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Like father, like son Tim Russert's name opened doors for his son at NBC, but Luke Russert has come into his own, building his reputation as a hard-hitting journalist

The young reporter with the familiar Irish eyes wouldn't let Rep. Anthony Weiner get away with it. "The picture that went over Twitter to Genette Cordova -- is that you?," he asked, politely.

"Well, let's keep in mind what happened here," the Queens congressman replied, all feigned sincerity. "I was pranked, I was hacked, I was punked, whatever it was, someone sent out a picture. I'm an easy name to make fun of and I think that's what happened."

Indeed, somebody had used the congressman's Twitter account to share a picture of some guy's, well, "snug" boxer briefs.

"But that's not a picture of you?" the reporter asked?

"You know, I can't say with certitude. My system was hacked, pictures can be manipulated, pictures can be dropped in and inserted...."

He can't say with certitude!

The reporter's voice grew more intense, more like a voice you heard a million times on Sunday mornings and election nights: "But, congressman, would you remember if you were to take a photograph of yourself like that...."

"You will not flat-out deny that that photograph is not you?"

"Where's our end game, then?"

The young reporter for NBC didn't need to ask those questions -- he had already gotten the goods.

The words "I can't say with certitude" were on their way to becoming a national punch line. Weiner admitted the obvious and resigned from Congress 15 days later.

Now, if you Google "Weiner" and "can't say with certitude," you'll get about 1.05 million results.

And while the young reporter doesn't look at things this way, you could see this as a vindication for him. After all, if you Google "Luke Russert" and "nepotism," you'll get only 7,740 hits.

To hear Luke Russert's friends and colleagues tell it, that watershed Weiner interview was public proof of something they had watched happen over the course of nearly three years.

At 26, Russert, the son of legendary NBC newsman and Buffalo native Tim Russert, has become a fine reporter in his own right.

It wasn't quick, and it wasn't easy.

Hired by NBC in 2008, only months after his college graduation and not long after his father collapsed and died of a heart attack, Russert endured a scathing Internet hazing.

But in the wake of his father's death, and through the public flogging and an off-air apprenticeship, Russert did something totally unlike his dad:

He stayed calm.

Tim Russert was famously hyper, glad-handing just about everybody he met and re-examining everything he did, constantly seeking positive reinforcement.

And friends describe Luke's mother, Maureen Orth, a Vanity Fair writer, as an intensely hard-working journalist with an easy laugh who can charm the truth out of just about anybody.

Yet from the start, Luke was like his dad's quiet junior partner.

"Tim and him were just like best buds when Luke was growing up," said Betsy Fischer, the longtime "Meet the Press" executive producer who figures she's known Luke since he was about 6. "Tim just loved hanging out with him, going to sporting events. They were just like little buddies."

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that this one last parallel would appear.

* * *

Still, following his father's footsteps was not the first thing on Luke Russert's mind in June 2008, when he was freshly graduated from Boston College.

He planned to keep hosting a satellite radio sports show, but beyond that, he acknowledged, "I didn't really have a concrete plan," he acknowledged.

But fate had a plan for him. When Russert said goodbye to his father on a family vacation in Italy -- the workaholic "Meet the Press" host had to return home for the Sunday show -- it was for the last time. His father died that Friday, June 13.

A grieving Luke Russert suddenly became the family spokesman. And he did so with a shocking eloquence.

Remaining composed throughout a long interview on NBC's "Today Show" only three days after his father died, a chubby-cheeked Luke Russert said of his father: "I really, honestly believe that he saw himself as the questioner for the American people. He obviously did his job for himself, for his network, for his family, but at his core I believe he had a higher calling, a responsibility to educate the American public about the candidates who seek the highest office in the land."

And days later, Russert delivered a eulogy in the National Cathedral in which he noted that he found comfort in a story from his father's book "Big Russ and Me," about Tim's friend Michael Gartner, who lost his 17-year-old son to acute juvenile diabetes.

The question his father asked, Russert said, was what if God offered this: "'I will give you a beautiful, a wonderful, happy, and lovable son for 17 years, but then it will be time for him to come home.' You would make that deal in a second, right?'

"Well, I only had 22 years, but I, too, would make that deal in a heartbeat," Russert said.

All of Washington was watching. Less than two months later, NBC hired him to cover youth issues in the presidential campaign.

"There are two kinds of people in television," said Antoine Sanfuentes, now NBC's Washington bureau chief. "There are people who are naturals, who have what it takes, and there are those that do not."

The people at the top at NBC News saw Luke Russert as a natural.

* * *

Anonymous know-it-alls of the blogosphere saw things a bit differently.

"Isn't it bad enough that we can't escape from political dynasties, do we have to set them up in the media too?" ranted an AlterNet blogger a day after Russert's hiring was announced.

"No offense, but what did this kid ever do besides be born to a certain father and then have that certain father die?" asked a blogger on Gawker.

In this atmosphere Luke Russert went to work -- and almost immediately, he stumbled.

Interviewed on "Today" on Sept. 24, 2008, he said the University of Virginia was full of "smart kids," and therefore the campus was trending toward backing Democrat Barack Obama for president.

"I misspoke and made what is without a doubt, quite simply a dumb comment," Russert acknowledged in a written apology later that day.

Meanwhile, the financial crisis pushed all the campaign's other issues, including youth issues, onto the back burner. Not surprisingly, Luke Russert was suddenly not getting a ton of airtime.

"His role in the 2008 race was amorphous," said Shawna Thomas, an NBC producer who later worked with Russert on Capitol Hill. "I was planning logistics and saw how he was used. It was supposed to be about the youth issues, but sometimes in a network as big as NBC that sort of thing is sort of hard to sell."

It wasn't the easiest beginning, but NBC News executives knew what his best next step would be: In May 2009, Russert went to Capitol Hill in an off-the-air role, gathering quotes and helping produce news segments for other NBC reporters.

"We discussed Luke and I think developed a collective thinking that his strength was in political reporting," Sanfuentes said. "He is a chip off the old block. There was also collective agreement that we needed to send him up to the Hill so he could put his nose to the grindstone. He's got what it takes."

It wasn't such a bad thing to disappear for a while, Russert said.

"That time for me was so special," he said. "It allowed me to fully concentrate on the real brick and mortar of being a journalist -- asking questions, writing it up, pursuing sources, getting sources, and not being worried about how I look on camera."

Russert also was learning the arcane intricacies and personalities of Capitol Hill, and how they combine to make or break legislation.

He returned to the airwaves later in 2009, covering the House, and quickly became known as the first reporter to ask the toughest question.

"He'll ask anybody anything," said Jake Sherman, a close friend and colleague at Politico.

Just ask Congressman Charlie Rangel.

* * *

Russert led the questioning as a gaggle of reporters cornered the imperious Manhattan Democrat on July 23, 2010, the day the House Ethics Committee charged Rangel with multiple violations.

"Did you ever worry about losing your job?" Russert asked, matter-of-factly.

"What are you talking about? You're just trying to make copy? What job? The one I got?"

"Yes, I mean [these are] serious violations," Russert countered.

"How do you think -- how do you think I got my job? I was elected, right? How do you think I'd lose it?

"There's two ways. You could lose it [if] your colleagues voted you out of here because of ethics violations, or your constituents voted you out."

"Well, you're young," Rangel snapped. "I guess you do need to make a name for yourself. But basically, you know it's a dumb question and I'm not going to answer it."

Rangel apologized to Russert the next day, but the damage was done. Rangel looked testy and defensive -- and Russert looked like a journalist who would stand his ground.

"Rangel, being the wily character he is, he was really trying to throw Luke off balance, and Luke never fell for it," said Bob Schieffer, the former CBS News anchor who got to know Luke as a bearded college kid. "He never got in an argument with him."

It was, Russert says now, "my first big break as a journalist."

And it was the first public sign of what many on Capitol Hill had already noticed. Russert had made himself an extremely aggressive reporter.

"The thing [my father] always used to say to me was learn as much as you can about the person and take the other side, which serves you quite well," Russert said.

Russert is also quite clearly his mother's son. She has passed down to him her "EEEPPP" rule of journalism: energy, enthusiasm, empathy, polite, prepared, persistent.

And that might be why lawmakers as well as colleagues note that Russert's on-air appearances are so complete and thoughtful.

"He's shown a sophistication and a maturity and a wisdom that's beyond his years," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who speaks with Russert frequently.

* * *

Then again, he's still learning.

"Russert sometimes seems like a class cut-up standing extra straight and trying not to let a curse word slip," Howard Kurtz, the dean of Washington media critics, wrote last December.

Perhaps that's because there's a bit of the class clown in him. Luke is noted among his friends for doing karaoke to Springsteen and Journey. ("Not after 22 Rolling Rocks would his father get up and do that," Orth noted.)

And then there are his tweets, which range from up-to-the-minute accounts of the debt-ceiling battle to musings on unjustifiably obscure rock bands like the Hold Steady and, of course, the Buffalo Bills.

"All #Buffalo #Bills fans in the #DC area come to Laughing Man's Tavern. 13th and G by Metrocenter. 35cent wings. They'll hear us in the OP!" he tweeted before the Bills beat the Patriots last month.

* * *

While Russert was born into the luckiest of circumstances, he's known some hardship, too.

He doesn't speak at length or often about the loss of his father, but it's clear that it has affected him in many ways and every day.

"Kent Hull's sad death at age 50 is a reminder of the constant need to monitor all signs of heart disease. Best center in #Bills history," Russert tweeted earlier this month.

And many evenings, Russert can be found doing something else his father would never do: running in Washington's Rock Creek Park. He has shed 25 pounds in recent years, and his cheeks are no longer chubby.

"Seeing my dad always being bigger, that's the direct reason he passed away," Russert said. "It's really motivated me to stay as healthy as possible."

It also has motivated him to keep working hard.

"He just does what good reporters do," said Schieffer, who predicts that Russert will end up anchoring a nightly newscast someday. "He works all the time, he loves what he's doing and he gets better at it every day."

Not surprisingly, then, Russert hears the same question all the time. Does he want to host "Meet the Press" someday?

"Is it my goal that I strive for? No," he said. "But if there's one thing I've learned from watching 'Meet the Press,' it's never rule out anything in your future. As you often see with people running for president, they often say something and then look foolish 12 or 30 years later."

In fact, like many twentysomethings, Luke Russert doesn't seem to have many long-term goals. He said he hopes to stay on Capitol Hill for at least four more years and simply continue to try to do well, and good.

"Did my last name get me in the door? Absolutely. I will be the first to admit that to you," he said. "I've been given an extraordinary opportunity, but with that comes a responsibility. I know that I am responsible not only to my job, but also to my last name."

And while Russert talked of his life like an open book in the interviews for this story, there was one topic he would not discuss: his girlfriend.

"I don't talk about that," he said. "I don't think it's fair to her. I don't want to put her in the spotlight."

Friends say that protective quality is something they see in Russert all the time. Perhaps it's something that stems from his faith.

"One thing I learned from a young age through Catholicism is this idea that you are here on this earth to try and make it better," said Luke, like his father a church-going Catholic.

And with that he repeated a quote from his namesake.

Citing Luke 12:48, he said: "To whom much is given, much is expected."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com.