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So What Do You Do, Bob Schieffer, Chief Washington Correspondent, CBS News?

The 71-year-old journalist talks Texas pride, the evolution of political conventions, and his role model Tom Brokaw

By Alissa Krinsky - August 25, 2008
Thirty-six years after covering his first presidential campaign, native Texan Bob Schieffer is back in the saddle once again. The 2008 election -- what he calls "the most exciting one of all" -- is heating up, and Schieffer is front and center as CBS News covers the action.

He not only will help lead his network's reporting on the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, but feels "truly honored" to have been selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates to moderate the third John McCain vs. Barack Obama matchup on October 15.

It'll be Schieffer's second time as a presidential debate moderator, having presided over the third Bush vs. Kerry showdown four years ago. "What is so good this time is that the format is designed to produce real debates," Schieffer explains. "The program will be divided into eight 10-minute segments.

"I'll be moderating the debate on foreign policy and I will open each segment with a question on some specific topic, and then it will be my job to get them to respond directly to the question and to each other. If they don't ask pertinent follow ups, I will encourage them to do so. It should really be interesting and informative."

At 71, Schieffer has abandoned his once-declared intention to retire after the 2009 inauguration. Instead, he recently signed a long-term contract to stay at CBS News, but says he'll likely step down from the specific role of hosting Face the Nation in the near future. "There's no fixed date," he says. "That may be sometime next year, or it may be sometime the year after that."

Schieffer says he'll "always have an office at CBS". And what an office it is, having once been occupied by one of 'Murrow's Boys', legendary newsman Eric Sevareid. "He was really my hero," says Schieffer. "He was the one I kind of most wanted to be like… I still think of it as his office - I don't think of it as my office. I feel very honored to be able to sit in the same room where he sat."

Name: Bob Schieffer
Position: CBS News' chief Washington correspondent and moderator of Face the Nation
Resume: Schieffer has been with CBS News since 1969. He was named chief Washington correspondent in 1982 and moderator of Face the Nation in 1991. He has worked a variety of beats for the network: the Pentagon (1970-74), White House (1974-79), State Department (1982-85), and Capitol Hill (1989-2003). Schieffer anchored the CBS Evening News Sunday Edition from 1973-76, and the CBS Evening News Saturday Edition from 1976-96. He also served as CBS Morning News anchor (1979-80) and CBS Evening News anchor from March 2005 to August 2006. Prior to joining CBS, Schieffer worked for local stations WTTG-TV (Washington, DC) and WBAP-TV (Dallas, Texas). He started his career while still in college, reporting for Ft. Worth radio station KXOL. After serving in the United States Air Force, Schieffer worked as a reporter for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram before starting his television career. He is also the author of four books: Acting President (1989), This Just In, What I Couldn't Tell You On TV (2003), Face The Nation (2004), and Bob Schieffer's America (slated for release next month).
Birthdate: February 25, 1937
Hometown: Ft. Worth, Texas
Education: B.A. in Journalism and English, Texas Christian University, 1959 (In 2005, TCU honored Schieffer by renaming its journalism department the Schieffer School of Journalism.)
Marital status: Married to wife Patricia since 1967; has two daughters and three granddaughters.
First section of Sunday Times: I read the first sections of the Times and the Post, then I go to the op-eds and the editorials. And I check the editorial cartoons in the Post!
Favorite television show: Mystery! on PBS on Sunday nights. And, I love baseball -- I watch baseball whenever it's on.
Guilty pleasure: I hate to say this, but my guilty pleasure is politics [laughing]! I love politics and love covering politics, and it's my guilty and not-guilty pleasure, I suppose.
Last book read: A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein. It is about the history of trade, which is kind of a wonky book to be reading, but it is a wonderful book. And the book I read before that was A World Without End by Ken Follett. I also re-read [Follett's] Pillars of the Earth -- these are both novels, but they're about medieval England and the time of building the great cathedrals, and the Black Plague and all that. They're just wonderful books -- they're both about 1,000 pages long, so I spent a good part of the summer on those.

You've been covering presidential politics for many years. How does covering the 2008 race compare to elections past?
This is without question maybe the most exciting one of all. I actually went to my first convention in 1968, which was the Democratic convention in Chicago. Now, that one really stands out in family history. My wife and I thought we were not going to have children, and we had taken steps to adopt a child, just very preliminary steps. And exactly nine months to the day after the 1968 convention, our daughter Susan was born. Susan was in high school when she sort of figured out the numbers... and she said one day to her mother, "I guess it wasn't all fighting out in the streets [at the convention], huh, Mom?"

So the 1968 convention will always be the one that stands out. But what is kind of interesting is that when we came back for the convention in 1996 in Chicago -- the first time the Democrats had gone back [to Chicago] since '68 -- my daughter Susan… was a grown woman and came out there with us, and met the guy that she married. She had known him in grad school, but they had sort of been friends and reconnected in Chicago in 1996 and got married. So Chicago conventions are really a big thing in our family history!

"[Political conventions] are worth covering because any time you get that many politicians together in one place, at one time, you need to be there to find out what they're doing, and what they're talking about, and what they're agreeing and disagreeing about, and what they're cooking up. It's very, very important."

There's been a lot of buzz about whether the media is 'in the tank' for Barack Obama. How do you think the press has handled the Obama/McCain coverage?
You know, I've been accused of being 'in the tank' for so many different politicians that I think that's just part of the game we go through here. You always find that the candidate who is running behind thinks the press is against him or her. It's just sort of the way of the world. So I try to take it all in stride, I try to be very careful, and play it down the middle as much as I can. But no reporter who's out there doing his job is not going to be accused at some point of being biased toward the other candidate -- that's just the way it is.

As you well know, the political conventions of today hardly provide the drama of conventions past. Do you believe conventions are, nonetheless, still worth covering?
They're worth covering because any time you get that many politicians together in one place, at one time, you need to be there to find out what they're doing, and what they're talking about, and what they're agreeing and disagreeing about, and what they're cooking up. It is very, very important.

The truth of the matter is that these conventions now are more infomercials than they are the conventions that we used to know. I compare them kind of to an auto show, where the automakers roll out the new models. You know, the trade press comes along, kicks the tires, writes an evaluation of the new models, and there you are.

It's the same way now with these conventions: you come, you get to hear the nominees, and you sort of put them under the spotlight, and that's that. They are not nominating conventions, which is what they used to be. So they're still important, but they're just a totally different thing than what conventions used to be.

With cable and the Web providing extensive convention coverage, how much time do you think networks like CBS should devote to coverage -- are the current programming plans appropriate, or would you like to see a more extensive commitment?
I think it's about right. I think we're giving it the coverage it deserves. I think what we have to be in a position to do is sort of summarize at one place, at one time, what we think are the most important developments. I think we're prepared, if someone actually commits news, we're prepared to expand our coverage. But right now, I think we're giving it about what it needs.

How do you describe your behind-the-scenes role at CBS with regard to political coverage? As chief Washington correspondent and Face the Nation moderator, what are your day-to-day responsibilities and what influence do you have on the nature of CBS News' coverage?
Basically what I do -- my main job -- is to prepare for Face the Nation and to try to get the key newsmakers on [the show] every Sunday. We start planning the next Sunday's program on Sunday morning -- that's the first thing we do after we get off the air on Sundays. Executive producer Carin Pratt and I get together and start talking about what's ahead.

My job is to just sort of stay up on what's going on and make sure I have a good feel for what's happening and what we expect to happen that week. I just sort of try to keep [up to speed], talk to sources, talk to colleagues, and get ready for Face the Nation.

Now, the second thing that I do is try to provide analysis of news events whenever the morning news or evening news ask me to do that. For example, I started my day this morning on the morning news -- I did an analysis of the new polls that are out. So it's just to try to stay [up to speed] and in contact with the people making the news. I spend a lot of time on the phone, a lot of time reading the paper, reading the blogs, and reading the wires.

In January of this year you announced you'd be retiring after the 2009 inauguration, but you later changed your mind and signed what's been described as a long-term contract to stay on at CBS News. When [CBS News president] Sean McManus asked you to stay, why did you reverse course? And what does 'long-term' mean -- do you have plans to retire at some point?
No, [not] at this point. Sean just asked me to stay, and he wanted me to be here for the transition, when someone else comes along to do Face the Nation. Basically, what I'm going to do is stay on board until we get a new person to do that -- and that'll be probably over the next couple of years. I mean, I'm 71, and I really am trying to dial back.

The reason I decided not to retire is because [McManus] asked me not to. And it was no more complicated than that. He said, "I'd really like for you to be around for a while, so we can make a good transition on Face the Nation." So that's why I did that. My brother says that he thinks that I've taken Roger Clemens as my role model -- I announce my retirement, then I un-announce it, then I announce it again!

But right now I'm not planning to retire for a while. And as far as the contract, once we have a new person to do Face the Nation, then I will just be here to sort of provide analysis, when called upon, to be available for major events. I'll always have an office at CBS, and this'll always be the place that I will be. That part of it is just sort of indefinite. Basically what that means is that I'm never going to work any place else. When I finally hang it up for good, it will be at CBS, it won't be someplace else. I've sort of taken Tom Brokaw as my model for the golden years!

With the death of your friend and colleague Tim Russert in June, the Sunday morning news scene obviously has been altered dramatically. With a few months having gone by now, how have things changed so far?
The competition is just as fierce as it always was. And like Tom Brokaw, Tim and I really became close friends. We had seats at the Nationals ballpark that were next to each other. We watched a lot of baseball games together. Tim was a remarkable figure. He really had carved out a special place in television journalism. I always felt like whenever I scooped him or I got a guest that he didn't get and wanted, that I'd hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league, because he was just very good at what he did. Tom [Brokaw] has stepped in, and he's doing a very, very good job. But as far as getting the guests, the competition is just as tough as it always was, maybe even a little more so now, because NBC is sort of working even harder because Tim's gone.

You'll never replace Tim Russert. You'll find someone to come after him eventually, but he was sort of unique. I said they'll need five people to replace him, because you need someone to run the Washington bureau -- they've found that person -- but you need someone to moderate Meet the Press, and then to do the analysis for the early morning shows, and Nightly News, and cable. He was just everywhere, so he'll be a hard person to replace.

Do you have any thoughts as to who should fill Russert's moderator seat permanently? Might a panel of hosts be a wiser choice than a single moderator?
I'm going to leave that to NBC to figure that out. Who knows, I might come up with an idea so good it would hurt me at Face the Nation if I told them!

It's been nearly two years since your last day as CBS Evening News anchor. With much so buzz surrounding Katie Couric's tenure at the broadcast, have you been asked to be on stand-by for the main anchor job -- either to fill in or as permanent anchor? Are you interested in returning to that chair?
No, I have not been asked. As far as I know, Katie's going to be at CBS for the future, and I wouldn't expect to be asked to [anchor] again. And I would have real reservations about doing it again. I really enjoyed doing it, for that year and a half that I did it -- I felt like it all came out well. I think I'm just going to kind of leave that part at that.

It's been a tough time of late for CBS News, ratings-wise. Why do you think that is, and what can the network do to turn things around?
I think that we just have to keep concentrating on the news. We have to put the news first, and I think we're doing a good job, and that's about all you can do. You put together the best newscast that you can and hope people will watch it. In the long run, if you do that, eventually it pays off. Sometimes that takes a long time.

We all worry about the ratings -- the ratings are important -- but in the end, the only way you can have an impact on the ratings is to put together a good newscast and make sure people know that you're doing that. If you do, eventually it pays off, I think.

Your new book, Bob Schieffer's America, comes out in September. It features many of your Face the Nation commentaries, plus new material you call "commentaries on my commentaries." What motivated you to do this book, and how do you balance your commentary work with your main role as a journalist?
The book is a collection of my commentaries. The way you separate them is you label them commentary, and people know that's my opinion. In a way, it's almost like disclosure. People will have an idea of what my opinion is on certain things. I don't endorse partisan causes, I obviously don't endorse presidential candidates -- I just don't do that sort of thing. These are just general observations, my thoughts on the issues of the day, and they're clearly labeled as such. And that's basically how I do it.

You've been very public about recent health problems, specifically your battle with bladder cancer in 2003 [Schieffer's been declared cancer-free now], life as a diabetic [after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2001], and having ulcerative colitis. Was that a difficult decision, to be this open about your health?
Yes, it was in the beginning, and I've never talked much about my health problems. But when I developed bladder cancer, Hamilton Jordan, who was Jimmy Carter's chief of staff… he died this year [of cancer]... Hamilton spent his life trying to help other people who had cancer. And when I had it, he called me and said, "You can really help other people if you'll talk about this." And I was very reluctant to do it.

But at his urging, I decided to do that, and I was just overwhelmed from the response -- I mean, the emails, especially on the bladder cancer, that said "I didn't realize I had the symptoms until I heard you talk about it." Or, "It just made me feel better to know someone else has gone through this." In many ways, for me personally, it's one of the most rewarding things that I've ever done. And it took very little effort on my part to just simply talk about it and be open about it.

It's very interesting: bladder cancer and ulcerative colitis are both what we kind of call 'below-the-belt' diseases -- people are reluctant to talk about them, for the obvious reasons. And that's why I think it is very important for those of us who have experienced this, to talk about it. The only real symptom for bladder cancer is blood in your urine. And people don't like to talk about that. Especially men, when they see this a lot of times, they think they may have strained themselves, or they ignore it -- men are reluctant to go to do the doctor. And you simply have to go to the doctor immediately when you find out about this. So I just kind of felt like it was my duty, as it were, to [be open about it], and so I have. And I must say, I'm really glad that I have.

CBS News has a tradition of its anchors hailing from Texas -- Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and you all grew up in the Lone Star state. Was there something in the water? How do your Texan roots affect your perspective and your work?
Being from Texas is sort of like an ethnic type of thing! We feel like we're part of a particular group. I think it's probably fair to say that we're generally smarter [laughing]. That may have something to do with it... But I'll tell you what also may have something to do it: in the early days, in the cowboy days, cowboys were out there all by themselves, out there with their cattle, and when they would finally run into a stranger, they had somebody to talk to! Storytelling -- tall tales -- became a great Texas tradition, so there may be some of that in our DNA, that may be the reason you see so many of these broadcast journalists come out of Texas, I really don't know.

It is a fun thing. People from Texas, they like you to know they're from Texas. Just like I guess, people from Boston, they're very proud of that. Or people from San Francisco. There are just certain places around the country where people who from there are not bashful about telling you about it.

How are things on the Honky Tonk Confidential [Schieffer's country music band] front?
They're great! We were down at TCU [Texas Christian University], which is my alma mater -- we had the TCU symphony orchestra, the TCU jazz band, the TCU kettle drum band, and Honky Tonk Confidential, all there, under one big tent, to kick off the school's capital fund drive campaign. I wrote a new song just for the occasion. It was actually just kind of a Texas geography lesson, and how we teach geography at the Schieffer School of Journalism. The first thing we try to tell people is that it is the 'Ft. Worth/Dallas' area, not the 'Dallas/Ft. Worth' area [Schieffer is a Fort Worth native, and TCU is in Ft. Worth]. I wrote a little song -- it went:

Dallas, Dallas, how we love ya,
So why is our airport DFW?
Move that D,
Shift that letter,
'Ft. Worth-Dallas' is so much better!

And since it was kind of a Ft. Worth-oriented audience, it was a real hit, I have to tell you!

Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
What I am most proud of is that I have just managed to hang in there. I just feel like I'm somehow blessed. If my career ended tomorrow, I wouldn't feel shortchanged, because this is what I wanted to do when I was a little boy. I'm one of the lucky people who got to do what he wanted to do as a little boy.

It's just that I got to go, and see, and interview, and be around all these news events that have happened at this particular point in our history. I'm just proud I was able to stay around and get to see and do so much. The honor that I'm most proud of is when TCU named the journalism school for me. To me, that was the thing that I felt the happiest about. I think it's probably undeserved. But having said that, I'm still very proud of it.

Alissa Krinsky is a contributor for TVNewser

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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