Evan Smith: You’ve agreed to moderate the presidential debate at Hofstra University, in New York, on October 15. Why do you enjoy that sort of thing?
Bob Schieffer: Let me tell you, it’s more fun than anything you can do as a reporter. I don’t see how it gets any better. This year we’re going to have a different format. We’re going to divide the debates into eight 10-minute segments. I’ll pose the first question at the beginning of the segment and leave it to the candidates to answer. Then they will ask each other follow-up questions, and we’ll just see where it goes on that subject. If they don’t ask follow-ups, I can interject and ask the follow-ups for them. So I think we’ll really get to see a contrast.
ES: It’s a big deal, isn’t it, when you’re asked to be a moderator.
BS: I moderated one of the debates between Bush and Kerry in 2004, and I must say, I’d covered a lot of big stories in my career, but from the standpoint of intellectual challenge, that was the biggest one ever. The second part of it was, I was standing backstage getting ready to go on, and for the first time in 25 years, I actually got butterflies.
ES: I would have thought you’d seen it all.
BS: It’s funny. People always ask me, “Do you get nervous on television?” The truth is, I don’t. I’ve done it so long. It’s like professional sports: First you learn to play the game, then you learn to play in front of people, and then you don’t think about the audience anymore. But that night, thinking the debate might well decide who was going to be the next president, I really did get nervous. I walked onstage, the red light came on, and the professionalism kicked in.
ES: One of the benefits of debates is that you get a really good understanding of who these candidates are. In this case, though, don’t we already know an awful lot about them?
BS: We do. But the thing is, you’ll see them on the same stage at the same time, and you can really compare. “Okay, Mr. Obama, you want to do this about Iraq. Mr. McCain, you want to do this.” You’ll get a chance to draw the contrast or discover that maybe they’re not that far apart. This held such promise as a different kind of campaign, one in which John McCain and Barack Obama each pledged to take the high road, and here we are talking about Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The high road must have been blocked, because we’ve moved to the low road. I think that underlines why these debates are so important. They’re what American politics ought to be about. The whole country comes together and watches the same thing at the same time. I don’t want to be corny about it, but it makes you feel good. It’s good when the country has a common experience.
ES: These are two interesting nominees to cover.
BS: Because, for one thing, they’re so different. One is this young guy who obviously is very, very smart, a person of great substance. You cannot think otherwise if you read his books. A very unusual person to come along. And then, equally unusual, is the man on the other side—a true American hero. A guy who cannot comb his own hair because he was tortured over five years as a POW, because he can’t even lift his arms above his head. These are the kind of people who should be running for president. To see them on the same stage at the same time, frankly, is just thrilling.
ES: You’ve known McCain for a long time. He’s been a constant presence on Face the Nation.
BS: Yes, he has. This year Senator McCain passed Bob Dole as our most frequent guest. He has appeared 64 times. Dole had been our guest 62 times. No one else has even come close to that.
ES: He’s a good guest because he strays from the script. He’s provocative.
BS: He’s very feisty. He just wings it, sometimes to his advantage and sometimes not. His campaign has had problems, and a lot of people around McCain say that it has not been focused enough, that they tend to step on their own message. I’m not sure I agree with that.
ES: It’s been suggested that McCain is better as a candidate than his campaign is as a campaign.
BS: I do think that, and I’ve thought that for a while. And he’s running against a very good campaign. The Obama people are some of the best I’ve ever seen.
ES: The reverse has been suggested of Obama, that his campaign is better than he is as a candidate.
BS: Well, he’s a good candidate. But frankly, he won the nomination because his people were just better at political tactics than the Hillary Clinton people.
ES: Let’s talk about Face the Nation. You’ve been doing it seventeen years.
BS: Yeah. Longer than anybody. But I still think it’s the best job in journalism. For one thing, the guests come to you—you don’t even have to go to them.
ES: Very little effort.
BS: Oh, there’s a lot of effort, because now you have five Sunday shows, and we’re all competing for the same guests. So it’s a full-time job to do this. The reason I got into journalism was because I was curious and enjoyed talking to newsmakers and finding out from them why they do what they do. That’s what we do at Face the Nation. You know, the interesting thing about these Sunday morning programs is that Meet the Press is the oldest broadcast on television and Face the Nation is the second-oldest Sunday talk show. We started in 1954, and they started seven years before that. The two shows are still on, and they still follow the same format