For a guy marking the conclusion of a 58-year journalism career, Bob Schieffer looked pretty darned pleased with his lot in life on his final Face the Nation broadcast on Sunday.
After all, by dint of his on-camera presence, reporting chops, and downhome Texas charm—to say nothing of his skill at high-level corporate politics—he managed to rise from humble beginnings as a scrappy ink-stained wretch for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the summit of network news—all without the sort of career mishaps that befell his fellow Texan Dan Rather and, more recently, Brian Williams.
Ultimately, Schieffer became a gray eminence of the Washington Establishment, albeit one who likes to sing occasionally in a country music band.
Thus his CBS News farewell—after 46 years as correspondent and then anchor at the network—was notable for its lack of drama and lightness of touch, a reflection of the man himself.
There was, of course, an end-of-show gathering at which Schieffer accepted the enthusiastic applause of his behind-the-camera staff; a blooper reel in which Schieffer, at various stages of his career, mispronounced foreign names, spilled a mug of coffee on the air, and collapsed in a fit of giggles (while anchoring the CBS Evening News) at a clip of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dancing with citizens of South Africa; and encomiums offered by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and CIA Director John Brennan—Schieffer’s last two newsmaker-guests—and from one of his “Sabbath gasbag” panelists, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
Several minutes after America’s top spymaster called the 78-year-old retiree “an icon in the broadcast and news industry,” Ignatius told Schieffer: “Bob, first I want to say thank you. You taught everyone in journalism how to do it right—treating people with respect and also asking them tough questions, always, as in your interview with Jeb Bush.”
Actually, the Bush interview—a videotaped encounter conducted Saturday in Nashville—was rather tame as these things go. Ditto the Brennan back-and-forth.
Schieffer didn’t demand to know, for instance, why the WASPy Bush had identified himself as Hispanic on a 2009 voter registration form. Nor did he pummel the CIA director over the Obama administration’s apparent failure to contain the hegemonic designs of ISIS. “We don’t have any ‘gotcha’ questions,” as Schieffer told me in April when he announced his retirement plans.
When Schieffer asked Brennan about the five Taliban combatants who were released from Gitmo in exchange for Taliban prisoner Army Sergeant Bo Bergdahl, and are soon to be freed from their year-long detention in Qatar—and whether they can be prevented from returning to terrorism—the CIA director responded with a lot of vague talk about consultations with Qatari officials but no real answer. Schieffer didn’t drill down.
And if the 62-year-old Republican presidential candidate-in-waiting was challenged by Schieffer’s queries about the controversy over re-authorizing the Patriot Act, what the United States should do about ISIS, shouldering the political baggage of his older brother George, and his support of comprehensive immigration reform, Bush didn’t betray it.
Instead, having slimmed down to campaign fighting-trim, Jeb proved himself leagues more articulate than both his presidential father and brother—he spoke in well-formed paragraphs, with sentences that boasted subject-verb agreement—and smoothly got out his talking points. (Bush’s comfy chatfest with the affable Schieffer was in stark contrast to a recent sit-down with Fox News’s aggressive inquisitor, Megyn Kelly, in which Bush shot himself in the penny-loafers by saying that he’d still invade Iraq even knowing that Saddam Hussein didn’t possess the sort of weapons of mass destruction that could threaten the United States—and then spent the next several days correcting and explaining himself.)
Bush ended the interview by telling Schieffer: “Bob, first of all, let me just say how much I respect your service to our country. Face the Nation is the go-to place and I just appreciate everything you’ve done. Unfortunately you won’t be around for me to announce a possible candidacy.”
Referring to his successor at Face, Schieffer graciously responded: “I won’t be here, but John Dickerson will, and I know he’ll be glad to see you if you want to come tell us about it.”
Likewise, during the final moments of the broadcast—which also included as panelists Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and Washington Post chief political correspondent Dan Balz—Schieffer promised Dickerson, who is also CBS’s political director, “You’re gonna love this job.”
Just before the half-hour mark in the program, when scores of CBS affiliates around the country drop out of carrying the show, Schieffer delivered his valedictory, at once self-satisfied and graceful. Schieffer told his viewers—who have made Face the No. 1 Sunday show, at least for its first half-hour—that when he determined it was time to pack it in, “I thought back to when I was in the ninth grade and saw my byline in the school newspaper and decided right then I wanted to be a reporter. I got a chance to do that. As a young reporter, I wanted to work for CBS because Walter Cronkite was my hero—and I got a chance to do that.”
He added: “I’ll be honest. I’m going to miss being in the middle of things, but one thing I will never forget is the trust you placed in me, and how nice you were to have me as a guest in your home over so many years. That meant the world to me and it always will. Thank you.”