Bob Schieffer is the chief Washington correspondent for CBS News. He has covered all the major beats for the network: the White House, the Pentagon, Congress and the Supreme Court. Since 1991, he has served as anchor and moderator of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” where he conducts interviews “as if they were chats over pre-dinner drinks at the Metropolitan Club,” according to The New York Times. In that convivial spirit, Schieffer looks up from his morning newspaper and shares a cup of kindness with Quill readers.
What piques your curiosity as a political reporter these days?
In the “Obvious Questions” category, it looks to me as if the Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton’s to lose as we head into the primaries.
But the big question to me is, “Who will the Republican nominee be?” and at this point (Aug. 20) I have no idea.
What bothers me is that I believe the whole system is broken. Campaigns are no longer about much of anything but money. The primary system, which was designed to give more people a voice in politics, has given fewer people a voice. All the primary system has really done is make the campaigns more expensive, which has put more emphasis on money.
If I could wave a magic wand, I would go back to the old system: selecting delegates at the precinct level, then the county and state levels, and sending state delegations to national conventions where the selection of candidates would be done.
If nothing else, it would put a little suspense and fun back into politics, two ingredients sorely missing. That would increase interest, and my guess is that the networks would go back to gavel-to-gavel coverage. They would almost have to, because there would be real news to cover.
You are at the top of the journalism career ladder. What, besides longevity, got you there?
I have always just loved the news, and I am still as anxious to read the paper when I get up in the morning as I was in those long-ago days when I was a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I have always wanted to know the inside story, or something that other people didn’t know, and that more than anything kept me interested in being a reporter.
How has your advice to aspiring journalists changed since the new technologies seem to have changed all the rules?
I have always told aspiring journalists that the point of what we do is to get to the truth, and the way to do that is to get as close as you can to the story, wherever it is happening; talk to as many people as you can; and then report that in clear and simple language. When someone asked my friend Bob Woodward if he and Carl Bernstein had any idea how the Watergate story would come out when they began reporting it, he said, “No, we had no idea how it would come out, and we certainly had no agenda. We were just trying to find out what happened.” That’s still my best advice to young reporters: Just try to find out what happened.
You predate the notion of “career/life balance,” but how did you build a life outside the newsroom?
To be honest, through trial and error. I really wasn’t a very good father in the early days. I spent so much time working that I was almost never home, and my wife raised our daughters almost single-handedly. Lucky for them, and me, she did a great job, and they grew up to be wonderful women.
It took me a long time to realize the enormous job I had left for her to do. Now I understand, and I will always be grateful to her. I dedicated my book “This Just In” to my daughters because I wanted them to know where I was during those early years.
What have you learned from the experience of being tabloid fodder?
When you play a prominent role in any field, you have to expect to see your name in the paper. It takes a little getting used to, especially when you see things that are made up out of whole cloth. But, overall, people who have written about me have been overwhelmingly kind, so I have no complaints. As a reporter, I always appreciate it when news sources return my calls, so I have a rule that I try to return reporters’ phone calls, and when I am asked questions, I do my best to give straight answers.
I guess what I have learned over the years is: You cannot control what people write about you, but if you treat reporters with honesty and respect, it generally comes out right over the long haul.
What systems or tools do you use to keep from losing track of everything?
I am so old-fashioned that I still keep a date book, and I try to hire young assistants; young brains are just better than old brains at remembering details.
You are also a commentator. How did an old-school reporter like you get over the tradition of keeping your opinions to yourself?
I don’t do many straight news stories any more. I leave most of the shoe-leather reporting to younger reporters with stronger legs, but I do keep up my sources to be informed enough to offer analysis. I have always loved scoops, and what I enjoy about commentary is getting people to think about something in a different way. To me, that is sort of a scoop.
I am not interested in converting people to a cause or even in getting them to agree with me. When I offer a commentary, which is clearly labeled, what I most hope to evoke is to have someone say, “I never thought of it in just that way,” or perhaps, “That really explained it in a way I hadn’t thought of.”
Google results for “Bob Schieffer” turn up a sponsored link to book you for personal appearances. How’s business?
Giving lectures is my way of doing focus groups. Listening to the questions I get around the country gives me a real understanding of what is on people’s minds. I like people, and I really enjoy it, but I turn down many more invitations than I am able to accept.
How do you choose the causes to which you contribute money or lend your good name?
Since I am a bladder cancer survivor, I try to do what I can to help cancer research. Over the coming years, I will devote most of my time to that, and to making the Journalism School at TCU one of the best in the country. (The Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University is named for the school’s distinguished alum, Class of ’59).
Moonlighting as a country music artist, how goes the quest to perform on the Grand Ole Opry? (Do you need us to make a call?)
Our band, Honky Tonk Confidential, has a CD out (go to our Web site, www.HonkyTonkConfidential.com or Amazon), which is doing well, and we are constantly asked to perform around the country.
We have to turn down most engagements since we all have day jobs, but it has been one of the most fun things I have ever done.
It all began as a joke. My friend Diana Quinn has had a band for years that is quite well known around Washington. When I was being roasted at a spina bifida benefit last year, Diana and I wrote a gag song called “TV Anchorman,” which we sang. It got such a good reception that we wrote more songs, put some in the CD, and to paraphrase what Glen Campbell sang in “Rhinestone Cowboy,” offers started coming in from people we don’t even know.
So far, we haven’t heard from the Opry, but if they call, we’ll sure be there!