After more than five decades covering world events, Bob Schieffer practically defines the term journalist. As CBS News weekend anchor, chief Washington correspondent and, for the past 23 years, moderator of “Face the Nation,” Schieffer, 77, has provided insight into everything from the civil rights movement to the dangers of selfies. On the 60th anniversary of the top-rated Sunday public affairs show, he shares highlights and a few surprises from his extraordinary career.
When you were a kid, what did you think you’d grow up to be?
I wrote a story for the junior high school newspaper when I was in the 8th grade. When I saw my byline in bold-faced type, I thought it looked just great. I decided right then that I wanted to be a reporter, and I’ve felt that way ever since.
What was your first journalism job?
During the summer of my sophomore year at Texas Christian University, I worked in the news department of a small radio station and drove a panel truck equipped with police radios. When the cops broadcasted a wreck or a robbery, and sometimes even murders, we went to the scene and reported by two-way radio back to the station. This was a new way to cover the news back in 1957. Later I became a police reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and covered the crime beat for much of my early career.
And the first big story of your career?
The enrollment of James Meredith [the first African-American student] at Ole Miss in 1963. It was one of the biggest stories of the civil rights era. During a terror-filled night, a mob of protesters turned ugly, two reporters were shot and killed on campus, and many of us were roughed up.
What were you doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated?
I was working on the city desk at the Star-Telegram. It was total bedlam, and I was just trying to field all the phone calls coming in. At one point, I picked up the phone, and a woman caller asked, “Is there anyone there who can give me a ride to Dallas?” I responded, “Lady, we don’t run a taxi service here, and besides the president has been shot.” “Yes,” she said, “and I heard on the radio that my son was the one they arrested.”
It was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. I wrote down the address she gave me, and another reporter and I drove to the west side of Fort Worth, where we found a small gray-haired lady in a practical nurse’s uniform standing on the curb. We drove her to Dallas, and I got an exclusive interview with her, which remains one of the biggest stories I ever got.
It was a terrible day. Not only had the president been killed, but there was a great air of uncertainty over everything. We didn’t know what to make of it. Was this just a lone madman, or were these the opening shots of World War III? The country was to go through a long series of terrible events after that—assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate—but I always look on that day as the day America lost its innocence.
What was it like the first time you were on TV? Did it come naturally?
After I went to Vietnam in 1965 as a reporter for the Star-Telegram, I returned to Fort Worth, and the local TV station hired me to anchor the news. Since I had never been on TV, I suppose I didn’t know how complicated it was. And since the station promoted me as a “real reporter” and not just someone with a trained broadcast voice, which I certainly didn’t have, I suppose people forgave my early stumbles and bumbles. Sometimes it’s good not to know how much you don’t know.
Can you share one of the most memorable moments from your broadcasting career?
I’ve interviewed all the presidents from Nixon on. The Nixon interview is my favorite even though it wasn’t on camera. I had been sent to the White House to cover a religious service in the East Room. Afterward I got in line with Helen Thomas, the legendary wire service reporter, to shake hands with the president. We weren’t supposed to be there, but Helen said the Secret Service wasn’t looking, and when we get to the president, ask him a question. I didn’t know what to ask, but there was a story going around that the president was bringing some new advisors on board, people from inside the government or outside. When I got to the president, I blurted out, “Mr. President, these new advisors, will they be in-house advisors?” “Oh, no,” he said, “they will be out-house advisors.” Then realizing what he had said, he blanched, turned and walked away. Of all the interviews I’ve ever done, that’s one answer I will never forget.
Who proved the most exciting guest on “Face the Nation”?
“Face the Nation” is the best job in TV. You don’t have to go to the newsmakers; they come to you. When people ask me about favorite interviews, I always say whoever happens to be president, because the president always makes news. Another person I enjoyed interviewing was Maya Angelou, one of the funniest, sweetest and most entertaining people I’ve ever met.
Henry Kissinger is another favorite. He came on “Face the Nation” 57 years ago when he was a professor at Harvard and had just written a book about nuclear weapons. After many appearances on our broadcast, he recently came back, because he had written another book. He’s 91, and his answers are just as on point as ever.
Who’s on your wish list of “gets”?
If I could interview one person in the world right now, it would be Pope Francis. I think he’s one of the most interesting people to come on the scene in a long time.
Broadcast news seems a cutthroat business. What’s given you—and “Face the Nation”—such staying power?
What makes me most proud about “Face the Nation” is that we really haven’t changed much. We get the key newsmakers, we sit them down at the table, and we ask them questions. We’re not about anchor antics, gotcha questions and showing off. We are about advancing the story, helping people understand what public officials are doing and why they are doing it. I think that’s the secret. We assume our viewers are smart and interested. If we lay out the facts for them, they’ll know what to do.
You’ve got a surprising side gig as a singer-songwriter. How did that come about?
As for my secret life, it’s more of a joke than anything else. I can’t sing much, and I can play about two chords on a guitar. But I’ve always written poetry—bad poetry—and sometimes bad poetry makes a really good country song. So I play with a little band in Washington called Honky Tonk Confidential.
The highlight of my life was when the band appeared at the Grand Ole Opry the week before I moderated a presidential debate in 2008. I was a lot more scared when I stepped out on the Opry stage than when I refereed the debate between Barack Obama and John McCain.
Where do you and your wife celebrate special occasions?
I still work a lot, so our big occasions are usually spent at home. And as corny as it may sound, our favorite occasion is just sitting around talking to our grandkids. They are a handful.