper echelons of Washington’s journalism elite will host a book party for Russert serving “cocktails inspired by Luke’s travels to 65+ countries,” according to the party invite. After that, Russert isn’t sure — though he hasn’t ruled out the family business. “I definitely like storytelling,” he says. “That’s an area where I feel there’s a combination of a passion and a little bit of natural talent.” (“I think it’s time for me to have another conversation with him about what’s next,” Boehner says of Russert’s vague plans. “I’ve got a few more pearls of wisdom I’m gonna have to share with him.”)

Now that Russert’s popped his way out of the political bubble, I asked him whether he thinks the denizens of Washington’s political media industrial complex are living in some version of the Matrix — meaning, a place with customs and currency that are real only to the people who subscribe to it.

“That’s an interesting way to put it,” he said. “I don’t want to necessarily go that far. But I do think that there is real value in getting away from the day-to-day grind.”

He said that he and a journalist friend liked to joke about what it would be like to wave a magic wand for all the journalists, staffers and operatives in Washington.

“It would be like, ‘Could you take two months to do something that’s completely different?’” he imagined. “Those types of things would probably benefit a lot of people — just to sort of unplug for a minute and really see what matters.”

Kara Voght is a politics reporter for the Style section at The Washington Post, writing features and profiles that capture the political moment. She previously covered politics for Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic and the New Republic.

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