Interview: Bob Schieffer of CBS News

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To say that many of us at Chicagoist are news and politics junkies is a gross understatement. We devour it. And several of us are the nerdy types that enjoy a Sunday morning viewing news shows, including Face the Nation with the incomparable Bob Schieffer. Schieffer has been covering the news for over 30 years and has established himself as one of the premiere broadcast journalists of his (or any) generation, as well as an oft-called upon debate moderator. And, lucky us, Schieffer is hitting town this week for a pair of appearances to promote his new book, Bob Schieffer's America, a collection of commentaries Schieffer has offered at the end of Face the Nation over the years.

Of course, we couldn’t talk to such a legend and spend all our time on a book. Our interview stretched well past its allotted time as the friendly, exuberant, and outgoing Schieffer talked with us about blogs (he likes us!), the debate he’ll moderate (it's about the issues!), and the upcoming election (historic!) and it made us happier than ever that Schieffer is still at it.

Catch Bob Schieffer in Chicago:
Tuesday, September 30, 12:30 p.m., Borders, 150 N. State Street, 312-606-0750 for more info
Wednesday, October 1, 11:30 a.m. - 1:45 p.m., Union League Club, 65 W. Jackson, 312-427-7800 for more info

Chicagoist: Why did you decide to publish this collection of commentaries?

Bob Schieffer: Well, it was earlier this year that the editor at Putnam, Neil Nyren, who put out my book This Just In, called me one day and asked me, ‘How many of these commentaries do you think you’ve written?’ and I thought, well, gosh I don’t know, I’ll have to go back and count. And he said, ‘I think it’d be a good time to put them together into a collection.’ Well, it turns out there were more than 700. I first started writing them in 1994 on the weekend that Richard Nixon died and I just thought, at the time, that the program needed a little button and I wrote a very short commentary at the end and said, "Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace but he left the Earth with dignity."

And, lo and behold, we got all this mail so I tried it again a couple of weeks later and, again, there was a lot of mail, so we just started doing them. I wasn’t sure I really had permission because we have kind of strict rules at CBS about expressing opinions. But then I thought, well, if they don’t really want me to do it, they’ll call me and tell me to stop. Nobody said a word in about six months later we won a national Sigma Delta Chi award, the phones lit up, the bosses said, “These are great,” [laughs], so that’s how I got started doing it.

Out of the 700, we boiled it down to 171 and divide them into themes and surprisingly we found that each theme made its own chapter. There’s one, "How Washington Works - And Doesn’t." I did another chapter on what we call “Seasons," the ones I wrote on holidays. We did another on, of all things, obits ["The Lives We Led"]. Like Ronald Reagan, I’m one of those people who enjoys reading the obits mainly just to discover my name’s not there every day [laughs].

C: You bring up the issue of your opinion. Many of the commentaries in the book are pretty opinionated. For example, your commentaries in regards to Hurricane Katrina feature some sharp criticism of FEMA. Did you ever worry about how this type of subjectivity in these commentaries would affect your standing as a journalist?

BS: No, not really because we always put up a little notice on screen that identifies it as a commentary so that people know these are clearly my opinions. And I try to keep that totally separate from when I’m interviewing on the show earlier in the broadcast. But these are kind of snapshots of what I’m thinking. Obviously, the ones I wrote about Katrina- I was outraged about the failure of government at every level, from local, state, and the national level. A lot of it had to do with the way FEMA had been set up and I returned to that a couple of times and as a matter of fact, I got a lot of reaction from those.

Others might be about something as off-the-wall as the benefits of grilled cheese sandwiches. On several Fathers Days, I’ve written about how to be a father and I point out in one that more phone calls are made on Mother’s Day than any other day of the year while more collect calls are made on Father’s Day which reminds us dads that one of our main jobs is to pick up the check.

C: What was the self-editing process, of boiling down the collection from 700 to 171 commentaries, like?

B.S.: Well, it was sobering in one respect because when you look over your work for that length of time, some of it doesn’t stand the test of time. I basically just picked out the ones I thought were still relevant and the ones that I just liked, my personal favorites, the ones I had fun writing. I hope they’ll give people a little chuckle along the way.

My purpose in writing these is not to persuade people to my point of view. I’m really happy when people say, “Well, I don’t agree with that, but it’s certainly an interesting take.” I write them more to provoke thought than to persuade people. I also write them because I think the news is so awful a lot of the time that if I can leave people with a little smile at the end of Face the Nation, that makes me really happy.

C: One of my favorites was the one about you running into Johnny Cash at a bookstore ["Johnny Cash"].

B.S.: [laughs] I’ll never forget meeting ol’ Johnny in that bookstore in New York. He really was a remarkable guy. What was so interesting to me is that he was not only nice to me, but every single person that came up to him, he was just as nice as he could be. He was a real gentleman and a really thoughtful person. Meeting people like that really is fun. You think, well, that guy, I know he can sing, he’s a great entertainer and then you realize he’s a very thoughtful person. I love that. That’s one of my favorites, too.

C: What struck me as I read the book was that these commentaries, though you began writing them fourteen years ago, are very similar to what you would read on a blog these days. As the news cycle and the internet have evolved, blogs have played a bigger role in the news. How do you think blogs have affected coverage of the news?

BS: We operate in a totally different world now that the internet has come along. The bad news about the internet is that it’s the only vehicle that delivers news on an international scale that doesn’t have an editor. Even the worst newspaper has someone on the staff who knows where [information] comes from. Things show up on the web, you don’t know where they come from. Now, there are a lot of really good websites; yours is an excellent website. CBS has an excellent website. But we follow certain standards and sometimes things pop up on the web and you don’t know what basis in fact they have. In fact, some of them have the credibility of a guy standing on the street corner holding a sign that says, “The End Is Near.” Now, he may be right, but you’d kind of like to know what evidence he considered before coming to that conclusion. So we’re all operating in a much different world than we ever did before.

C: You’ll be moderating the final presidential debate [October 15th at Hofstra University]. We know that the candidates are preparing for the debates; Barack Obama’s in Florida getting ready right now. How do you prepare?

[Ed’s Note – For the sake of context: this interview concluded just minutes before John McCain made his declaration that he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington to focus on the economy and thus throwing the first debate into a state of limbo. – M.G.]

B.S.: You know, I do it the old fashioned way. I’ve got a young assistant and she files things chronically. Also, I read newspapers- I have some scissors in my desk [laughs] and I still cut articles out of the newspapers. I talk to people who follow things in Washington, I talk to other journalists, we put a major effort into it. I call up the folks who work with me on Face the Nation and we gather as much information as we can. Then, about three days before the debate, I’ll sit down and sort this into various topics and I’ll come up with the questions.

The good news about the debates this year is that they’re going to be debates in the classic sense. Each of these debates will be divided into nine ten minute segments. And I, as the moderator, will be responsible for picking out which topics we’ll talk about in each segment. I’ll ask each of them a question, they’ll answer, and then I’ll encourage them to ask each other questions. The idea is to make these debates, as much as we can, about the candidates and not about the moderators. I’m very, very excited. We’ve never had a format like this before. In the past, they’ve sort of been joint news conferences where the moderator asks each of them questions. We’re trying to get them to ask each other questions. If it works, and I think it’s going to work, I think it’ll be really interesting and I think it’ll also really be a lot of fun. I think we’ll learn and get a really good feel for who these people are.

C: Without naming your colleagues, there was some criticism about the way some of the moderators handled the primary debates and the triviality of some of the topics covered. In this election, there’s such a wide range of topics that could be covered: experience, oil prices, the financial mess…

B.S.: These debates will be about the issues. There’s no way that they cannot be about real issues. The primary debates were not really debates. You can’t really have a debate when there are 11 people on stage. Those are more like sound bite contests. I think we learned a lot as we went down the line with them, but this will be different. These will be one-on-one, going against each other, and that gives us the advantage of really being able to focus on the issues themselves. What we’ll try to do is give people the best picture we possibly can of who these people are, what they’re positions on the various issues are, and beyond that why they came to all the positions they hold. No “gotcha!” questions here, we’re not trying to ask them things to trip them up or get them to say something negative. We’re trying to get them to say exactly what they mean and they’ll ask each other about it.

I think these debates are going to be decisive, I really do. I think they’re going to be what decides this election. It is very, very close right now, as you well know, and they had enormous audiences when both of these candidates made their acceptance speeches at the conventions. 60 Minutes had a huge audience Sunday [September 21] when Obama and McCain both appeared. I think we’re going to have some of the biggest audiences ever and I think it will be what tips the election one way or the other.

C: So no flag pin questions?

B.S.: Oh, no. These are not going to be about jewelry.

C: Can you give us an idea of some of the issues you’ll be covering in your debate?

B.S.: Sure. Obviously, we’re going to ask them about this financial crisis and what’s going on with Wall Street right now. We may get two segments on that. And other issues like immigration, health care, social security and more entitlement programs. Leadership. I think one question we might could ask is, “Who do you intend to put in the government?” McCain has talked about having a bipartisan cabinet. I want to know how far he’s going to go with that. I think it’s also fair to ask each of them about the people they have chosen to be their running mate. We’ll see what they have to say about that and what they have to say about the other’s running mate.

I’ll have more questions than can ever be posed going into this. When I was getting ready for the last debate in 2004 [laughs], I had this dream that I had used all my questions, that I had run out of questions and I looked at the clock and I still had a half-hour to go and I woke up in a cold sweat. So I’ll make sure I’m not in that kind of position. With the way this election is going right now, with the issues that are out there, there will be no shortage of things to talk about.

C: Having covered Washington for so long, how does this election compare to the others that you’ve covered?

B.S.: It’s the most exciting that I’ve ever covered. I’ve never seen one go this far without a real feeling for who’s going to win. Whoever wins, it’s going to depend on what happens between now and Election Day. It’s almost cliché to call this one historic, but you have the first African-American to get a nomination and he beat the first woman that had a serious shot to win. And on the other side, you have a true national hero and he picks this woman with a very compelling life story, basically unknown in the lower 48 states- there was a time when we thought Joe Biden had a very interesting and compelling life story and now some people are saying, “Well, gosh. He’s kind of dull.” Of course, he’s not.

If you were making a movie about running for president and you were going to write characters for each of these four parts, you couldn’t come up with four better characters than we’ve gotten. It’s just exciting from every angle. I started to retire last year and I’m so glad I didn’t. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.

Photo of Bob Schieffer courtesy of CBS News

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