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Talking History

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

Editor's 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.

Bob Schieffer '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 life.

And what 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.

Schieffer 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.

Now it's 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.

"I wrote 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."

Schieffer spent 18 months sitting down with former sources and former presidents. It was pure journalism, and he loved it.

But that's 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.

In 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.

So 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."

After fooling around with pre-med for two years, I switched my major to journalism, and I never regretted it.

While 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.

Record, who would become one of Schieffer's greatest mentors, went to work on his young apprentice immediately.

"I just 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."

Record was 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 he covered.

"Just by 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."

Eventually, Schieffer earned a promotion to the courthouse beat, where he would discover another valuable lesson.

It 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.

At 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.

Yet 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 Star-Telegram 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."

Upon his 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 turn.

I was 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.

At Channel 5, Schieffer became solo anchor during the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcasts on weekdays.

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.

I returned 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 noticed.

In January 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.

Schieffer quickly grew dissatisfied with the lack of stimulating work and craved getting to the big show, a national network. But how to break in?

He decided 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.

Since 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.

"Oh, 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?"

It 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."

"I don't watch WTTG," Small said.

Boy, I thought, this is not going all that well.

I said, "I used to work in Fort Worth."

Small said he'd never been there.

He thumbed through the resume as I sat silent. Finally, he looked up and said, "Why would anyone want to know any of this?"

Having no ready answer to that, I responded that perhaps he would get a better idea of my work if he watched my tape.

"I doubt we would have an interest in anyone with a regional accent," he said.

Finally, 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.

Ten days 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.

Years later, 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.

"The secretary 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."

During his 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.

After wading 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 ever interviewed.

Laird 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.

Next came 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.

"In replacing Dan Rather, I finally understood the dilemma of being the second man to walk on the moon," he says in his book.

At 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.

Donaldson 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.

Capitol 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 target.

In 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.

Despite his 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.

"Looking back now, the whole experience made me realize that what I really wanted to be was a Washington reporter."

Schieffer's 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 in person."

From 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."

"I quickly 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."

And certainly for his readers and fans, too.

Bob Schieffer on the way we live

On how 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."

His most embarrassing moment:

"Election 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."

On what 9-11 meant to him:

"9-11 was 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."