Modest Tim Russert was a driven man.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, June 17, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

A Psychological Profile of Tim Russert

Tim RussertTim Russert's death last Friday at the age of 58 produced the greatest national outpouring of grief for a single "civilian" since John Lennon was killed in 1980. Russert's memory has been honored by virtually every prominent newsperson and public figure in the United States. His numerous qualities - his faith, devotion to family, skill as an interviewer, impartiality, dedication, hard work, kindness, support of colleagues - have been praised by the leading figures in journalism and government. But some of Russert's fundamental attributes, at least those a psychologist would note, have not been given their share of attention.

Russert described his upbringing in his 2004 best-selling book, Big Russ and Me. Russert paid tribute to his quiet, unassuming father, who worked two jobs - as a sanitation worker and newspaper truck driver - to support his family. Russert attended a small Catholic college in Ohio, following which he obtained a law degree at Cleveland-Marshall. He then worked on New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan's successful senatorial campaign in 1976. Before the age of 30, Russert became Moynihan's chief of staff. In 1984, he left politics to work for NBC, where he became both Washington Bureau Chief and moderator of Meet the Press, as well as leading election coverage for the network.

Obviously, Russert was smart. But he wouldn't be called brilliant, certainly in terms of his academic background. Commentators spoke of his common touch and awareness of mainstream Americans' concerns. But there are many people with working class backgrounds, even those who go to college, who don't rise to Russert's heights. What, exactly, enabled him to become America's pre-eminent political commentator? I don't know enough about either the workings of TV journalism or Russert's skills to identify the source of his political insight and genius. But I can say something about the psychological traits that enabled his attainments.

Russert was achievement oriented and ambitious. He spoke often of his blue-collar, working-class origins, to which he and others credited his work ethic. But Russert did more than work incredibly hard. Russert took on the most demanding jobs and was prepared to be the best at them. It was not only personal achievement he sought, but the betterment of the organizations for which he worked. He assumed, fresh from law school, increasingly commanding positions in Moynihan's campaign and Senate office. He switched from a successful career as a political operative into broadcast news. He took on hosting Meet the Press after he already held the powerful and demanding job of NBC's principal bureau chief. Tim Russert, for all of his lack of pretension, was dedicated to achievement.

A need for social affiliation is usually contrasted with achievement motivation on the one hand, and the need for power on the other. Leaders often manage by relying on their status and on sheer power. But Russert led by friendship - he dealt with new situations and people by making friends. Gregarious and considerate, Russert's memory inspired co-worker after co-worker to tears as they related the personal kindness and generosity he consistently displayed. Mary Matalin described how Russert was as concerned about the success of those he worked with as with his own. Other colleagues talked about his never wanting credit for suggestions he made that gave them a leg up on stories or interviews.

Finally, Russert was self-confident. This trait is submerged - along with his achievement motivation - by his image as a down-home guy who could just as easily have been a teacher or a lawyer in Buffalo. When Russert first went to work for Moynihan, who had been a brilliant Harvard professor, he was intimidated by the brainpower of his boss and other Harvard alums who worked for him. But Russert recovered his equilibrium quickly and, as chief of staff, readily offered advice and direction to many smart people. You have to be confident to make pronouncements - like declaring Barack Obama the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination - in front of millions of television viewers. And Russert never backed down from confronting the nation's power brokers, including presidents. You have to believe in yourself to do that.

Where did a Buffalo sanitation worker's son from a small-college background get this kind of chutzpah (pardon the technical jargon)? Understanding that might require an entire psychobiography. One hint research offers is that being the only boy with three sisters tends to boost a person's self-esteem. But it took much more than this to create the combination of psychological dispositions that enabled Tim Russert to assume the unique position in American life he did.