By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
It began by creating national headlines. “Face The Nation,” CBS News’ venerable Sunday newsmakers series, premiered Nov. 7, 1954, with Red-baiting Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin as guest on the eve of his hearing for “conduct unbecoming a senator” before the Senate Ethics Committee. Sen. McCarthy did not disappoint host Ted Koop. He called the committee “a lynching bee.”
Sen. McCarthy had begun his political decline, and “Face the Nation” was instantly on the map.
Fifty years later, “Face the Nation” is still one of the prestige programs for newsmakers and a jewel of CBS News, a series that offers 52 original Sunday programs each year and is able to pull in the names in the news, sometimes at a moment’s notice.
“People come on the show to fulfill their obligation to be accountable to the public,” said Lesley Stahl, the longtime CBS News correspondent who hosted “Face the Nation” from 1983 to 1991.
“In that sense, while there have been some format changes in 50 years, `Face the Nation’ has not really changed,” Ms. Stahl said. “We don’t have the parliamentary system in this country that requires our officials be questioned. This show takes the place of that, and it has been successful at that.”
“It’s a classic program,” said Helen Thomas, the so-called dean of the Washington press corps, who has been covering politics and government since 1942 and has been on the show’s panel of questioners several times.
“In some ways it’s like reading the Sunday papers,” she said. “And it’s one show that’s always seemed to have a little more independence, certainly, than some of the cable news shows today. The producers and moderator make every effort to be sure there’s no vanity involved for the guest, and that’s a big thing in today’s atmosphere, too.”
Hosted by longtime CBS White House correspondent Bob Schieffer since May 26, 1991, “Face the Nation” was conceived by Frank Stanton, who was president of CBS in the ’50s and ’60s. Where NBC’s “Meet the Press” was, in its origins, supplied to that network, Mr. Stanton wanted a show that CBS News would own, and one in which the moderator would be actively questioning the guest. He sold CBS Chairman William S. Paley on the idea-some say with trepidation on Mr. Paley’s part.
“The spirit is the same as when it began,” said executive producer Carin Pratt, who joined the show as a researcher 20 years ago. “We give people a chance to say what they’ve come to say. There have been debates, but this is not the show where people get cut off in mid-sentence. That’s where Bob Schieffer just shines as host. He asks tough questions, but he lets them answer.”
Ms. Pratt said most guests are confirmed a few days before airtime-on a Thursday or Friday-but there have been times, such as when Princess Diana died, when an entirely new show was put together on a Saturday night. On other occasions, such as after 9/11, the show was able to expand from 30 to 60 minutes to accommodate breaking events.
There have been eight regular hosts in the show’s history-Mr. Koop, Stuart Novins, Howard K. Smith, Paul Niven, Martin Agronsky, George Herman, Ms. Stahl and Mr. Schieffer.
The guest list is a who’s who of the past half-century. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made historic yearly appearances to discuss the progress of civil rights. Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev was on “Face the Nation” in a 1957 appearance the State Department tried to derail. Viewers still talk about the appearance by Bob Bennett, President Bill Clinton’s attorney in the sexual harassment civil suit filed by Paula Jones. Mr. Bennett caused blushing when he commented on the “normal size, shape and direction” of the president’s genitalia.
“`Face the Nation’ is not a sanctuary for politicians to say what they want,” said Janet Leissner, CBS News Washington bureau chief. “At the same time, it’s not a place where party spin operatives scream and yell at each other. What we set out to do is make it a place for thoughtful and reasoned discussion.”
And they do make news. Ms. Stahl said that in 1986, during the height of the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal, she was asking Secretary of State George Shultz about arms sales and Middle East policy. It was a difficult interview. At one point she told Sec. Shultz, “I don’t want to badger you, but you are not answering my question.” He responded, “Well, no, you can badger me.”
“Near the end of the interview I asked him if he had the authority to speak for the administration, and Secretary Shultz said, `No,”‘ she said. “It was startling. The secretary of state could not speak for the White House? It made headlines for several days.”