Schieffer gratified by response to final debate

CBS newsman will discuss his book at the Pratt today

October 16, 2004|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,SUN STAFF

On Sunday mornings, Bob Schieffer is a television newsman who grills politicians on CBS' news show Face the Nation.

It's a pretty straightforward job: He prods his subjects to make some news and tries to push a story forward in the process.

It's a role he's played for 13 years, long enough that he has published a book about it, called Face the Nation: My Favorite Stories From the First 50 Years of the Award-Winning News Broadcast. He'll be in Baltimore this afternoon to discuss the book at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

But during Wednesday's final presidential debate in Arizona, Schieffer became, for 90 minutes, a veritable face of the nation himself. As the debate's moderator, he represented voters everywhere eager to gain new insights into President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.

"In this, I felt my responsibility was really to give the American people a better picture of who these [candidates] were," Schieffer, 67, said. "I think probably they do know more about each of them after this debate."

At the Phoenix airport after the debate, Schieffer says, he was mobbed by people hugging him, patting his back and shaking his hand. But instead of applauding his performance, he says, he thinks they were applauding what he stood for: the spirit of the debate.

"It's finally something about our politics that you can kind of be proud of," Schieffer said. "People felt good about these debates, and it really shifted our politics away from these [negative] campaign commercials to a different place. People were having debate parties like they would have Super Bowl parties. They were excited, they were interested."

Schieffer says the only thing about the debates that frustrated him was how the candidates avoided his questions on several occasions. Unfortunately, the debate's rules kept Schieffer from following up.

"If I could have just said, `Sir, you totally ignored the question' -but you couldn't do that under the rules," he said.

By yesterday, Schieffer hadn't decided whether Bush or Kerry had won - even though he was one of CBS' analysts for the first presidential debate (he considered Kerry the winner). Moderating the debate, he says, gave him a mixture of pride and terror. He says he was so focused on asking the right questions and remembering which candidate he needed to question next that he didn't have time to consider who had come out on top.

"What I could see, and what was fun for me, was to see their reactions to each other," he said. "I'd glance over and see one of them while the other was answering, and you could tell they were sometimes kind of bridled. You could see it in their body language when they didn't like what was being said."

In his 30 years covering Washington for CBS, Schieffer has had the chance to sit down with his share of presidents, and he has opinions on each. He calls Gerald Ford the single nicest person in public life that he's dealt with. He remembers Lyndon Johnson as the most impressive person he's met off camera, but Schieffer calls him "Colonel Cornpone" because of his awkwardness on camera.

Even over the phone, the enthusiasm in his voice makes it easy to tell that Schieffer loves his job. Often, he says, the behind-the-scenes stories are juicier than what makes it onto the airwaves. That's what makes it fun.

"About half the time, how you get the story is probably as interesting as the story you wind up with," he says.

At the Pratt today, Schieffer will field questions and play clips of past Face the Nation episodes from the DVD that accompanies his book. Each clip has a story behind it; those stories are in the book. One example is the time when Face the Nation interviewed Fidel Castro in Havana.

"What people didn't see on camera was that the executive producer was being held at gunpoint by one of Castro's guards," Schieffer said.

"He said to Castro, `Is this necessary?' and Castro said, `Don't worry, we're men of love.'

"That didn't make it easier for him."


What: Lecture and discussion by Bob Schieffer of CBS News

Where: Wheeler Auditorium, Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St.

When: 2 p.m. today.

Admission: Free, but seats are limited and tickets are required.

Call: 410-396-5430

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