Midway through the 2016 presidential election, Luke Russert did what most young people do when they feel stuck or unsatisfied in life—he quit his job and spent the next seven years traveling the world on a "quest for enlightenment." Eager to free himself from the "shackles of DC society" and perhaps to finally outrun the shadow of his late father, NBC News legend Tim Russert, the exuberant nepo prodigy set out to carve his own path and find his "purpose" in life.
And now he's back. Having exhausted all other options, including a failed attempt to make it as an Instagram influencer, Russert discovered that his true purpose was writing a memoir about discovering his true purpose. He's spent the last few days hawking it on the Beltway book circuit, back in shackles.
Look For Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself is billed as "the emotional story of a young man taking charge of his life," brimming with "important lessons," "historical understandings," "vivid narrative," and "poignant reflection." Sounds amazing, right? That's probably why the likes of Tom Brokaw, Savannah Guthrie, and Maria Shriver had such nice things to say about it.
Opinions will vary among people who actually read the book. It seems excessive, for example, to describe Look for Me There as a guiding light "for anyone uncertain about the direction of their life or unsure of how to move forward after a loss." It's not entirely clear how the average person will take inspiration from Russert's inner struggle as a chronically unemployed scion getting drunk on foreign beaches, berating third-world taxi drivers, and cheating on his girlfriend.
It's not the worst memoir ever written. Not even close, probably. Former president Barack Obama has authored several (and counting). It's even interesting at times. The early chapters provide a glimpse of what at this point seems like a bizarre alternative reality. Mourners traveling across the country to attend a journalist's funeral. Former House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) warning Russert to get out of the capital and "go do something" before he becomes a "creature" of This Town. MSNBC bumping Russert's "substantive report" from Capitol Hill for a breaking news update on former president Donald Trump's thoughts on Harambe.
But as soon as Russert embarks on his global quest for purpose and enlightenment, the average reader will find prohibitively challenging the task of taking him seriously as a writer, traveler, thinker, bon vivant.
It's possible your humble correspondent is incapable of being objective on this matter, having once encountered Russert at the height of his journalistic career. He announced his presence by quoting a line from Old School, the decades-old frat comedy starring Will Ferrell. It's hard to shake the feeling that Look for Me There was written by someone who is "here for the gang bang."
Right off the bat, Russert dishes out throat-clearing apologies for being "the poster child for white elite privilege," "a white heterosexual male whose privilege has given him a cherished opportunity." Though that sort of language might as well be mandated by the publishing industry at this point, presumably no one forced him to include so many abominable sentences and cringe-inducing intellectual observations.
(Throat-clearing disclaimer: Russert is a grieving son who lost his father at a young age. That sucks. If you have lots of money, traveling the world might not be the worst thing you could spend it on, but still... see below.)
"If the road calls, I answer," Russert muses. "It's more than a lifestyle; it's life." He marvels that a building in a small South American village has been "struck by a bolt of opulent prosperous lightning and is now a high-end hotel and restaurant birthed from the brain of Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann." Brain birth, nice. At various points through his journey, Russert compares himself to Buddha, the Virgin Mary, a Rwandan silverback gorilla, and Jesus Christ.
"I've never done acid, but this must be what a trip feels like," the author observes at a party in Texas, where he gets "drunk beyond the point where I can be of service to" the local tattoo artist with burnt orange hair he picked up at the Lost Horse Saloon. He shrugs off a "pulsating" act of infidelity on Easter Island: "My Catholic guilt knows it's wrong, but the beauty of the island makes it feel right. ... It's kind of remarkable how men can rationalize most anything."
While getting drunk and taking "Instagram-perfect photos" on a beach in New Zealand after seeing a Guns N' Roses concert, Russert observes: "This is living. This is what it feels like to finally do what I want. ... I begin at last to truly broach the inner reaches of myself." Later, while watching the Super Bowl at the local equivalent of a VFW post, he thinks of his grandfather, a World War II veteran who worked for the Buffalo Sanitation Department: "When his B-24 Liberator crashed in England in October 1944 and he was pitched clear of the bomber and engulfed in flames, did he worry about dying without knowing his inner truth?"
Your humble correspondent is happy to concede the possibility of having missed the point of Look for Me There. Russert's reflections are either refreshingly earnest and self-deprecating, or stunningly oblivious to the extent they could form the basis for a character in a satirical novel about Millennial angst, elite liberal pieties, and "ugly American" tourists who think they're different. Readers can come to their own conclusions.
After pestering a group of Mormon missionaries in Cambodia, the author heads to Angkor Wat, where he is annoyed by "the throngs of tourists" who "represent the worst of contemporary culture" and only care about getting "the perfect shot for Instagram." He would never do something like that.
In Sri Lanka, one of many countries where punctuality is valued less than not being an asshole, Russert berates his driver for tardiness and throws a tantrum when poor Namir refuses to pull over so he can take a photo of the sunset. "Welcome to Mount Orgy!" he says to himself at Lion Rock, site of what might have been an ancient king's pleasure palace. "This is why I spent a day in the car with Namir?" he writes. "Thank God it photographs well."
Russert visits the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia because he feels a "sense of duty to see it. Especially since the existence of glaciers feels finite due to climate change." He vows to remain a "fervent environmentalist" the rest of his life. In Vietnam he has an epiphany after seeing a young family playing in a park. "It hits me. I'm from the country that napalmed innocent Vietnamese civilians, including kids just like this," Russert writes. "The strength to move on—what a gift."
A similar revelation occurs in Japan, where he tries to tip (considered rude) and makes a scene at a crowded intersection "filming it on my iPhone in a 360-degree circle like a goofball idiot." A visit to Hiroshima helps him appreciate "the precariousness of existence." He becomes "forever opposed to nuclear weapons," convinced that the U.S. attack to end World War II "did not need to happen." He leaves a baseball game "with gratitude" and a newfound respect for the Japanese people's "ability to move forward, rebuild, forgive."
Russert finds inspiration at a former slave port in Senegal, where he traveled "to see where [America's] most evil chapter began." A surfer off the rocky coast "shoots me the shaka hand sign, the worldwide symbol of hanging loose," he writes. "The waters that yesterday represented so much evil today begin to restore themselves into a more hopeful and progressive present, for a world where we not only atone for our sins but understand each other. I flash a shaka sign back."
It feels like the set up to a eureka moment of profound introspection that either never comes or is too subtle to have an impact. "I've learned so much about living and about other cultures," Russert boasts unpersuasively. "My mind has been reframed into a more understanding and empathetic angle. I've worked to shed the narrow worldview often projected by Washington and America."
Chapter 25 is titled "Owning up." It's barely four pages. He goes to therapy and performs "a real emotional autopsy." He starts to wonder if the "occasionally deep captions" he posted on Instagram could be the seeds of something great; perhaps "a project like a book might help me unlock my purpose." He resolves to move to San Francisco for several months, stay in the family "pied-à-terre," and write his memoir.
Look for it on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.
Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself
by Luke Russert
Harper Horizon, 272 pp., $28.99