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 that those first broadcasts did. And that is, simply find the key players in the big story of the week and ask them questions.
ES: The ratings are pretty good.
BS: They’re great. Both programs are key moneymakers for their respective networks. For one thing, you have such low production costs. There are no bells and whistles. We sit our guests down at the table, turn on the lights, and ask them questions. We’re trying to elicit information. I still think the people we have on Face the Nation are the stars of Face the Nation,. If that comes off well, it reflects well on all of us.
ES: It’s hard to imagine Sunday morning without Tim Russert.
BS: Yeah, I really miss him. We became really good friends. People say, “How can that be? You were such competitors.” And we were. When you hit a home run, it’s great, but when you hit it off the best pitcher in the league, that’s even better. Whenever I slipped one by old Tim, I always felt like I’d hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league.
ES: The competition makes you better.
BS: It does. And he felt the same way. We used to laugh about it. Our seats were side by side at the [Washington] Nationals ballpark. He was a big baseball fan, like me, and we spent a lot of time together. But we also loved sticking it to each other whenever we could. If there was any person in America who loved politics more than me, it was Tim.
ES: It’s been a while since Katie Couric slid into your anchor seat on the Evening News. I was wondering how you feel about the time you spent on that broadcast.
BS: I loved it. I never expected to do that job, because Dan [Rather] and I were close to the same age, and when he got it back in 1980, I thought that was that. I had been in New York at the time doing the Morning News, which was a huge flop. I came back to Washington and lived happily ever after. And so when they asked me to do it [on an interim basis following Rather’s retirement, in 2005], it was a great thrill. But it was not something I ever wanted to do for an extended period of time.
BS: I would have had to move to New York, and two of my grandchildren live here in Washington. We’re settled. We have a wonderful life. If they had offered me the job when I was fifty years old, it would have been a different story. But at this stage of my life, that was not something I wanted to do.
ES: Were you daunted by the format?
BS: I still think there’s a place for the evening news. When you look at the combined audience of the three [network newscasts], they don’t have nearly the audience that they did when there were only three or four stations on your television dial. But a sizable number of people out there want a summary of the important news of the day. People now know the news before they sit down to watch the evening news, so you have to keep that in mind, which means more analysis. What I tried to do was tell the news in language people could understand. We inaugurated a format while I was there in which I would debrief the correspondents. I would ask them about a story, and they would tell me about it. My thing used to be, “Just tell me how you would tell your mom about something that happened.” The way you communicate on television is in very simple, direct language.
ES: If you look at the ratings of even the lowest-rated show, which may be the CBS program, it gets five to six million people a night. That’s four times Jon Stewart’s or Stephen Colbert’s ratings.
BS: Exactly. There are plenty of customers for us to aim at. I think the program right now is a good broadcast. On most nights we’re competitive. Some nights we’re ahead, and some nights the other guys are. But it’s like all things: Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes he gets you.
ES: I need to ask about Katie Couric. Are you a fan? There was some sense in the press that you didn’t approve of her selection.
BS: That was all just totally erroneous. I was basically in charge of the welcome wagon when Katie came to CBS, and I did everything I could to make her welcome there. I think she was very appreciative of that. I like Katie.
ES: You think she’s doing a good job?
BS: She’s doing a fine job. I hope she stays for a while. These ratings are funny. What you have to do is put on the best news program you can and then see if anybody watches. If you’ve put on a good program, that’s the best you can do.
ES: How’s your brother, Tom? He’s still the ambassador to Japan.
BS: He’s doing great. He’s sure looking forward to coming back to Fort Worth. He’s been out of the country for seven years. He’s going to stay right up until Inauguration Day.
ES: If the next president asked him to stay in the job . . .
BS: I think he would be honored, but he would say, “It’s time for me to come home.”
ES: Does he keep an eye on the team he used to partly own and run, the Texas Rangers?
BS: Oh, yes. He remains a huge baseball fan. He goes to the games in Japan. The new commissioner of Japanese baseball, who is the former ambassador to the United States, is a real good friend of his. My brother keeps up all his ties with baseball in the U.S. Who knows? He may get back into it in some way.
ES: Can I put in a bid for him to buy the Chicago Cubs instead of Mark Cuban?
BS: I think I’m going to stay out of that.
ES: You’ve just published a book, Bob Schieffer’s America, that’s a collection of the commentaries you write and then deliver at the end of Face the Nation. You’re the only Sunday host who does such a thing.
BS: It all started, literally by accident, on the Sunday after Richard Nixon died. We had a roundtable on Nixon, and I thought the program needed a little button, so I wrote up this short commentary that said, “He left the White House in disgrace, but he left the earth with dignity.” I got such a huge response that a couple of weeks later I thought maybe I should try it again, and again I got a huge response. And so the next year, we incorporated it as a regular feature, and it’s now the most popular part of the program. It’s kind of interesting because it shows you how television works. When I started doing it, I never heard anything from the bosses in New York, and I started to worry that maybe I was violating CBS guidelines, because they’re very strict about not having a point of view. I thought, “Well, if I’m doing something wrong, they’ll tell me to stop.” But no one ever said anything. Then I won the Sigma Delta Chi award for commentary on television, and everyone from New York called down, “Great work! Keep up those commentaries!”
ES: What does the future hold for you, Bob? How much longer do you expect to keep doing this?
BS: I don’t know. My brother says I act like Roger Clemens: I say I’m going to retire and then I don’t retire. He sent me an e-mail: “For God’s sake, don’t get into the steroids.” My latest plan, if there is such a thing, is that I’m going to continue to do Face the Nation until CBS decides who they want to succeed me. Right now that’s wide open. Once the decision is made, I’m going to help with the transition. This will probably be over the next couple of years.
ES: So you aren’t going to retire at the end of this campaign.
BS: I’m not going to do that. That was the original plan, but they asked me to stay around and help with the transition. Once that happens, I’m going to work at CBS as needed. I’ll be around for big events.
ES: You’ll go from Roger Clemens to Manny Mota.
BS: I’m never going to work for someone else. That’s what it amounts to.
ES: To keep the whole baseball thing going, you’re going to play with one team your whole career.
BS: Whenever I do hang it up, it will be from CBS. I’ve said that my guide for the golden years is Tom Brokaw—what Tom is doing now. He does a documentary or two and keeps his hand in but has plenty of time for other things. I’ll tell you, I think NBC is very lucky to have Tom to come after Russert [as the interim host of Meet the Press].
ES: He’s stable and familiar.
BS: It would have been hard for anybody else to come in right after Russert. They would have been compared to him and all that. This gives NBC a little breathing room.
ES: He’s free of the perception that he’s in there to get the job permanently.
BS: I think a good part of the success that I had when I stepped in after Dan—and we were kind of in the middle of a train wreck right then—was that people understood that I hadn’t been trying to push him out the door. I wasn’t campaigning for the job, and I didn’t want it. I think that made it a little easier for me in those circumstances. I think it’s much the same thing for Tom. You know, he called me last night—he’s in Beijing. We’re good friends. We have been since we covered the White House together back in the Ford days. I’d sent him a note congratulating him on being another of the debate moderators. He said, “With you and me and [Jim] Lehrer doing the questioning, people know that Social Security will get its proper attention.”