Saturday, September 13, 2008

Author Q and A: Bob Schieffer, author of Bob Schieffer's America

A note from J. Louise Larson of The Writing Porch: Many thanks to Katie McKee of Putnam's for providing me with this conversation with Bob Schieffer.

I loved this book, and learned several things. Two of these things were revelations: first of all, I now feel very close to Bob Schieffer, because when I lived in an idyllic town on Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, I lived next door to the cousin of his friend and mentor, Eric Sevareid. Sort of like Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon, my brush with a brush with fame.

Second, after years of being known among my writing peers as the Queen of Death because I love writing obituary pieces (not that I'm happy to see people go, you understand), I don't feel so alone. Schieffer does, too. (See my obit piece on Dr. Jack Kelley here.

To this I add a third revelation: comprised of pithy little essayettes, this book is fantastic bathroom reading. But it's hard to put down, so keep it in another room of the house, unless you have bathrooms to spare ...

Author: TV newsman Bob Schieffer
Book: Bob Schieffer's America (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, September 2008, ISBN: 978-0-399-15518-5 Price: $24.95

How do you describe this book?
"It’s a collection of the commentaries I began writing in 1994 to tack on the end of our Face the Nation broadcasts. Basically, they’re just snapshots of my thoughts along the way. We found about seven hundred of them and then boiled that down to about 171. One of the sobering things about going back and looking at your work over so many years is that you realize not every piece stands the test of time. I hope readers will see that we’ve tried to pick out the ones that did."

How did the notion of writing these essays originate?
"It all started the Sunday after Richard Nixon died. The show’s roundtable that day had included several former Nixon aides, and I thought the program needed a button—a few lines to sum up what we had been discussing and to put things in context. I offered a few thoughts on Nixon’s passing and concluded by saying he left the White House in disgrace but left the Earth with dignity. In the days that followed I got a tremendous amount of mail in response to that little bit of commentary. A couple of weeks later I did another button and again got a lot of mail. Then we started doing the commentaries whenever we had time—probably once or twice a month—and they, too, got a really nice reaction. In fact, we were getting more reaction from the commentaries than any other thing we did (and this was in the days before e-mail)."

What was the reaction of the higher-ups at CBS?
"After I started doing them on a regular basis I realized I might not have the authority to do so. After all, the network had very strict rules on commentary. Obviously, we’re not allowed to put personal opinions in the news stories we do. But nobody said anything and I figured if I were not allowed to do this someone would call and tell me to stop. Then one day in 1996 I won a Sigma Delta Chi award for national commentary and all of a sudden I started getting calls from the bosses in New York saying keep it up, keep it going. And that’s what we did."

As you point out, this all started in the days before e-mail. Do you see a difference between the comments viewers sent back then using snail-mail versus the ones they send in now electronically?
"What we found is that when people disagree they do so in much harsher language when using email than they did when writing letters. And I’m convinced a great many letters were never even sent. I’m sure that on many occasions, when people disagreed with a commentary and got steamed up, they’d sit down, write a letter and then wad it up and throw it in the trash. But in the age of e-mail they simply press the “send” button. And I assure you, we often get a full explanation of what’s on their minds. Oddly enough, we probably get more positive comments about the commentaries than we do negative ones."

Were there any surprises for you as you looked at the commentaries you’d written more than a decade ago?
"One of the most interesting aspects of this, and a most humbling experience for me, was to go back and look at how my commentaries evolved over time on issues such as the war in Iraq. Like a lot of people after 9/11, I began believing it was the right thing to do. We were told Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and I thought we had no choice but to go in and disarm him. We were dealing with a man who had killed his own daughter’s husbands and gassed his own people so it wasn’t hard to imagine he’d be someone who’d use any weapon at his disposal. When we found out the intelligence was wrong my ideas about the war in Iraq changed. It was interesting to read the commentaries and see how my thinking evolved, and I purposely included some of the early ones in the book to show what that process looked like."

You’re particularly fond of the obituary pieces. Why?
"Like Ronald Reagan, I have a love of obits. He used to joke it was the first section of the paper he’d go to because he enjoyed the pleasure of not seeing his name there. I’ve reached the age where I feel the same. And in this day and age, when most news is bad news, it’s on the obituary page that you see the most positive news in the newspaper. You read about people who actually did something; who they were and how they came to do whatever that “something” was. Some of the most inspiring stories I’ve read over the years were on the obituary page. One of my favorites was the woman who was a member of the Flying Wallendas. She lost her leg to cancer but kept on training and eventually walked the high wire on an artificial limb. I found her story truly inspiring. I also included a piece about William F. Buckley. When I was a young reporter I found myself in a seminar with him and took issue with something he said. Then I thought to myself, here I am arguing with the number one thinker and debater of our time. With a twinkle in his eye he let me down gently. He was interested in making his point, rather than picking on someone who wasn’t his equal."

In the preface you write that in these essays you’ve tried to follow the rule laid down by your great teacher, Eric Sevareid. What was the rule he taught you?
Eric believed that the first duty of an analyst or someone writing commentary is to explain rather than advocate. He had great insight about both human nature and the course of events, and the majority of his commentaries were attempts to explain why people did what they did. That’s basically what I’ve always tried to do. My objective has never been to get people to agree with me but rather to say, “I’ve never thought about it that way,” or, “For the first time I understand the issue.” That was my goal for the commentaries, and they were written from that point of view. That’s what I learned from Sevareid.

You end the book by reflecting back on your career as a reporter and the hard lessons you’ve learned about life along the way. You also offer a list of things you’ve come to believe vis-à-vis politics and government. What are the things you’ve come to believe?
"I think we have learned from Vietnam and our experience in Iraq that we can help countries become democracies but we can’t impose democracy on them. In the end, the people have to do it for themselves, we can’t do it for them. I think we have to remember that as the world’s most powerful nation our greatest influence on people comes from serving as an example and practicing what we preach. We can’t talk about democracy, its freedom, and how important it is if the world finds out, for example, that we’re bribing newsmen to spout the company line or employing secret prisons. And we can never allow torture be part of national policy. Our job is to make sure we let people know that’s what the other guys do. Weapons were not what won the Cold War. What won the Cold War was that people in the East looked across the Iron Curtain and saw a better life there. It was a life their government wasn’t providing for them and they wanted it. And that’s when the Berlin Wall came down. As I looked back over all these commentaries, those were the themes that came home to me."

You come from a great era of TV news reporting in this country—a time when CBS was known as the Tiffany Network and you were part of a team that included Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Daniel Schorr, George Herman and Walter Cronkite. You’re also one of the few reporters to have covered all four of the major Washington beats. What are your thoughts as you look back on news today compared to then?
"There’s a lot more of it. What has really changed is the Internet, which is the first vehicle to take news around the world that has no editor. Even the worst newspaper has an editor. Now stuff gets on the Internet and you don’t know where it comes from or if it’s true, false, parody or hoax. Mainstream journalism has to be the place where even if people don’t agree with our editorials, they know they can come to us for the facts. That’s what our job is. On 9/11 we spent most of our time knocking down rumors that had popped up on the Internet. It used to be if your competitor made a mistake, they’d correct it and you’d ignore it. We couldn’t afford to ignore the mistakes others made on 9/11 because doing so would have resulted in mass hysteria. We’re dealing with a world where news gets out. If we can’t knock it down when it’s not true, there’s a real danger in what can happen. We now have access to more information than at any time in our history. It sometimes seems our wisdom in how we handle it is not exactly equal to the amount of information out there. That’s what we, as mainstream journalists, are dealing with right now."

J. Louise Larson writes The Writing Porch for and about writers and writing. Contact her at jackielarsonwrites (at)

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