TCU Coup! | Recollections
of Dorm Life
For 40 years, TCU's top journalist Bob
Schieffer ‘59 -- Washington's good-guy reporter and tireless news hound -- always
got the story. In his new book he shares behind-the-scenes dirt on how
he pulled it off.
By Rick Waters
note: Excerpts in bold italics are pulled with permission from
the book This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV, by
Bob Schieffer, published in February by G.P. Putnam's Sons.
'59 is spinning tales again.
Not the sort
of yarns you'd hear on "Face the Nation." This is the stuff he would tell
fellow reporters at a local watering hole after a long day on the job.
This is his
a life it has been. An unexpected call from Lee Harvey Oswald's mother
the day after the Kennedy assassination. Integration at Ole Miss in the
‘60s. Chasing down Texans serving in Vietnam. The turbulent Nixon White
House. The seedy Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The horrors of 9-11. Forty
years of presidential campaigns. And on and on.
has seen America and the world as few have. In Forrest Gump-like
fashion, fortune and great instincts have guided him to the right place
at exactly the right time.
all on the record, told in Schieffer's distinctive true-Texas manner,
in This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV (Putnam, $26.95),
a memoir of a passion for reporting, a vigorous work ethic and a deep
yearning to report the news.
the book to share some stories of my life and tell people how fun a life
in journalism can be. I never thought I would go through so many interviews
with as many old sources," says the author, who began with three conversations,
which grew to 20 and topped out at 85. "I wanted to ensure my memory of
these stories was accurate."
spent 18 months sitting down with former sources and former presidents.
It was pure journalism, and he loved it.
no surprise -- getting the story is what Schieffer has always loved. He grew
up in Fort Worth (a graduate of North Side High School), where he would
receive his most valuable career training.
junior high, I served as sports editor of the school newspaper, did the
same in high school and was also editor-in-chief of the yearbook. So my
friends assumed I would be a reporter of some kind, but it was an assumption
my mother did not share. She was a child of the Depression, and to her
generation it was the mother who spoke of "my son, the doctor" who was
considered the real success.
it was that when I enrolled as a freshman at Texas Christian University
in Fort Worth, I declared my major to be pre-med. I had been an A student
in high school, but I had no interest in science or the healing arts,
and it was soon apparent that they had no interest in me (or in any other
student who refused to study and thought a biology test could be aced
with a little creative writing). Thus, when students ask me today how
I got into journalism, I usually give them the truth: "Comparative anatomy
made me do it."
fooling around with pre-med for two years, I switched my major to journalism,
and I never regretted it.
still an undergraduate at TCU, Schieffer stumbled into an off-campus position
at local radio station KXOL, where a station manager insisted that the
new hire change his on-air moniker to "Shafer" because the manager
had trouble pronouncing "Schieffer" (Shee-fer). Not wanting
to jinx his opportunity, Schieffer signed off as "Bob Shafer"
for the first two years of his radio career.
He had a
great delivery, co-workers recall, and an instinct for news. KXOL was
the kind of station where scrappy, young reporters would, between top-40
songs, read a five-minute newscast and tell of the latest crime scenes
and car wrecks with a wailing siren in the background. Usually, Schieffer
was the first out the door when news broke.
When he left
radio, Schieffer joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a night
police reporter working for Phil Record, then night city editor and now
emeritus professor of journalism at Schieffer's alma mater.
would become one of Schieffer's greatest mentors, went to work on his
young apprentice immediately.
copied everything Phil did," says Schieffer. "He taught me how to think
like a reporter, how to cover a beat and how to write. Those are the fundamentals
of journalism, and Phil taught me that."
also responsible for a wardrobe makeover. He recommended that his baby-faced
police reporter don a snap-brim hat so he would look more like the detectives
wearing that hat, I learned I could blend in at a crime scene where others
might assume I was a cop or detective," Schieffer says. "Phil told me
I should just let them believe that. And so that's what I did."
Schieffer earned a promotion to the courthouse beat, where he would discover
another valuable lesson.
was at the courthouse that I learned the first rule for covering politics:
The best stories about the sheriff came from the county commissioners;
the best stories about the commissioners came from the sheriff. As I would
later learn, if you substituted Air Force for sheriff and Army for commissioners,
you had the key to covering the Pentagon. And as I always tell young reporters,
it works on every beat: Figure out who is in competition for the same
tax dollar and you have yourself a source -- two sources, actually.
By the 1960s,
the Star-Telegram had not sent a reporter on an overseas assignment since
World War II. In 1965, with the war raging in Vietnam, Schieffer was aching
to cover the conflict. He would eventually become the first reporter from
a metropolitan Texas paper dispatched to Southeast Asia. But convincing
his editors to send him would prove to be the hardest part.
first, even my mentor, Phil Record, greeted the idea with some amusement.
Our bosses recognized that this story would only get bigger, but they
were not sure I could add anything to the coverage. While the story produced
headlines in our paper, casualties at that point were low and the war
had not created the controversy in our part of the world. ... In Texas,
we trusted Lyndon Johnson. We didn't understand the "peaceniks," and we
generally believed what Johnson believed: that somewhere, some place,
a line had to be drawn that the Communists could not be allowed to cross.
As for me, I had no real grasp of Vietnam's strategic significance. I
can remember going to our encyclopedia once to see exactly where it was.
But I knew enough to know it was a story, and I was determined to see
it for myself. The first person I had to convince was the Star-Telegram's
top news executive, our editor Jack Butler, and I knew it wouldn't be
easy. First, because sending a reporter to Vietnam would be extremely
expensive and the Star-Telegram
was not known for spending money foolishly. Second, no other Texas paper
had a reporter there, and third, the paper saw its main mission as covering
Fort Worth and West Texas.
the first time Butler turned me down, I sincerely believe it was for none
of the above reasons. ... I believe he said no because he was concerned
I would be hurt. This began a series of memos between us that went on
for weeks. I argued I could do it in a way that would minimize danger.
He said no. I offered to do it on a freelance basis. He said no. Finally,
I decided to shame him into it. I offered to resign my job at the
and pay for my own ticket to Vietnam if he agreed to hire me once I got
there. Maybe he was tired of arguing with me. But one day he called me
into his office and said, "Okay, Bob, we're going to do this, but
you've got to promise me you won't take any chances."
In his four
months in Vietnam, Schieffer brought the war to his hometown by interviewing
and profiling 235 Texas soldiers. He recalls in his book of entering the
emergency room of a hospital and seeing soldiers in pain. "Some were burned.
Some awaited amputation of limbs. ... These were the people that the Saigon
briefers referred to only as WIAs, wounded in action. But seeing them
there on those stretchers, it was hard to think of them as statistics.
These were people, young people, and as I stood there, it occurred to
me that long after this war was over, long after the arguments about whether
the war had been right or wrong had been settled, these people would still
have no arms and legs."
return to Fort Worth, Schieffer was treated as a war hero and was in great
demand as a speaker at Rotary and Lions club meetings. His innate charisma
played well on local television, but his career was about to take another
stunned when the [Channel 5] station news director offered me a job as
the station's news anchor. The pay was $150 a week, $15 more than I made
at the paper. The job wouldn't get me back to Vietnam, but I felt I just
couldn't turn down that much money. For the grand sum of an extra $15
a week, I became one of the first print journalists who switched to TV
for the money.
5, Schieffer became solo anchor during the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcasts
But it was
not enough. A restless beat reporter at heart, he once flew to San Antonio,
rented a car, drove to the coast and positioned himself in the path of
an oncoming hurricane.
from the coast exhausted and broadcast my report on the storms on the
6 o'clock news. The report went well. Unfortunately, by the time the 10
o'clock news rolled around, I ran out of gas, and when we went to the
first commercial break, I fell sound asleep. Television control rooms
are hectic places, and that control room must have been especially hectic
that evening because no one noticed that the anchorman had nodded off.
When the commercial ended and the directors switched back to me on camera,
I just sat there, eyes closed. One of the studio cameramen finally noticed,
and in a loud stage whisper said, "Bob ... Bob ..." I jerked awake and
finished the broadcast. ... Amazingly, few of our viewers had apparently
1969, a phone call from a headhunter prompted Schieffer to pack up his
family and move to Washington, D.C. An aspiring new network, Metromedia,
hired Schieffer for its newsroom, where he shared the air waves with up-and-comers
Connie Chung and Maury Povich.
quickly grew dissatisfied with the lack of stimulating work and craved
getting to the big show, a national network. But how to break in?
to just walk over, unannounced, to the office of Bill Small, the venerable
CBS News Washington bureau chief. All he wanted was a job. What he got
was one more example of his knack for right-place, right-time serendipity.
I had been turned down in every other attempt I had made to apply for
a job at CBS, I didn't call ahead for an appointment. I just barged in
the bureau's front door at 2020 M Street and announced I had come to see
Bill Small, the bureau chief.
I presented myself to the first person I saw, who turned out to be Marge
Geddes, Bill Small's secretary. I gave my name and announced I had come
to apply for a job.
yes," she said, and directed me into Small's office. I was amazed. After
all those years of trying to get in to see someone, anyone at CBS, I was
being ushered into the office of the chief of CBS News' biggest and most
important bureau without even a wait. There was little time to rejoice.
To say that Small was tough or that he could be imposing or downright
rude when he chose would be an understatement. He motioned for me to sit
down and then gave me a withering look and asked, "Well, what do you want?"
was not the sort of opening gambit to put one at ease, and I all but jumped
out of my chair. "Oh," I said, "why, I've come to look for a job. As you
may know, I work over at WTTG across town, but I've always wanted to work
at CBS News and I've brought some tapes and a biography."
don't watch WTTG," Small said.
I thought, this is not going all that well.
said, "I used to work in Fort Worth."
said he'd never been there.
thumbed through the resume as I sat silent. Finally, he looked up and
said, "Why would anyone want to know any of this?"
no ready answer to that, I responded that perhaps he would get a better
idea of my work if he watched my tape.
doubt we would have an interest in anyone with a regional accent," he
I said, "Mr. Small, I have a job here in Washington, but it's not what
I thought it was. I want to go to work at CBS News and I want to apply
for any job that might be available. It doesn't have to be on the air.
If you don't hire me, I'm going back to Texas." He said fine, and I left
convinced that once again I had been turned down.
later Small called Schieffer to hire him, mostly on the strength of a
glowing recommendation from his old Channel 5 news director in Fort Worth.
when writing his book, Schieffer pieced together how he was able to pull
off his sneaky impromptu appointment.
As he was
leaving Small's office that day in 1969, he recognized another young reporter
who was just getting off the elevator and walking to Small's office. That
reporter was Bob Hager, now a veteran NBC News correspondent.
must have confused her ‘Bobs,'" Schieffer says. "Bob Hager actually had
the appointment, and when I waltzed in there, she thought I was Bob Hager."
first days on the job for CBS News, Schieffer had to pinch himself as
he passed the offices of television news' version of the 1927 Yankees -- Roger
Mudd, Daniel Schorr, Marvin Kalb, Dan Rather and the mythic Edward R.
Murrow protege, Eric Sevareid.
through his first six months at CBS and the usual throwaway assignments
(myriad protest stories and a White House masquerade party hosted by Tricia
Nixon, to name a couple), Schieffer eventually landed the Pentagon as
his first government beat.
At the time,
the Vietnam War under President Nixon saw U.S. forces swell to 540,000
combat troops. Few journalists other than Schieffer fully grasped Secretary
of Defense Melvin Laird's key role in de-Americanizing the conflict and
shifting more of the effort to the South Vietnamese, which eventually
ended the war. Laird became one of the most respected sources Schieffer
combined unabashed gall with an encyclopedic knowledge of where the federal
government's secret levers of power were located and didn't hesitate to
use them. He never lost a battle over a defense budget and never hesitated
to remind his critics of it. He was a master of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
the White House beat, covering Gerald Ford and then Jimmy Carter. It was,
for Schieffer, a classic good-news-bad-news proposition. On the plus side,
Schieffer was one of the few chosen for the plum Washington assignment.
The bad news was that he was taking over for the near-iconic Rather.
Dan Rather, I finally understood the dilemma of being the second man to
walk on the moon," he says in his book.
the White House, Schieffer, who often competed against the famously tenacious
Sam Donaldson of ABC News, would occasionally unearth an image that would
earn him the envy of his peers.
remembers Schieffer capturing the image of Carter flicking a leaf in the
Rose Garden in a moment of frustration. All the networks had the same
report of a pressured White House, but only Schieffer's piece had the
expressive television image of a frustrated president. It was masterful
work and Schieffer's competition respected him for it.
Hill became a godsend for Schieffer's career. Humbled by the failure of
"CBS Morning News," which he anchored, he had accepted the show's burdens
(moving to New York, waking at 3 a.m.) because he had his eye on a loftier
the back of my mind, I was in contention to possibly replace Walter Cronkite,
and I was told by CBS that by showing what I could do in the morning slot,
it might improve my chances.
enthusiasm for the challenge, Schieffer could not prop up the lackluster
program. "When I left that show and came back to Washington, I felt like
a complete failure, and I had never failed at anything before," he says,
adding that his thwarted ambitions, combined with exhaustion, fed a growing
drinking problem that, although he overcame it, strained his marriage.
back now, the whole experience made me realize that what I really wanted
to be was a Washington reporter."
old-school work ethic and trustworthiness have endured throughout his
career. As has his abiding love for a great yarn. "I'm basically a storyteller,"
he says. "And I'm also the ultimate rubberneck in that I love to see things
my earliest days as a reporter, the two things that always appealed to
me were hard news and covering a beat. The satisfaction of journalism
lay in finding out something I didn't know and then telling people about
it. Feature stories and cutesy writing held no allure for me. The news
was the thing.
Now in his
fifth decade as a journalist, Schieffer enjoys several distinctions. "Face
the Nation" commands enormous respect as a coveted platform for policy
discussion, and it remains a Sunday morning juggernaut despite being half
the length of ABC's "This Week" and NBC's "Meet the Press."
realized with this job that I didn't have to go to the newsmakers anymore.
They came to me," Schieffer says, "and that's fun. One of the most important
things you should factor in when deciding what to do in life is to determine
whether something is fun and enjoyable. Journalism has been just that
kind of adventure for me."
for his readers and fans, too.
on the way we live
the news business has changed during his career:
"There are now so many more outlets of information. When I got to CBS,
there were only two other television networks. Now with cable, it is a
complete 24-hour news cycle. The upside of that is the American people
have access to more information than any people who have ever lived on
Earth at any point in its history. The downside is that with so much news,
it is sometimes difficult to wade through all the information to determine
what is really important."
year 2000 was the most embarrassing night in the history of television
news. We can never allow that to happen again. We provided information
that was wrong. Our computers broke down, affecting our exit polling.
We got false information, and it should not have happened. All the confusion
surrounding election night was ours. My hope is that we are going to abandon
the plan we used for that coverage."
9-11 meant to him:
our finest moment. As a nation and as a news organization we came together.
Every single person that worked for CBS who went to ground zero had something
like a near-death experience. It became very, very personal for several
of us at CBS, yet we kept right on going. We stayed on the air for 90
hours, nonstop. We all think we got the job done, and everyday I'm very
proud of it."