The woman ahead of me wished Vice President Joe Biden the gift of blarney. “I already have that one,” he said. “That’s my problem.” Of course, he was right. Less than a week after that exchange, microphones picked up the expletive he whispered to President Barack Obama before he signed the health care bill into law. But there were no worries of a slip of the tongue at the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner on St. Patrick’s Day this year. Everyone in the Washington Convention Center was soaking up Biden’s gift of gab.
The vice president continued to work the rope line well after he delivered his joke- filled keynote address. A crowd of media- employed gawkers surrounded him, some for just a picture, others for the chance to pitch him on why he should appear on their show. When I finally maneuvered my way to the front of the crowd, I introduced myself as a fellow Irishman. “Holy cow, Andy Rafferty, who’s taking Andy Rafferty’s picture?” he yelled. Joe Biden had truncated my name from Andrew to Andy, but I guess when you’re the vice president you can do that.
Of course, it would not be a major Washington event if there wasn’t an after- party. Following this year’s dinner the heavy hitters would cross the street to a BBC sponsored event. The BBC’s chief party planner had forgotten to send me the invite, which surely was nothing more than a clerical oversight. So, I strolled up to the entrance and approached one of the gatekeepers holding the keys to decide who could pass security and walk on the red carpet. I told her I wasn’t invited and asked if there was any chance I could get in, figuring she might find my honesty endearing. She looked up from the list of names in front of her and had a quick conference with a colleague sitting next to her. “Well, it ends at 12,” she told me. “So you should come back around 12:30.”
Even though I can’t get into all the after parties I would like, the past year of my life has been – by and large – surreal. It started with John Carroll University’s announcement of the NBC/John Carroll University Meet the Press Fellowship in spring 2009, and accelerated when Betsy Fischer, the show’s executive producer, called to invite me to join her staff. My phone rang while I was sitting on my parents’ couch, scouring the Internet for jobs. Most of my friends spent senior year applying for jobs and graduate school, but I spent most of my energy thwarting the question of what I would do after I received my diploma. I could not find anything that really appealed to my interest in journalism and politics. Yet somehow – after graduating in what people continually referred to as one of the worst job markets of all time – I found myself with an opportunity as exciting as any college graduate could ever hope for. It was all because, four years earlier, I decided to leave Western New York to attend the same school as Tim Russert ’72.
The first day I reported to work at Meet the Press, I found myself chatting with Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) as I escorted him to the green room. I told him I went to school in Ohio, and he told me he is from the Cincinnati area, which judging by his deep tan is a much sunnier part of the state than Cleveland. The date was Sept. 20, 2009, and it was Barack Obama’s first appearance on the show as president. However, the president also appeared on four other Sunday shows that day, all of which were taped the Friday before in the White House. So there was no meet and greet with the president, but instead Rep. Boehner and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came to the bureau to respond to the president’s interview. They both got to the green room, and I considered it a good first day.
I don’t handle guests very often. Hillary Clinton and John McCain are probably the biggest names I’ve gotten to walk and shake hands with. This is Washington, so whenever people ask what famous politicians I’ve met, I always try to mention lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to show my bipartisan spirit. On most Sundays, I monitor breaking news that could be of relevance to the show, help find tape for last minute video additions, and keep an eye on what is happening on other Sunday shows. It could also mean doing some last-minute research for the show’s moderator, David Gregory. I have not been able to get over my alarm clock going off at 4 a.m., but once I am able to shake the cobwebs out, I really enjoy Sundays because of how crazy they can be. Regardless of what may go wrong, the show is airing live at 9 a.m. (Though it does air later in some markets, please check your local listings.)
A few people do a lot of work
David Gregory’s office has just enough room to pack in all of our 10-person staff. I attended my first staff meeting during my first week on the job. Before we began, David slapped me on the back and pointed to the Chinese food sitting on the table. “See, this is all for your arrival,” he joked. I find a lot of things remarkable about Meet the Press, but when I began there what I found most stunning was the size of the staff. A few people do a lot of work. The informality of things reminded me a lot of the weekly Carroll News staff meetings– except The CN has a larger staff.
Intimidation would be a good way to describe how it felt walking into NBC’s Washington Bureau for the first few weeks I was there. The welcoming attitude of the MTP staff went a long way to help me get over that. But knowing what kind of work goes on in the building prevents one from ever completely escaping that feeling. Any given day, I am liable to go into the cafeteria and run into someone like Chris Matthews yelling about whatever’s on his mind at that moment. One day, Pat Buchanan was coming out of the lobby and we shared one of those awkward, “you go left, I’ll go right” moments that didn’t end until I finally just stood still and he made his way around me. On employee appreciation day there was a luau, complete with a guy twirling fire sticks. It was great until he set himself and the sidewalk ablaze as Madeleine Albright walked in.
On top of that, there was the intimidation that came with having never done anything in television. I spent a lot of hours locked in the newsroom of The Carroll News, and I felt very capable of entering the field of journalism, but TV never crossed my mind until this fellowship. And I wasn’t just entering any old TV news program – this was Meet the Press, the longest running show in the history of television.
‘JCU served me well’
While there is a TV language barrier I continue to struggle with at times, it did not take long to realize the most important lessons I learned at JCU served me well. My day-to-day work includes gathering stories and opinions driving the news and sending them to the staff. A few weeks into the job, David sent me an e-mail saying he liked the work I’d been doing, but he wanted more. He asked me to construct an outline of the major arguments being made for and against sending additional troops to Afghanistan. So I did that and got the response, “This is a good start, but you need to go deeper.”
Being able to regularly learn from and have access to one of the world’s most influential journalists was something I did not expect, at least not to the degree it has happened. I have a lot of interaction with David, mainly working with him on his blog and managing his online presence. He also asks me for research on a regular basis – which varies from finding good reads about a particular subject, to checking a fact on Sunday morning before the show. The moderator of Meet the Press is coming to me with assignments and challenging me. That’s a position I never anticipated.
I’ve learned the most about how the show operates on a day-to-day basis from Betsy and the rest of the staff. One of my most frequent assignments is to look up what guests have said about issues in the past. The “put-it-on-the-screen” type of quotes that Tim Russert made famous during his tenure as moderator. The vetting process for what does and does not make it into the show is vigorous, and the overwhelming amount of research I do will never make the show. Not only are we concerned about the accuracy of information, but also the source and what kind of answers a person has given to similar questions previously. There is a flow from one point to the next, and the goal is to always lead to a defined point.
The thing that has most impressed me about this fellowship is how readily accepted I was by the Meet the Press staff. It was more than just people being nice to the new guy, it was about giving me a shot to contribute to the program. I am learning from the people who learned from Tim, and it’s really a testament to him that they were willing to create this opportunity and allow someone who is barely out of college to step in the door and contribute.
At times, this inclusion has extended outside of the bureau. I was invited to Betsy’s birthday party. Among the others invited were Wolf Blitzer, senior adviser to the president David Axelrod, and Alan Greenspan. An article on Politico about the event was headlined “Gregory to dominate dance floor.” A few weeks after the party, I came across a picture of me in the background of a photo taken of Dee Dee Myers, former President Clinton press secretary, in a conversation. The look on my face suggests I was delighted to have finally found the cupcakes.
I’ve also been able to visit NBC News headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York on two occasions and meet with Brian Williams and Matt Lauer. Both TV heavyweights took questions from a group of interns, giving up generous amounts of time. Along with advice, they shared with us some views on life. Williams, a New Jersey native, lamented about how nobody from the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore – a show that portrays Jersey folks in what some argue is a negative light – is actually from New Jersey. “Pauly D has the thickest Rhode Island accent I’ve ever heard,” Williams told us. After we went around the room and did introductions, he turned back to me and said, “Buffalo and John Carroll, that’s just ridiculous.” The comment was in reference to my path from home to college to employment. At least, I think.
Another thing that became abundantly clear from the moment I set foot in NBC is that Tim’s co-workers sincerely meant all the amazing things they said about him when he passed. From the anchor of Nightly News, to the men and women who spend their days answering phones, you can tell there is still a void. Tom Brokaw filled in one Sunday to moderate Meet the Press, and a producer introduced us after the show. Standing in the green room, he asked me about my experience and how I liked what I was doing. “What a fitting tribute to Tim,” he said. “More than naming a building after him, this is what he would have wanted – the opportunity to help someone.”
Newseum exhibit remembers Tim
Tim’s office was cluttered the day he passed. Covering his desk were all the
newspapers and magazines you would expect a political junkie to be reading. Along with those publications was reading material that had great significance to him – the program from his son, Luke’s, commencement ceremony; a copy of Big Russ and Me. I was behind Betsy and Luke as they pointed at the items and talked about the significance behind each.
We weren’t at NBC where Tim’s office had been converted into a conference room with a Buffalo Bills pennant hanging on the wall, known as “The Russert Room.” We were on the fourth floor of the Newseum, where his office had been recreated to mirror what it looked like the day he died. In November, they had a luncheon and special showing for his friends and colleagues the day before it opened to the public. I was lucky enough to be included, and as I looked around the room, I realized I was probably the only one there who had never met Tim. His colleagues packed into the small exhibit, even though most had spent time in its authentic inspiration. After the lunch ended and the crowd cleared out, I went back up to the exhibit where I found Betsy and Luke swapping stories, rehashing life with Tim. For someone I had never met, I sure missed him a lot.
I don’t think an experience like this exists anywhere else. I don’t think it can. Wherever I go from here is going to be in large part thanks to my time at Meet the Press. Meeting politicians and attending Washington events make for the best stories, but being able to contribute to holding the highest echelons of power accountable has given me the biggest thrill. And being a Blue Streak was the only way it could’ve happened.
What a country.