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Three for the road: remembering the retiring Bob Schieffer

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Note to readers: Born in Austin and educated at Texas Christian University, Bob Schieffer, 78, is retiring from CBS News this Sunday after 46 years of reporting, anchoring and analyzing.

He’ll say his goodbyes on
Face the Nation, which Schieffer has helmed since 1991. We bid him a fond farewell with three stories from the vault. They cover his graceful exit from anchoring the CBS Evening News, a day spent with him -- and Donald Rumsfeld -- at Face the Nation and a memorable experience at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, at which Michael Dukakis became the party’s presidential nominee after a very prolonged set-up speech by then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

By ED BARK
(Originally published on July 21, 1988)
ATLANTA -- At a declawed Democratic convention held in a cramped arena, a network floor reporter’s lot is lots of pleasantries and not a lot to do besides scrunch or be scrunched.

“We took several pictures of Dan Rather’s rear end” when he bent over in the overhead anchor booth, a jovial female delegate from Ohio informed CBS’ Bob Schieffer 15 minutes before the network began its prime-time coverage Wednesday. “Would you like to buy the negatives?”

Schieffer, born in Austin, raised in Fort Worth and nearing 20 years’ service with his chosen network, was assured of a hearty laugh that might have served to calm any pre-show jitters or tension, were there any. But Schieffer earlier had described this convention as “kind of like a boat or a car show, where you roll out the new model,” namely the party’s nominee.

“We could have had an enormous story here,” he said of earlier expectations that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson might bang heads. “My sense of it is it’s just as good a story that it didn’t fall apart, but it’s not nearly as hard to report.”

Schieffer’s principal responsibilities during CBS’ prime-time coverage were the Texas, Ohio and Massachusetts delegations. A reporter following his every move from 7:30 p.m. until Dukakis’ name was put in nomination at 9:10 p.m., came away with an appreciation of Schieffer’s unfailingly good nature and an understanding that crash-bang convention floor reporting is the stuff of which nostalgia is made.

Schieffer, accompanied by producer Janet Leissner, was joined by his wife, Pat, shortly after he took the floor. She had mysteriously obtained credentials and intended to take her husband’s picture a few times. The Schieffers’ daughter, Susan, now a CBS page, was born nine months after the raucous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

“It just goes to show,” Schieffer said, “that there was more than fighting in the streets that night.”

Climbing the concrete stairway dividing the Texas and Ohio delegations, Schieffer vigorously shook hands with former Texas Gov. Mark White. He otherwise was having a minor problem hearing the instructions coming over his headset from a CBS producer stationed in the network’s anchor booth.

“Do what, do what?” he shouted before asking Leissner, “Turn me up, will ya?”

She reached behind his suit coat to adjust a knob on a battery pack worn around his waist like a corset.

Schieffer next encountered the woman who photographed Rather’s posterior for posterity.

“I’ll ask you a question,” she said. “”What does a ‘media circus’ mean to you?”

“I don’t know,” said Schieffer, “but I must be in one of the rings.”

Schieffer’s first assignment was a “mood piece” at 8:04 p.m. He told Rather that a congenial deal had been made that would allow California to put Dukakis over the top in return for Texas doing likewise for Lloyd Bentsen during Thursday’s balloting for vice president.

After that report, Schieffer inched his way to the front of the Texas delegation to double-check the deal.

“Bob, whatever it is, you’re right,” Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby told him.

Schieffer shook hands with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Houston congressman Mickey Leland before ensuring that Leland would be available for an interview when Jackson’s name was put in nomination.

“I’ve made a career out of making Mickey stand by,” Schieffer said, laughing.

When the moment came, it was a nice moment. Leland had tears in his eyes as delegates chanted, “Jesse -- Hope Alive!”

Schieffer then found himself frozen in place, on a stairway behind Rep. Dick Gephardt and his wife, during an elongated 35-minute nomination speech by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Gephardt had refused to be interviewed until the speech ended.

“Get the hook out,” Schieffer said as the convention waited for Clinton to at long last put Dukakis’ name in the hat and trigger a delegate demonstration.

Schieffer got Gephardt’s reaction in an on-camera interview and then turned around and shrugged, indicating it was nothing special.

With that, he was plowing ahead again, searching for another angle at a convention without many.

Bob+Schieffer++mgn

By ED BARK
(Originally published April 3, 2004)
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Presenting a microcosm of a Sunday morning public affairs show, where the rules of combat can be both velvet-gloved and iron-fisted.

The atmosphere initially is collegial, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Face the Nation anchor Bob Schieffer happily exchanging pleasantries and swapping old stories before soberly assuming their positions as newsmaker and newshound.

A half-hour later, Rumsfeld is leaving briskly and somewhat brusquely on this chilly March morning. His 13th appearance on the program has been a bit unsettling for him. Not so for Schieffer, who later remarks, “I think we made some news today.”

Rumsfeld at first bristles when asked about charges made by the Military Officers Association of America. The organization complains that the Bush administration has found a “back-door way to reinstitute the draft” by telling soldiers that their previously agreed-on tours of duty have been extended.

“Everyone serving on active duty is a volunteer, and they volunteered knowing precisely what the rules were,” Rumsfeld says after extended verbal sparring.

Minutes earlier, the defense secretary had told Schieffer that “you and a few other critics are the only people I’ve heard use the phrase “immediate threat” with regard to Iraq under Saddam Hussein . . . It’s become kind of folklore that that’s what happened.”

But Rumsfeld is then read one of his previous quotes: “No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”

He initially stammers in response before asserting that weapons of mass destruction might still turn up in “a country the size of California.”

This particular sound bite made its way to Wednesday’s premiere of The O’Franken Factor liberal radio show as an example of administration duplicity. But Schieffer takes no joy in playing “gotcha.” In the 50th year of Face the Nation (and his 13th as its anchor), he remains intent on playing the Washington game under gentleman’s rules.

“I’ve been a guest in his home; he’s been a guest in mine,” Schieffer says of Rumsfeld. “In fact, I really like him. He’s fun to be around. But this is major league baseball. He doesn’t expect me to throw him a softball. He expects me to throw him my best stuff.

“Every Cabinet officer that comes on this program knows that’s what the deal is. It doesn’t mean we can’t do it in a civil way. There’s a difference in being aggressive and antagonistic.”

Schieffer says he was surprised, however, that Rumsfeld “seemed unfamiliar” with the Military Officers Association of America, which has a membership of 300,000 retired and active-duty officers. He gave the defense secretary some literature on the organization as he left the studio.

Rumsfeld also had been unfamiliar with The Fog of War, which focused on the Vietnam policies of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and recently won an Oscar as best documentary film. Its director, Errol Morris, then denounced the Bush administration’s Iraqi war policy before a worldwide television audience.

“What is it, a movie or something?” Rumsfeld wonders when Schieffer mentions The Fog of War just before the Face the Nation cameras roll.

“These fellows work awfully long hours. I’ll give him some slack on that one,” Schieffer says after the program. Rumsfeld “works from dawn until well past dark every day. So he probably doesn’t get to see too many movies.”

Face the Nation is still running a solid second in the Sunday morning public affair show ratings wars. It’s doing so despite getting only half the air time of its hour-long competitors -- NBC’s front-running Meet the Press, ABC’s third-place This Week with George Stephanopoulos and fourth-place Fox News Sunday.

“My fondest wish is that someday somehow,we can get another half-hour. If we could, we could really compete,” Schieffer says. “We have the smallest staff in all of network television. We don’t have bells and whistles, and we’re not going to put bells and whistles on. We’ve found that people just don’t want that. They want it straight.”

That means no “food fights,” as he calls it, but ample nourishment. At age 67, the Austin native is too old -- and too smart -- to know any other way.

“We don’t put people on Face the Nation just to see how loud they can scream or because it’s quote, ‘good television,’ “ he says. “We’re trying to get information from a newsmaker involved in a big story of the week. That’s my job. I’m here to keep it like it is.”

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By ED BARK
(Originally published Aug. 31, 2006)
His anticipated short chapter as the CBS Evening News standard-bearer turned out to be far closer to a full-length novel. Its happy ending comes tonight, when Bob Schieffer steps down after nearly 18 months as acting anchor.

“It’s been the greatest adventure, I think, of my life,” the Fort Worth-raised newsman says in a telephone interview. “I had no idea this was going to happen And then to have it happen as it did and come out well . . . I still don’t believe it. I got here at a pretty tough time for CBS News.”

Schieffer replaced embattled Dan Rather on March 10th of last year for what was supposed to be a wink, blink and nod. But the search for a permanent anchor kept stretching out like a cheap T-shirt.

CBS clearly had zeroed in on Katie Couric after newly appointed news president Sean McManus found in-house candidates wanting and others not of sufficient star quality. But it took extra time and money to pry her from NBC’s Today.

So Schieffer stayed the course while the third-place Evening News’ ratings steadily inched upward. Last week, the gap between CBS and ABC’s second-place World News with Charles Gibson was just 190,000 viewers. The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams still led the pack with 1.08 million more viewers than Schieffer’s newscast.

“I don’t mind saying it. Expectations are going to be the difficult part for her,” Schieffer said of Couric’s debut on Tuesday. “To be quite honest, there were no expectations for me. When the ratings went up just a little bit, people said, ‘Wow.’

“She’s literally going to have to jump over the moon or somebody is going to say she isn’t doing as well as they thought she would. And that’s unfair to her. I think she’s going to attract an enormous audience on the first night, and then it will dial back.”

Couric’s opening night wardrobe will be among the many points of interest. Male anchors generally aren’t at the mercy of such scrutiny. As Schieffer notes, “I don’t even know if Walter Cronkite knew what tie he had on as he sat down to do the news. But television is television, and people are going to ask those questions.”

Schieffer wore a purple tie on his first night in honor of alma mater Texas Christian University, whose journalism school is named after him. So what might he do for an encore tonight?

“I was actually thinking of asking Katie if I could borrow one of her outfits,” he says, laughing. “Maybe behind that desk nobody would know. I could wear a little skirt.”

Couric will appear on tonight’s Evening News as a reporter. Her assignment is a farewell story on Schieffer, who says the uptick in the program’s ratings dovetails with its improved quality.

“It came out well for the right reasons. We just put on a better newscast,” he says. “We decided to make the correspondents the stars, and we did that.”

He cites Lara Logan, Byron Pitts and Lee Cowan as underused younger reporters who flourished in more visible roles. All have spent considerable time talking to Schieffer on camera after finishing their dispatches.

“Most people didn’t really know who they were,” he says. “My feeling is that the first step toward credibility is familiarity.”

Schieffer, a cancer survivor, turns 70 on Feb. 25th. He’ll continue to host Sunday morning’s Face the Nation from Washington D.C. while acting as a commentator on Wednesday editions of the Evening News. Analysis on major Washington stories also is part of his post-anchor regimen, but he otherwise won’t regularly cover the nation’s capital. A previously planned retirement at age 70 likely will be pushed back at the network’s request.

“My plan, as of today, is to stay until the (presidential) inauguration in 2009,” he says. “I’m 95 percent sure that’s what I want to do.”

Rather, his old CBS News colleague, is primed to explore new horizons at Mark Cuban’s Dallas-based HDNet. His weekly news program tentatively will premiere in October.

“I think everybody was surprised, but Dan is a great reporter,” Schieffer says. “I think he still has some good stories in him. It doesn’t matter anymore if something doesn’t have a great circulation. If you make news now, it gets picked up by everybody.”

Email comments or question to unclebarky@verizon.net