By Chuck Ross
Once in a great while we see something on television that is just so startling that we have to immediately call a friend or relative and say, “Reality check. Did you just see what I just saw?” These moments are usually burned in one’s memory for all time. And they are usually associated with live TV.
The first moment like that in my life was when I was 11 years old and watching, with my entire family, coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. We witnessed, live, with millions of other Americans, Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the man the police had arrested in connection with the assassination.
More recently-and clearly an event not of equal import, though it also will be memorable-was the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during halftime at this year’s Super Bowl.
Another such moment occurred for some of us on Nov. 16, 1986, and it was on “Face the Nation.”
The host was Lesley Stahl, who, according to current host Bob Schieffer in his book “Face the Nation,” was called at the time the “toughest of the Sunday morning interviewers” by TV Guide. The guest that autumn morning was Secretary of State George Shultz, and the subject was the Iran-Contra mess. (Mr. Schieffer also recounts this show in his book, which contains excerpts from the episode-and many others-on an included DVD.)
Here’s what was going on: Iran had been holding some Americans hostage. In a secret operation-that had become publicly known-the office of the National Security Council, which was part of the White House, basically was trading arms to Iran in return for Iran saying it would free some of the hostages. Before it became public, even Mr. Shultz did not know this operation was going on. As more and more details of the operation leaked out, President Reagan finally said publicly that the United States had indeed sent arms to Iran, but insisted that it wasn’t a trade for the hostages.
At the time, the official position of the government was that it could not ship arms to Iran, which was considered a terrorist state.
So Mr. Shultz went on “Face the Nation” and, of course, Ms. Stahl asked him about this contradiction.
Finally, near the end of the program, Ms. Stahl asked, “Will there be any more shipments to Iran, either directly by our government or through any third parties?”
Sec. Shultz: It is certainly against our policy, and I-
Ms. Stahl: That’s not an answer.
Sec. Shultz: -and I think the signal has been given.
Ms. Stahl: Well, sir, it was against our policy before and we went ahead and did it. You seem to be saying there will be.
Sec. Shultz: We gave a signal and the signal has been given and as far as I’m concerned I don’t see a need for further signals.
Ms. Stahl: Why don’t you answer the question directly? I’ll ask it again. Will there be any more arms shipments to Iran, either directly by the United States or through any third parties?
Sec. Shultz: Under the circumstances of Iran’s war with Iraq, its pursuit of terrorism, its association with those holding our hostages, I would certainly say, as far as I’m concerned, no.
Ms. Stahl: Do you have the authority to speak for the entire administration?
Sec. Shultz: No.
And the show ended! I couldn’t believe it! I was shocked. Did I just hear the Secretary of State articulate the policy of my country and then say he could not speak for the administration?
It would be as if Secretary of State Colin Powell were on “Face the Nation” and said he thought it was U.S. policy to pull out of Iraq on Monday, but then if asked if he spoke for the Bush administration, he answered “No.”
It’s a moment I’ll never forget. How Ms. Stahl ever thought to ask that follow-up question-perhaps the single best follow-up question I’ve ever heard-is beyond me. But thank goodness she asked it, and thank goodness for “Face the Nation.” May it continue its public service for another 50 years.