No one ever sees Bob Schieffer sweat. The 67-year-old moderator of “Face the Nation,” CBS’s 50-year-old Sunday newsmaker show, has shown that it is never too late to give chase to the leader. After a season of seesawing in the ratings with ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Mr. Schieffer and “Face the Nation” finished the 2003-04 season solidly in second place behind NBC News’ “Meet the Press With Tim Russert” on Sunday mornings.
Just a year ago Mr. Schieffer revealed he had gone a quiet round with bladder cancer and had beaten the disease. More recently, the Texas native and multiple Emmy winner garnered good reviews for the folksy aplomb with which he moderated the third of this year’s popular presidential debates, which drew a TV crowd of more than 51 million viewers.
After reporting and anchoring for CBS News since 1969, Mr. Schieffer took over the helm of “Face the Nation” in 1991 and now is touring to promote a history of the newsmaker show, “Face the Nation: My Favorite Stories From the First 50 Years of the Award-Winning News Broadcast.” His memoirs, “This Just In: What I Couldn’t Tell You on TV,” became a best seller in 2003.
Recently he talked to TelevisionWeek’s Michele Greppi about the joy of serving as “umpire” for the 90-minute debate between President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry; about turning every meeting with the public into a focus group; and about the decision that he will make next year, when his contract is up and he once again does double duty as his own agent.
TelevisionWeek: Why do you think the debates drew larger audiences this year?
Bob Schieffer: I think the nation is very divided, there’s no question about that. But I think people are really interested. It was great, the impact they had. They have taken the emphasis off these nasty TV commercials, which had come to dominate our campaigns for so many years, and actually shifted it over to this format where we can see these people and do a little comparison shopping. Yes, there was a lot of hype about it, but I say that’s just great, anything we can do to get some excitement back into politics, to get people interested, to see some spontaneity, I think that’s what we’ve all been looking for.
We deserve better than what we’ve been getting. And I think these debates really shifted it back to the way it ought to be. When I went out there and talked to the audience-you know, you do a little warm-up-I said these debates have given us something we can be proud of in our politics again. It’s been a while since we had that.
I have never seen as much interest in a race or in a campaign as I have in this one. It just feeds on itself. People saw that first debate and they just couldn’t wait for the next one. They truly became appointment television. … People were having debate parties, like they do at Super Bowl time.
TVWeek: Is a Super Bowl party atmosphere a healthy thing?
Mr. Schieffer: I think it is, because it’s gotten people interested. How long has it been since you talked to anyone who said, `I can’t wait to get home to see that negative ad about George Bush or John Kerry’? Politics ought to be fun.
TVWeek: How does your role as moderator of a debate look in the rearview mirror?
Mr. Schieffer: I wish I would have had the chance to ask more direct follow-up questions. That was the most frustrating part, because there were a couple of times when I posed a question and they just simply ignored it. George Bush ignored it when I asked him about how he was going to pay for the transition costs, which could run a trillion dollars, to remake Social Security. He just ignored it. Same thing with John Kerry when I asked him if he could possibly not raise taxes without increasing the deficit and leaving more bills for our children. He just skirted around that. But otherwise, I thought it was terrific. I think we got a good picture of both of them.
TVWeek: What kind of feedback did you get from peers and the public?
Mr. Schieffer: Just overwhelmingly positive. I’ve never seen anything like it. I came back to messages that had been left in my office from reporters, from analysts, from my friends, just overwhelmingly positive. When I went through the Phoenix airport as I was coming home, I was literally mobbed. People patting me on the back, lining up to shake hands.
I don’t think it was as much about me as it was about the debates. People were just so happy about the debates. They were sort of taking it out on me. I was just proud to be a part of it. This is one of the most interesting and exciting things I have ever done. It was just unbelievable. I just loved it.
I was really nervous as I was getting ready to do it and it dawned on me how many people were out there. But then I got out there on the stage and I was fine. I kind of said to myself, `This is the World Series, but you’re just the umpire. These guys who are playing, they’re the ones who ought to be nervous.’
TVWeek: If you could institute changes to the debate formats and process, what would they be?
Mr. Schieffer: No. 1, give the moderator the opportunity to ask the occasional direct follow-up question. That would be the one thing I think could make these debates better. I think [candidates] also should be allowed to ask each other questions. Otherwise, I liked it just fine.
TVWeek: One of the things that has provoked discussion since the debate was Sen. Kerry bringing Vice President Cheney’s lesbian daughter into the discussion.
Mr. Schieffer: I posed the question of whether President Bush thinks homosexuality is a choice. I think if you take the president’s point of view, he probably gave the best answer you can give for that side of the argument, to simply say I just don’t know. Then he went on to say that everybody has a right to live their lives as they choose. I think that’s a legitimate answer.
I personally believe that the answer Kerry gave is the right answer in the sense that he said, you know, God made us all, and he made us all the way he wanted us to be, and we didn’t have anything to do with that. Had Kerry stopped there, I think it would have been a good answer. But I think when he inserted the Cheneys’ daughter’s name into it, it had just too much of a raw edge to it, it seems to me.
I don’t know what he meant, but it certainly was easy to come to the conclusion that he did it for political reasons. I think he did not help himself with that answer. I think you have to be very careful about saying something about other people’s kids. I don’t think that ever helps you politically or in any other way.
TVWeek: When such an issue is the hot public topic for days, are we just allowing ourselves to be distracted again from the bigger issues?
Mr. Schieffer: These things take on a life of their own. And you’ve got to remember we are in the last weeks of a very tight race and a very partisan race, so I think you have to expect that both sides are going to do what they can to exploit what they see as the other side’s weaknesses.
TVWeek: How much of your experience as moderator of `Face the Nation’ were you able to apply to the presidential debate? You confessed to having a nightmare before the debate; have you ever had a nightmare about an edition of `Face the Nation’?
Mr. Schieffer: Not really. `Face the Nation’ is a half-hour and this was an hour and a half, so I always said that our great secret at `Face the Nation’ was that we had to ask shorter questions. I had to get some longer ones for the debate. I tried to follow the same philosophy I do on `Face the Nation,’ and that is I don’t try to get people to say something they didn’t mean to say. I try to get them to say exactly what they mean and then hold that up to some scrutiny. I couldn’t ask the kind of follow-ups on this debate that I could on `Face the Nation.’
TVWeek: On a week-in, week-out basis, what is the mission of `Face the Nation’?
Mr. Schieffer: Basically we’re covering the news, and we’re trying to move the story forward. I did not see that as my objective [in the debate]. I was just trying to give people as good a pictur
e as I could of who these people are. On `Face the Nation,’ I’m trying to move the story along, I’m trying to find a new lead, I’m trying to make news.
TVWeek: How does it feel when you don’t make news, when you don’t get picked up?
Mr. Schieffer: I don’t worry so much about the pickup. I love it when we do get pickup, but what’s frustrating to me is when somebody comes on with a set of talking points and you just simply can’t get them off the talking points. You ask them a question and they come up with, `Well, let’s put that in context.’ Well, here we go down the rabbit trail. Or, `Well, yes, but what is more important than that is …’ and they launch in. … And then sometimes they just ignore the question completely. And I feel when they do that, they’re not just insulting me, I think they’re insulting our viewers. I think what they forget is that people watching `Face the Nation’ know when somebody’s evading the question, and I don’t ers. I think what they forget is that people watching `Face the Nation’ know when somebody’s evading the question, and I don’t think they like it.
TVWeek: I sometimes wish the newsmaker show moderator would gently but firmly say, `I’m not budging. We’re going to sit here until you answer that question.’
Mr. Schieffer: You know I might just do that someday. I might say, `I don’t believe you answered that question, let me just remain silent while you answer it or until you answer it.’
TVWeek: How easy is it to fall prey to the sense that everybody in Washington knows they’ll see everybody in Washington again soon and so going along is sometimes the way to get along?
Mr. Schieffer: It depends. There are some people the White House offers us to give their side of the story that I’ve gotten to the point now that I just will not have them on the broadcast except as a last resort, simply because they will not address the questions that you pose to them. … I’m not going to give you any names, but it’s gotten to the point where, if they’re not going to at least halfway attempt to answer the question, it is just a waste of time to have them.
TVWeek: But is the number of people who will not answer questions up or down?
Mr. Schieffer: It’s getting harder and harder for us every year, because people have become sophisticated about dealing with the media and everybody has a strategy now, everybody has a media coach, everybody has talking points. These things are all relatively new. But the other side of this is, When are people going to catch on that it’s the people who give the straight answers that the American people like the most?
The reason John McCain is so popular with the media is that even when the news is bad about him you can find him and he’ll give you a straight answer. Now, he doesn’t tell you something he doesn’t want you to know, but he’ll give you an answer. He will have enough respect for you as a journalist to say I can’t stand here and ignore this question.
TVWeek: Did you have a period of adjustment when you became moderator of `Face the Nation’? How did your thought process have to change to take command of the role?
Mr. Schieffer: I did have an adjustment in that you do need to do something for a while to get the skills. I mean, I’d been a reporter for a long time before I came to `Face the Nation’ and I had occasionally anchored `Face the Nation,’ but it’s just like any other job: You need to do it awhile to feel really comfortable about it. As I often tell people about being on TV: Some of it is not a lot of brains, it’s just practice. It’s like learning to ride a bike. You just need to do it. I think I’m a better questioner than I was when I started.
TVWeek: How does your average week break down?
Mr. Schieffer: I generally take off Mondays if I can. Then I come back in the office and we’re generally trying to figure out who to get on these programs for the next Sunday. The competition is absolutely fierce. You’ve got five shows competing here. I spend most of my time just talking to people.
I don’t cover daily news very much anymore, but I try to have lunch with as many people as I can. I just try to stay briefed up on things. Sometimes we don’t know who the guest is going to be until Friday and sometimes Saturday.
Sometimes people don’t know what you go through to get these things worked out. It’s always a hassle. I’ve always said the place to learn about human nature is either to read Shakespeare or to book a Sunday show.
TVWeek: How involved are you in the negotiating?
Mr. Schieffer: A lot of the time I’m right in the middle of it. Sometimes I try not to get in there, because [executive producer] Carin Pratt and the producers are very good at what they do and that’s why we have them, and I generally have other things I need to be doing. But sometimes I have to help out and sometimes, surprisingly, it works.
To tell you how crazy these things can get, we had a professional ethicist booked on the program once, back during the Clinton impeachment stuff. They booked him on Wednesday and they called him on Friday to work out the logistics and so forth, and he said, `Well, I’m sorry. I can’t do it.’ And they said, `Why?’ And he said, `I’m going to be on the ABC show.’
Carin said, `But you gave your word.’ And he said, `Yeah, I just got a better deal. They’re going to give me more time.’ This is a professional ethicist.
TVWeek: Is there anyone `Face the Nation’ simply can’t get, no matter what?
Mr. Schieffer: We haven’t had the president since he got elected. I don’t know why. We’d love to have him. But we’ve never been able to work that out. I hope someday we will have him.
We’d like to see the vice president more often than he appears. But no, I don’t think there’s anyone who would deliberately stiff us because they don’t like us.
TVWeek: How long does bad blood last in Washington as it might apply to your job and your show?
Mr. Schieffer: There’s a lot of infighting and I guess there are some people who come away and feel like we’ve given them short shrift or something, but the truth is they’re all so sophisticated about dealing with the media that they’d never tell me that. They just always say we have a scheduling conflict.
If there are some people that we’ve hurt their feelings down the line, we don’t always know about it. There are a lot of people who believe that objectivity is simply what they believe to be true. The objectivity is their point of view.
TVWeek: How fragile are good relationships in Washington?
Mr. Schieffer: The secret to getting along with news sources is giving them their fair shot, and I always try to do that.
TVWeek: What would you personally be willing to do for any CBS affiliate in this country if it would agree to extend `Face the Nation’ to an hour?
Mr. Schieffer: We’d do a lot for them. We could do a lot of things for them. If we could ever get to an hour, we could really compete with `Meet the Press.’ Right now, we’re doing very well. We’re solid second. Oh, if I could have an hour, I really could compete with Tim Russert.
TVWeek: You are known as a straight shooter. If somebody said all of the rules are off and you can do anything you want during the show, what would you do?
Mr. Schieffer: You mean would I jump across the table and choke someone who wasn’t answering my questions? Sometimes in my mind when these people throw up these blocking efforts to keep from answering a question about the second or third time, I must say the bad side of me says, `Why don’t you just slap him?’ But luckily, my better angels up to now have prevailed.
TVWeek: How long can you see yourself in this role?
Mr. Schieffer: I don’t know. My contract’s up next year and some days I think maybe I want to retire and some days I think maybe I don’t. But I’m going to wait till the time comes and see how I feel then. This year has been one of the best years of my whole life. I’ve got another book coming out. I was asked to do the debate.
TVWeek: You came through a dark health situation.
Mr. Schieffer: Yes, and let us not forget that the biopsy report was good. That’s the most important thing that h
as happened to me. So I just want to keep doing it. I’m really enjoying it. I’m just very lucky right now. My kids are all grown up and they have kids. My wife and I can still stand to be around each other. I’ve generally done better when I didn’t worry too much about what I was going to do next and just kind of showed up. I’ve sort of showed [up] for a long time. And when I do, every once in a while something good happens for me. So I’m going to keep cruisin’ along here.