A conversation with Bob Schieffer, author of THIS JUST IN
1. Q: How did you come up with the title of this book?
A: We were going to call the book Stories I Tell My Friends, because that’s really what it’s about. Then one day I noticed in my library a book by President Eisenhower titled At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends. I said I guess we can’t do that. We wanted something that sounded kind of newsy but also expressed the spirit of the book. Then I remembered one time when I was doing a special report for CBS News. We had been on for several hours and Dan was off somewhere. A young desk assistant named Jill Rosenbaum walked up and handed me a piece of copy. In my best TV voice, I asked, “This just in?” She said, “No, it was just sitting there and I thought you hadn’t seen it. ” And that became the perfect title for the book: a parody on the whole business of an anchor saying, “This just handed to me …” and then going on to read the newly arrived piece of news.
2. Q: You went back and talked to more than eighty-five people who had been part of the stories you’ve covered over the years. Why was that necessary?
A: While writing the chapter about my adventures at the University of Mississippi in 1962, when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss, I was convinced I had seen him on a Sunday evening. I thought that must have been when they brought him to the campus, escorted by U.S. Marshals, and enrolled him. But as I read other accounts of the event, I realized I couldn’t have seen him on Sunday because he hadn’t yet been brought to the campus. I must have seen him the following morning. Your memory plays tricks on you sometimes, and I thought it would be important to call people. Also, I knew how I felt forty or so years after some of these events, but I wondered how others had come to feel. Once the process began, one call simply led to the next. For example, I was discussing the events at Ole Miss with one person, and he told me about the young Army lieutenant who led the first military troops onto the campus. I called him up. He’s a lawyer in Washington now. I knew JFK had told the military to come in, but I had always wondered what took them so long to get there. So I asked him. He told me they’d flown into Memphis from New Jersey. He was picked to lead a 100-truck convoy down to the university. The problem was that he didn’t know how to get there. He had to stop at a Phillips 66 gas station and get a map. That’s what took them so long. It was a great story and one that had never been told—one of those little quirks of history that are really fun to find out about.
3. Q: Whom else did you talk to?
A: I talked to people such as George McGovern, who was thoroughly trounced by Nixon during the 1972 presidential campaign. All these years later I asked him, “Did you ever get over that crushing defeat?” I spent a fascinating five hours with Eugene McCarthy, during which he talked about the problems he had had with Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. I also had some wonderful interviews with Al Haig, who’s quite candid about Richard Nixon. Melvin Laird, the first Secretary of Defense I covered, is something of a hero in this book. People don’t understand the immense role he played in bringing the Vietnam War to an end. He’s never really gotten the credit he deserved, and I was glad to get his insights on the war in Southeast Asia. I also talked to two former Presidents—Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter—as well as our current President.
4. Q: What did you discuss with George W. Bush?
A: Although I had gotten to know President Bush while covering the campaign when his father was President, it was during the Texas Ranger years that I really got to know him as a man. (He and my brother were part of a group that owned the Rangers.) The afternoon I talked to him, the Middle East had blown up again. It was April of this year. September 11 had the same impact on him as the rest of us, and I didn’t even have to ask him what was the hardest thing he had to deal with. It was when he and Cheney talked and realized they might have to authorize shooting down civilian airliners. He said he understood it might have to be done, but it was the hardest thing he’d ever had to contemplate. We also talked about the moment that comes for every President when he realizes the awesome responsibility of being President. There was no question in his mind. That moment, for him, came when Andrew Card whispered in his ear that those planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. He realized that the first thing he had to do was defend the country.
What I thought was so human about it occurred when the Secret Service got word to him that his daughters were safe and had been taken to a secure location. The first thing he did was locate his wife. She was up on Capitol Hill, about to testify before Ted Kennedy’s education committee. I said, “Well, I guess you were relieved.” He said, “After locating my wife, the thing I was worried about was our dogs. I wanted to make sure someone remembered to take them down to the bunker.”
5. Q: What were the two stories that had the greatest emotional impact on you?
A: The emotional impact of the Kennedy assassination was something I had never before experienced. In the days and weeks that followed, I realized it had so drained me of emotion that I simply had no feelings left. During that time, I was covering the aftermath of a car wreck and saw a family that had been decapitated being wheeled along on gurneys. It had no impact on me at all. I never felt like that again, covering any story, until 9/11 came along. That was such a different story for all of us at CBS News. Everybody, and I mean everybody, at CBS in New York who went down to Ground Zero had a near-death experience. In the book I talk about the man who directed our coverage during the first hour after the attacks, while all the time thinking his own daughter had been caught in the building. I tell the story of the youngest member of the Evening News staff, who watched on TV when the plane crashed into the tower where her father worked. I was in Washington, at the foot of Capitol Hill, when the bureau chief called me on my car phone and said get out of there, we think there’s another plane headed to Washington and it’s heading for the Capitol. And of course that was the plane that was forced down in Pennsylvania. So it may well be that I owe my life to those people. I think about them every day.
6. Q: How did you get your job at CBS?
A: I was working for Metromedia in Washington, D.C. at the time. After being there a few months, I realized I had no interest in covering local Washington news. I wanted to move back to Texas, but my wife, who was pregnant, wanted to wait until we had the baby and urged me to try the networks one more time. I’d been gunned down by CBS so often over the years that I decided to take another track. Instead of setting up an appointment with the bureau chief, Bill Small, I just barged in and told his secretary I was Bob Schieffer and I’d come to see Mr. Small about a job. She said, “Oh yes, go right in.” Well, I was completely stunned. Small was not very encouraging, saying, among other things, they weren’t interested in someone with a regional accent. To make a long story short, he ended up hiring me on the strength of the recommendation from my old boss in Texas, who happened to be someone Small deeply respected. Of course, I quit my job at Metromedia on the spot. It wasn’t until I was driving to CBS that I realized I wasn’t sure if Small had hired me as a reporter.
I only learned the most interesting part of the story when I began writing this book. I remembered seeing this young reporter from a local Washington station walking into Small’s office as I was walking out. His name was Bob Hager. I called Bob one day and asked him if he had had an appointment in the spring of 1969 with Bill Small about going to work for CBS. He told me he went over to see Small, but nothing came of it. Apparently, when I barged into Small’s office, his secretary got her Bobs mixed up. She thought I was Hager and ushered me in. The moral of the story is that you’ve just got to keep trying, and sometimes you get lucky. It pays to be in the right place at the right time, even if the people in the right place don’t know who you are.
7. Q: What was the toughest thing about making the transition from local news to the networks?
A: The day I walked into the CBS Washington bureau and realized I’d been hired I felt like a little-leaguer walking up to home plate at Yankee stadium. The first month I was there, I was totally in awe of the other reporters. It took me a while to believe I was part of this team. In the days of Edward R. Murrow, it was the CBS foreign staff who served as the heart of CBS News. They’re the ones who began the CBS tradition. But in the era of Walter Cronkite, the 1970s, it was the Washington bureau that served as the core of the company’s strength. Within CBS and among many outside observers, it has long been considered the best news team, print or broadcast, in the history of Washington reporting. I suppose it was that rare collection of people that comes along every once in a while in politics and in journalism. Dan Rather covered the White House. He was probably one of the most well-known reporters in the country. Roger Mudd covered Capitol Hill. Even the print reporters acknowledged that he was an expert on the Senate. Marvin Kalb, a scholar journalist and a true expert on foreign policy, covered the State Department. He was the first reporter to recognize the so-called Sino-Soviet split. Daniel Schorr was as good an investigative reporter as Washington had ever seen. And then, towering over everybody was Eric Severeid. These were very serious people—all experts in their fields. They didn’t always get along with one another, but they were very proud of being a part of what they were together.
8. Q: What made Severeid stand out in your mind as the most memorable of the men with whom you worked?
A: He was head and shoulders above the rest of us. Here was a man who had been on the last train out of Paris before it fell to the Germans. He had parachuted from a plane over the jungles of Burma, was captured by cannibals, and then escaped. And he was also a towering intellect. We used to say that Eric would worry about things the rest of us didn’t feel qualified to worry about.
9. Q: You’ve seen vast changes in this country, in our culture and in journalism during your career. What do you consider the biggest of these changes?
A: We went through a great period of cynicism that began with the Kennedy assassination. We kind of lost our innocence that day. Up until then, we thought our Presidents were sort of invincible. We found out they weren’t. I think it made all of us feel very vulnerable. On top of that came Vietnam, a war none of us really understood and the first war we lost. And then you stuck Watergate on top of that, along with all the lies and deceptions that went with it. The result was that we became even more cynical. We didn’t trust the government. We didn’t trust our public officials. And we really didn’t trust one another. It was during this period that we got a lot of things mixed up. We got celebrity mixed up with heroism. We didn’t look on our military in the ways we had before. That’s one of the things that has changed since 9/11. I think the events of that tragic day have made us a much stronger people.
10. Q: What about changes in journalism?
A: Everything changed in journalism the day Kennedy was shot. At the time, most Americans got their news from newspapers. From that day on, they got their news from television. And there was a difference. With newspapers, you only saw the product of reporting. But with all the TV networks broadcasting around the clock, for the first time people were seeing reporters trying to gather the news. And they were seeing how disorderly and disorganized that process can be. It was the same during coverage of the civil rights movement. It caused people to say, “Wait a minute, some of these newspeople act like hooligans.” Well, some did act like hooligans. And it changed the public’s opinion of journalists. People began to raise questions about our conduct and our credibility. What we’ve seen now in modern times—with the twenty-four-hour news cycle and a host of cable companies spurring the kind of intense competition unheard of in the old days—is that everything has been compressed. When I worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the mayor would say something in the morning paper and the guy on the other side of the issue would answer in the evening paper. Now you’ve got to get your side of the story out in the same newscast or it gets lost. Unfortunately, it’s often the person who is glib who gets on television rather than the one who has the wisest comment to make.
11. Q: You’re one of the few reporters to have covered all four major Washington beats: the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and Capitol Hill. Which did you enjoy most?
A: Capitol Hill is the one I liked most. Some people say the White House is the glamour beat, but covering the White House is nothing compared to the fun of covering Congress. For one thing, it’s the last place in Washington where you have direct access to the newsmakers. They’re all independent contractors. You deal with them on a person-to-person basis, without the layers of public relations people prevalent in so many other places. In the book, I recall looking down on a joint session of Congress at one point, when they’re all there in one room at one time, and thinking that this really is the national zoo—you have one example of every kind of person in America down in that room. The Congress reflects the country. That’s what makes it fun. My least favorite beat was the State Department. It was like walking in tar. There are two kinds of bureaucracies in Washington. There are bureaucracies like the Pentagon, which is what I call an “action bureaucracy”: left to its own devices, and it never should be, the Pentagon will take some action. It may be the wrong action, but it will be action nonetheless. Then there are bureaucracies like the State Department. Left to its own devices, the State Department will say, “On the one hand, then on the other hand,” and never take action.
12. Q: As the Watergate scandal unfolded, the Nixon White House launched an extensive campaign to intimidate various news organizations, including CBS. At the time, did you realize how bad the situation was?
A: We didn’t quite understand why, but we knew they were bringing enormous pressure to bear. When you look back on it all these years later, you realize just how fervent they were. What the Nixon administration taught me, and it’s one of the serious points I try to make in the book, is that the greatest danger any President faces is not getting accurate information on which to base decisions. Once a President gets behind those White House gates, the only people who get inside come at his invitation. And, generally, they either want something or have an agenda. The result is that the President faces the danger of cutting himself off from the outside world and, by extension, reality. That’s what Richard Nixon did.
One of the more interesting things about the Nixon administration is that his accomplishments remain accomplishments to this day: the opening of China, arms control, his initiatives with the Soviet Union. Whatever the press said about him didn’t make any difference. It was good policy and so it survives. Good policy always trumps bad press. And a good press, in the end, can never overcome bad policy. If his people had remembered that instead of embarking on a ridiculous campaign to destroy the press, they would have saved his Presidency.
13. Q: In this book, you discuss the brutal Tower confirmation hearings with Tower’s chief opponent Sam Nunn. What did you learn from him?
A: When the Tower hearings became controversial, Sam took a lot of heat. People accused him of being jealous and of wanting the Secretary of Defense job for himself. In This Just In, Nunn confirms that George H. W. Bush had asked him to be Secretary of Defense before he asked Tower. He turned the offer down. In the end, of course, Nunn did George Bush the greatest favor of his Presidency. Had it not been for him, Tower would have been the Defense Secretary. I don’t think there’s any question that Dick Cheney was better for everybody. He proved to be an outstanding choice. Jim Baker, who confirmed Nunn’s story, said there’s never been a national security team that worked better than the team of Baker, Cheney, Powell, and Scowcroft. There are always built-in tensions in these jobs, but this team really worked well together. There’s also no question that Dick Cheney would not be Vice President today had he not been Defense Secretary. In a big way, Sam Nunn did them all a favor.