In Depth

Tom Shales: Hewitt a Ham, a Dynamo, a Hero

Don Hewitt wasn’t all that comfortable behind the scenes, and he was such an entertaining character that it would have been a pity if he’d stayed there all the time.

He came charging out many years ago when promoting his autobiography “Tell Me a Story – 50 Years and 60 Minutes,” and I dutifully interviewed him in Washington.

The experience was akin to chasing a hummingbird around an igloo, or so I’d guess.

He was full of nervous energy and high on creative juices that never stopped flowing. After the piece ran, he sent me a note in which he quoted every adjective I’d used to describe him – including “spleeny” and “cantankerous” and many others. To paraphrase, he wrote: “This ‘spleeny,’ ‘cantankerous,’ ‘hyperactive,’ ‘agitated,’ ‘obsessive,’ ‘impetuous’…producer…thanks you.” Sweet.

But there was another note, this one from Frankie Hewitt, the dynamo who had guided the restoration and reopening of Ford’s Theater and whose divorce from Hewitt was one of the costliest of its time – costly to him, of course.

Frankie wrote, again paraphrasing, “I agree Don is a brilliant, creative, restless, innovative genius … but tell me the truth: Could you honestly stand to live under the same roof with him?”

Obviously two dynamos under the same roof is probably one too many (there have, no doubt, been exceptions), but it seems likely that, at least in those turbulent years, Don Hewitt was married to his work, anyway.

And what holy matrimony that was; two beings made for each other, the man and the
medium. Hewitt wouldmost likely have been a success in print journalism, if that’s all there was, but he was also born for television, and it for him, and together they made history, they made magic, they made a ton of dough for CBS and Bill Paley.

Hewitt always felt he was underpaid and underappreciated; don’t most of us? But most of us aren’t in such high-profile jobs that our personal gripes become widely known. CBS News presidents who served during the great “60 Minutes” era (which, under first-rate if less-colorful executive
producer Jeff Fager, has obviously not ended) knew that whenever Hewitt started feeling noticeably cranky and dissatisfied, the prescription was simple: give him a party, the bigger the better.

That was as simple and basic as Hewitt’s frequently stated credo for “60 Minutes”; it thrived, he liked to say, because it responded to the four-word request, “Tell me a story.” Of course this was quotably glib and easy to remember, but there was so much more to the show’s success – from the extreme and riveting close-ups to the mythic glamorizing of the show’s reporters to the fact that football overruns turned out to be one of the greatest leads-in ever.

So anyway, on with the parties. One of the most lavish was at the Museum of Modern Art on upper Fifth Avenue.What I remember most vividly from this, inappropriately enough, was the fact that Tom Brokaw showed up in black tie, yes, but also black shirt (and of course black tux), which earned
him a huge amount of sotto voce ridicule from then-competitor Dan Rather (Rather always liked Charlie Gibson, as it happens, but not Brokaw).

The party was ostensibly thrown to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “60 Minutes,” but everyone knew it was a “Placate Don at Any Cost” affair. Even if Hewitt technically didn’t “deserve” it, he certainly earned it.

The last words I heard from Don Hewitt, the last words addressed from him to me, were not happy but were very much in character. I’d just returned from a couple of weeks away and, plopping myself in a living room chair, listened to the messages recorded on the telephone. There among the 20 or so, shouting loudly and barely breathing between words, was the voice of Don Hewitt. He wasn’t jolly. Instead he screamed that Imust be an “idiot,” and a few other variations on the idiot theme, if I could believe that in television, anyone other than the reporter should take final responsibility for a piece.

This piece, the one he was railing about, was the controversial report on George W. Bush’s record of service with the Texas Air National Guard. The integrity of the story rested mainly on documents from the era that the Bush forces insisted were forgeries.There was indeed confusion. Rather had given the OK for the story to air (actually on “60 Minutes II,” the abbreviated spinoff), and Hewitt said that meant Rather should resign.

I didn’t agree and that’s how I fell from grace on Don Hewitt’s Rolodex. I listened to the loud, abusive phone call with a bit of a smile, then went on to the next stored message. I recognized from Caller ID that this, too, was a call from Hewitt –made, I felt confidently, after a cooling-off period. But Hewitt’s voice sounded just as loud and angry as on the first call, and again I had to listen to this brilliant genius telling me what an “idiot” I must be.

Did it hurt my feelings? Somewhat. I still felt it was ridiculous to believe that Dan Rather had gone prowling around among the bushes or had played peek-a-boo at hotel keyholes as he did the basic reporting for the story. No. Others lay the groundwork with their reporting; the anchor (Rather was then a featured correspondent on “II”) or big-foot correspondent signed off on the story but
had probably not done much of the leg work.

It seems like a pretty tiny item now. What makes me sad is that I had so angered and offended a man who had been such a hero of mine – a bit of a ham and definitely an egomaniac, but a hero just the same. The fact is, though, while I fell from his grace, he never fell from mine. He remained as big a hero as ever, and I still felt a terrible sense of loss and sorrow when I heard that the dynamo had died.