Party Politics

Kissy-Face The Nation: Washington’s Power Elite Smooch Bob Schieffer

At Face The Nation’s 60th anniversary party, love for host Bob Schieffer ran wild. Joe Biden was there to ‘kiss the ring,’ while John McCain boasted of a record 101 appearances.

That giant sucking sound emanating from Washington’s Newseum Monday night had nothing to with nutty billionaire (and almost-president) Ross Perot’s famous prophesy of jobs draining south to Mexico, and everything to do with the collective moist, noisy smooch being planted by one Washington power cluster on another, perhaps higher, Washington power cluster.

“I’m here to suck up to Bob,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, declared as he arrived at the 60th anniversary celebration of CBS News’s Face the Nation and the Sunday public affairs show’s longtime host, Bob Schieffer.

“I came down to kiss the ring,” Vice President Joe Biden told the Daily Beast, a few minutes after his motorcade--a terrifying assault of roaring police choppers and shrieking sirens--descended on the media museum like a squadron of flying monkeys. “This,” Biden added, “is about acknowledging the most trusted man in journalism.”

“I’m here because this is a guy where you never have to kiss the ring,” argued Sen. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. “I mean, he’s not that type. He is just kind and smart, and it’s hard to believe he’s been around Washington as long as he has, because he doesn’t have any of Washington’s bad habits.”

“Everybody showed up tonight,” theorized PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, half in jest and wholly in earnest, “because they know better than to tick Bob Schieffer off.”

“One of the reasons why I think people respect him so much is it is impossible to detect a political bias,” said Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. “I’ve been on 101 times--the Face the Nation record—and still don’t know if he’s a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Vegetarian.”

CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves echoed McCain’s appreciation for Schieffer’s lack of ideological identification. “I’ve known Schieffer for more than 20 years,” Moonves confided. “I have no idea how he feels about anybody or anything, if he’s a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative. It doesn’t matter. That’s what a spectacular journalist he is. And he’s adored. He’s adored internally and externally. And that’s important.”

Sen. Rand Paul, however, resisted gushing--in keeping with his contrarian brand. “Not everything has a divine plan or anything,” the independent-minded Kentucky Republican demurred. “My wife’s here in town. We got an invitation. We decided to come.”

“It’s Washington,” said Sean Spicer, communications director of the Republican National Committee. “Everyone wants to be where everyone else is going to be.”

Indeed, the ground floor of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, almost equidistant between the White House and the Capitol, had been transformed into a buzzing, undulating hive of vaguely familiar faces. Washington waxworks and stars of the C-SPAN firmament jostled one another, climbed over one another or simply pushed past whatever human obstruction was blocking access to the next plate of sushi, miniature cheeseburger, free drink, or VIP, in the age-old (or old-age) orgy of schmoozing and boozing.

General Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, shuffled head-down through the mob. Lobbyist Lloyd Hand, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, flitted from conversation to conversation. Washington lawyer-agent Bob Barnett, confidant of everyone from Hillary Clinton to Sarah Palin, surveyed a roomful of once-and-future clients.

At the center of it all was the 77-year-old Schieffer, who has presided for the past 23 years over the program launched on Nov. 7, 1954 by legendary CBS President Frank Stanton, when the broadcast outlet was dominant in the newsbiz and as well as entertainment programming, and frequently referred to--it sounds quaint now--as “The Tiffany Network.”

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“We had a good turnout tonight,” Schieffer told The Daily Beast with an ear-to-ear grin, exaggerated understatement and his trademark bowl-of-warm-soup tone that seems to spring more from Fort Worth, Texas, than from Washington, D.C. “I’m wearing my old TCU ring,” he added, offering a finger to show off the class ring of his alma mater, Texas Christian University. Nobody, at this particularly moment anyway, was literally kissing it. “We don’t take anything for granted,” Schieffer added. “So far, so good.”

A three-piece band--electric keyboard, bass fiddle and drums--stopped playing the Roberta Flack hit Killing Me Softly (With His Song) long enough for the evening’s formal remarks to be delivered beneath a gigantic television screen where various Face the Nation newsmakers through history (a slim Al Gore, a matinee idol-ish Bibi Netanyahu, a reptilian-looking Henry Kissinger, a youthful Lesley Stahl, who hosted the show for eight years prior to Schieffer’s reign) appeared and vanished like ghosts in the night.

Joe Biden and John McCain professed undying love and loyalty for each other, even though, as Biden noted, “I drive him crazy.”

Earlier, the vice president had lamented that his current job had prevented him from even hoping to match McCain’s record of 101 Face the Nation appearances. “My staff told me I’ve been on 55 times,” he confided. “That’s one of the reasons you shouldn’t run for vice president, because had I stayed in the Senate I would have been at 112. You know what I mean? What the hell! You run for vice president and you lose your opportunity.”

Because for every television appearance, he has to secure permission from his Obama White House minders?

“Yeah,” Biden agreed with a laugh.

CBS News President David Rhodes heaped praise on Schieffer, as did Rhodes’s boss, CBS News Chairman (and 60 Minutes executive producer) Jeff Fager, who proclaimed that the program was beating its competitors in the ratings, and took a none-too-veiled swipe at NBC’s Meet the Press.

“I wouldn’t want to be going up against him [Schieffer] every Sunday. No wonder they’re talking to Jon Stewart,” Fager told the crowd, referring to reports that NBC News President Deborah Turness wooed the Comedy Central star for MTP before settling for Chuck Todd.

Schieffer, by contrast, was more magnanimous and respectful. “The competition is very fierce, we have very good competitors,” he told the Daily Beast. “There’s no dumbos at this level, so we have to pay attention to what we’re doing and go out there and play our best game.”

Lindsey Graham said the secret of Schieffer’s success is “he asks you the hardest question in politics--which is, ‘What do you think?’ Then he listens to your answer, and when he says, ‘that makes no sense,’ you don’t know what to say next. So he asks simple questions and he actually listens to your answer--which is devastating.”

McCain, who will become chairman of the Armed Service Committee when the new Congress convenes in January and the Republican majority assumes control of the Senate, said that Face the Nation and its rivals remain important, even at a moment when the Internet and social media are as powerful as traditional television.

“Even though the viewership shrinks, the proliferation of an appearance on the Internet is even greater in many respects than in the old days when, if you missed the Sunday appearance, you missed it,” McCain argued. “Whenever I see Lindsey, who is very good at the soundbite, on a Sunday show, I’ll see that for the next several days…So, yeah, they still have a significant impact.”

Meanwhile, McCain--the off-again, on-again “maverick” of American politics--predicted that bipartisan behavior in Washington will ultimately prevail, not just the bipartisan eating and drinking going on around him.

“Our approval ratings are in the tank. We crave approval,” he said. “The only way you’re gonna get that is by showing the American people that you can get things done. And that requires bipartisanship. If we [the Republicans] want to win in 2016, with a majority in both the House and the Senate, we better show the American people that we know how to govern.”

Maybe, maybe not. In the crowd was Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who has clashed repeatedly with departing Chairman Darrell Issa, who--in a moment that went beyond viral--notoriously prevented Cummings from speaking, cutting off his microphone during a particularly contentious hearing.

“The other day, they had the unveiling of Issa’s official portrait and they probably didn’t think I would show up, but I was invited, so I came,” Cummings recounted. “And I said, ‘I just want you to know that my mother, a former sharecropper, has told me I should never be mad at you.’ And he looks at me and says, ‘Really.’ And I said, ‘Yes, my mother said, don’t me mad at that man because he done made you famous!’ ”

Chatting with Schieffer a few yards away, the normally publicity-loving Issa was decidedly snappish when approached by the Daily Beast. “This is off the record. Put that away,” he ordered, scowling at this reporter’s digital recorder. “I don’t want to be interviewed, unsolicited.”

But his ranking Democratic member just told an amusing story about Issa. “He made a quote and he gave you the quote. Good. Then you have it,” Issa said irritably.

Such prickly behavior tended to contradict the expressed hopes of many people at the party, including Bob Schieffer, that Republicans and Democrats will actually try to work together next year.

“I hope for the best,” Schieffer said. “It’s a long-shot though.”