Editor's note: On Sunday's show on April 12, Bob Schieffer announced that CBS political director John Dickerson will replace him as host of "Face the Nation."
By the time Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer disclosed his retirement plans Wednesday night to a shocked crowd at Texas Christian University, Schieffer’s Fort Worth alma mater where the journalism school is named after him, CBS News President David Rhodes had already chosen a successor.
Thus Rhodes has managed to avoid a nail-biting, albeit entertaining, ‘Game of Thrones’ scenario in which preening anchorpeople and their sharp-elbowed agents scheme to occupy the iron throne of the top-rated Washington-centric Sunday public affairs show.
The proclamation of the replacement for the 78-year-old Schieffer, who in a couple of months will leave Face after 24 years at the helm, will come “very soon, within weeks,” and possibly as early as this Sunday, according to a highly-placed CBS source.
My money is on CBS This Morning co-anchor Norah O’Donnell, 41—who has proven herself Face-ready as Schieffer’s designated substitute anchor for the past four years (she ran the program last weekend when Schieffer was off for Easter), and whose political chops and smooth interviewing skills recommend her for the gig.
A former Capitol Hill reporter for Roll Call as well as for NBC News and MSNBC, O’Donnell considers the late Tim Russert—the legendary NBC Washington bureau chief and longtime host of Meet the Press when it dominated the genre—her mentor and role-model.
But unlike Russert, whose beefy Hibernian face identified him as an everyman, the auburn-haired O’Donnell, the mother of three and the wife of a Washington restaurateur, could be mistaken for a movie star.
Also in the Face mix—although they don’t offer CBS much brand-differentiation from the middle-aged white males who front the Sunday shows on NBC, ABC and Fox—are CBS News White House correspondent Major Garrett and political director John Dickerson, frequent panelists on the program.
Jon Stewart, of course, might also be available.
“I don’t think we can afford him,” Schieffer said with a laugh on Thursday when I mentioned the soon-to-depart Daily Show star who famously turned down Meet the Press after being courted by NBC News President Deborah Turness.
What about O’Donnell?
“Noted with interest,” Schieffer replied with a giggle, cagily refusing to shed light on the subject. “I used to have a boss in the Air Force who, whenever you’d send him something, would write on the top, ‘Noted with interest.’”
Schieffer, a 46-year CBS News veteran who is twice Rhodes’s age, was obviously in a jolly mood the day after his big reveal.
“Bosses like to have the prerogative of announcing things like that, and I don’t want to scoop my boss,” Schieffer added. “One of the reasons I’ve lasted so long at CBS is I figured out what the boss likes to talk about and what I should talk about.”
The challenge for Schieffer’s successor will be to retain the program’s No. 1 position—at least during its first half-hour, before many CBS affiliates drop away for local programming—and keep it fresh, relevant and newsmaking in a rapidly evolving media environment.
Unlike MTP and ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, Face under Schieffer has resisted much of the experimentation with bells and whistles—a proliferation of slickly produced video packages, for instance—designed to attract a younger audience.
“There’s no question we have evolved since I started; we have a lot better graphics, and we talk to people on the other side of the world by satellite as a matter of routine,” Schieffer said. “But the speciality of Face the Nation is we just sit them down and turn on the lights and ask them questions. We don’t have any ‘gotcha’ questions.”
Like its competitors, Face presents its share of prognosticating pundits in panel discussions—what journalist and poet Calvin Trillin famously dubbed “Sabbath Gasbags”—but Trillin pointedly exempts Schieffer from the “gasbag” crew.
“I see him as more straight-up,” Trillin told The Daily Beast, adding that he has seldom watched the Washington Sunday shows—“what my late friend Andrew Kopkind called ‘sniffing the zeitgeist’”—since he stopped writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column years ago.
“I prefer to read the Sunday New York Times’s wedding announcements,” Trillin said.
Schieffer, meanwhile, continued: “The thing that sets these Sunday shows apart is that they’re still information-driven, they’re not entertainment shows. Sometimes they’re entertaining, but we’re still trying to make news.”
While provocative soundbites from the politicians who appear on Face and the other programs are instantly disseminated online, Schieffer said his primary measure of success is still the same as it was a quarter century ago. Namely, is his show quoted on the front pages of Monday’s newspapers?
“I’m old-fashioned that way,” he said. “I like to see it in a newspaper.”
Face is advantaged by its popular lead-in, the CBS Sunday Morning magazine show.
A wag at another network said: “The joke is that Face the Nation viewers are so old that after watching CBS Sunday Morning, it takes them a very long time to reach for the remote.”
Still, Face’s first half hour consistently beats its competitors in the key 25-54 age demographic.
Schieffer, for his part, expressed satisfaction that he and Rhodes had kept his retirement announcement a secret; the audience gasped and CBS This Morning cohost Gayle King, who was onstage at TCU when Schieffer made his emotional speech, was visibly shocked, covering her mouth with her hand.
If her reaction of surprise wasn’t so convincing, I’d say that King, O’Donnell’s CBS This Morning cohost but with minimal D.C. reporting experience, would be an intriguing out-of-the-box candidate for the job.
“My God, it was like the Normandy Invasion to keep it a secret,” Schieffer said of the announcement. “We are a news organization, after all, with a bunch of reporters, so we were worried that somebody at CBS would find out and tell somebody.”
Schieffer said that in order not to arouse suspicion in New York and Washington, Rhodes bypassed the CBS News bureaucracy in arranging a network camera for the occasion; instead of going through the usual channels, Rhodes personally called the Dallas bureau to request a crew.
Schieffer, who only last November celebrated Face’s 60th anniversary with a star-studded Washington gala whose guests were anxious to suck up to the host, said he originally planned to retire last year, but then-CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager persuaded him to stay.
Schieffer, who spent last weekend at Sea Island, Ga., with his close friend and golfing buddy Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat and former powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Nunn offered him some good advice on the golf course.
Schieffer recounted: “He said, ‘Bob, when you do something like this, don’t make any commitments immediately, because before you know it you’ll find yourself bogged down with a schedule that’s even worse than the one you have now. People are going to come to you with various things. Tell them you’ll get back to them.’
“So I’m just going to take three months—June, July, and August—to think about what I want to do. I’m sure I’ll find something to fill my days.”
Schieffer, who has survived bladder cancer, added: “I’m 78 years old. Today I’m in excellent health. Tomorrow I may not be. I just didn’t want to be like one of those senators who get led around by the hand, and they don’t even know if they’re on the elevator or on the Senate floor. I just wanted to leave the job when I felt like I could still do it.”