At 78, Bob Schieffer is entitled to reminisce about the “good old days” of reporting. He believes young people coming into the business can also learn from them.
Schieffer will host CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday for the last time after 24 years.
He’s retiring from a journalism career that began at 20 at a Fort Worth radio station and landed him at CBS News in Washington when he walked in on someone else’s interview.
Schieffer had announced his impending retirement in early April at the 11th Schieffer Symposium on the News at Texas Christian University.
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“I wanted to quit while I can still do my job. I covered the Senate long enough to see people carried out on a gurney, and I didn’t want to be one of those people in my profession,” Schieffer told the Star-Telegram, where he worked in the 1960s, when he announced his retirement. “Maybe I have taken a little off my fastball, but I’ve still got a pretty good fastball.”
He’s one of the last of a generation of reporters working at such a high level; he covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a story that gave him one of the biggest scoops of his career.
“I suppose every generation thinks that the kids younger than them aren’t as good as they were and screwed it up in some way,” he said.
“I try not to sound like an old goat, but the fact is there will always be a need for reporters, whether they are doing it on television or a website or for a newspaper that is not on paper anymore.”
Defining career moment
He learned the craft of reporting, and the importance of checking out facts, from hard-bitten newspaper editors. He’s concerned that many young journalists now work in jobs without editors to guide them.
His Kennedy scoop was a spectacular example of the importance of simply answering the phone, and the story has become something of a DFW legend. As a Star-Telegram reporter in November 1963, he answered a phone call from a woman asking for a ride to Dallas. He almost hung up.
“Lady,” Schieffer said, “this is not a taxi, and besides, the president has been shot.”
“Yes, I heard it on the radio,” the woman told him. “I think my son is the one they’ve arrested.”
It was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. Schieffer grabbed a notebook, picked up Marguerite Oswald at her Fort Worth home and drove her to Dallas, where he filed reports from a phone at the police station.
Schieffer called the Kennedy assassination one of the defining stories of his career.
Recently, another aspiring Texas reporter sent Schieffer a note seeking advice on a school project. Schieffer sent his phone number and the student replied that he’d rather talk via email. Schieffer Rule No. 1: Pick up the phone or drop by.
“How do you ask a follow-up question?” he said. “How do you listen to a person and the tone of his voice to know whether he’s putting you on? The best way to interview someone is face-to-face and I think we ought to get to that whenever we can.”
Schieffer went to Vietnam on assignment for the newspaper, and after he appeared on a local talk show upon his return, a television station offered him a job. “It was $20 a week more than I made at the paper, and I needed that $20,” he said.
He made his way to a local Washington station and, in April 1969, summoned the nerve to walk in on the CBS News bureau chief without an appointment. He was let into the executive’s office by a secretary who mistook Schieffer for another Bob — longtime NBC News reporter Robert Hager — who actually had an interview scheduled that day. Schieffer talked his way into the job and never left.
Schieffer, an Austin native, never lost his Texas twang. No need. It reinforces his signature of asking direct, to-the-point questions without getting lost in the weeds of political mumbo jumbo.
“You never felt like he went Washington, which I always felt was his best attribute,” said Chuck Todd, Schieffer’s competitor on NBC’s Meet the Press. “You never felt he got caught up in groupthink, or got caught up in Washington elitism.”
Nothing annoys Schieffer more than when he doesn’t ask a question because he fears it’s too simple, or that he already knows the answer, only to find a rival generated headlines by asking the one he neglected.
Washington a meaner place
Schieffer is disturbed by the changes he has seen in Washington. It’s a meaner place, he said, partially fueled by Internet anonymity but also by a lack of collegiality. Lawmakers of all stripes and their families used to know each other better but now spend more time in their districts and less time in the capital. Some families never move.
It has led to an inability to get things done that Schieffer says is a greater danger to the country’s future than terrorism.
“It has changed the people who run for office now,” he said. “I don’t mean they’re bad people, but they’re different. They have to raise so much money, they have to sign off with so many interest groups to get here that once they’re here they can’t compromise their positions. Their positions are set in stone.”
Seeing the nation’s leaders up close leads him to conclude: “Some of ’em I like better than others, some of ’em I respect, and some of ’em I don’t. I still think most of the people in government are good people, but there are some exceptions.”
Retirement or not, he’s not willing to reveal those exceptions.
Soon Schieffer will pack up an office stuffed with memorabilia, much of it reflecting his passion for country music. One picture shows him standing by a bar with Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather. After his last show, he’ll walk a few blocks to a restaurant where old friends and colleagues will toast his tenure.
Chances are he won’t completely disappear from CBS News, with some elder statesman role likely. He will maintain his ties with Fort Worth and TCU, which named its journalism school in his honor in 2005. He plans to return every year to host the news symposium, where journalists selected by him gather on campus to discuss current events and world news
For now, he says, he’s looking forward to a summer off.
The story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Bob Schieffer’s career
1937: Born in Austin, but his family moves to Fort Worth, where he will later graduate from North Side High School.
1950s: Goes to work at radio station KXOL, where he went by Bob Shafer for two years because the station manager couldn’t pronounce Schieffer. Graduates from TCU in 1959.
Early 1960s: Begins work as a night police reporter at the Star-Telegram. Is introduced to his future wife, Patricia Penrose, by George Ann Carter, wife of Star-Telegram Publisher Amon Carter Jr.
1963: Reports on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, including an exclusive interview with the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald.
1965: Becomes the first reporter for a Texas metropolitan newspaper to report from Vietnam. When he returns after about four months, he moves to television. Channel 5 in Fort Worth offers him $155 a week, $20 more than his weekly salary at the Star-Telegram.
1969: Moves to Washington, D.C., to work for a new network, Metromedia. Soon joins CBS News, thanks to a glowing recommendation from Jim Byron, news director at Channel 5. His first government beat is the Pentagon. He will later cover the White House, Congress and the State Department.
1973: Named anchor of the Sunday evening news at CBS.
1977: Named anchor of the Saturday edition of the CBS Evening News, a position he held until 1996. He was the interim anchor for the weekday CBS Evening News in 2005-06 after Dan Rather left.
1991: Becomes host of the Sunday morning public affairs program Face the Nation.
2005: The first Schieffer symposium is held at TCU, featuring Bob Woodward, Tom Brokaw, Tom Friedman and Jim Lehrer. The event is held in conjunction with TCU naming its journalism school after Schieffer.
2008: Named a living legend by the Library of Congress.
2012: Moderates a debate between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. Also moderated presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.
2013: TCU’s College of Communication is renamed the Bob Schieffer College of Communication.
2015: At the 11th annual Schieffer Symposium on the News, Schieffer announces he will retire this summer.
Source: Star-Telegram archives