Last Chance to Make History
Will debate moderator Bob Schieffer steal the show tonight? He needs to prove CBS was wrong to dump him for Katie Couric.
There’s something warm and comforting about Bob Schieffer, and that’s his problem. He heads into tonight’s debate with a mandate not to let the candidates bore us to death yet again. Don’t get your hopes up.
Schieffer’s avuncular Texas charm and goofy chuckle worked well enough in the anchor chair; let’s face it, history has shown that Americans prefer getting their news from middle aged men with sparkly teeth, smooth diction, and a soothing demeanor.
Check out the numbers: In the two years since CBS News pushed Schieffer off the evening newscast to make room for Katie Couric, the network has watched its broadcast slide even deeper into last place. Couric generated headlines and praise with her aggressive Palin interviews, but viewers didn’t care. Most of us still enjoy our headlines handed to us gently by elderly neighbors named Tom, Jim, and Charlie.
Beneath that chipper exterior lies a man in misery.It privately rankled Schieffer that CBS News pushed him aside in 2006 to make way for Couric—a move made despite the ratings bump that followed his temporary ascension to the throne.
Will tonight be Bob Schieffer’s moment? It makes sense from a distance; he’s a courtly, calming presence in a stressful time, and a political insider with the savvy to serve up the juicy debate we’re so desperate to watch. But history suggests, sadly, that Schieffer may yet again miss the opportunity history has handed him.
He’s a permanent number two in a world where it’s number one, or nothing.
It’s not as though Schieffer hasn’t had chances to shine before; the 71-year-old Texan has been a senior political correspondent at CBS since the 1970s, and was Dan Rather’s regular fill-in for years. (CBS News insiders recall that he referred to himself in those days as “Deputy Dawg,” an example of his witty repartee.)
But he was no one’s choice for permanent anchor, and only inherited the job after Rather’s dismissal because CBS president Leslie Moonves couldn’t hire Katie Couric fast enough. Schieffer has been hosting “Face The Nation” for so long that most people have forgotten it exists; his ratings barely registered against the Russert “Meet The Press” juggernaut, and his soporific interviews haven’t generated a news headline in years.
Maybe it’s all because beneath that chipper exterior lies a man in misery. It privately rankled Schieffer that CBS News pushed him aside in 2006 to make way for Couric—a move made despite the ratings bump that followed his temporary ascension to the throne.
You can’t blame him for being upset. It’s a numbers game, and he was winning. Plus, by the standards of CBS News, he was still a fresh faced kid; upstairs at “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer and Andy Rooney are still working on fumes.
But while his bosses kept shoving him aside, he kept smiling through it all—he still filed his political commentaries like a good soldier, chatting amiably with Couric from Washington as Charlie Gibson took the geriatric set under his wing.
It must have seemed sweet vengeance when the debate job came along this fall, on the verge of his announced retirement from CBS News next January. At last, here was the chance to show up Moonves and Couric and all those others who’d made his life miserable these last few years, thwarting his chance to save CBS News.
Look, they didn’t ask Katie, they asked me! But no sooner did the gig get offered than the debates started tanking. His peers, Tom Brokaw and Jim Lehrer, outdid themselves in undoing themselves; the first two debates served as case studies in boredom.
Almost inconceivably, the most exciting campaign in our lifetimes devolved into the dullest show on TV. (This isn’t to suggest that Gwen Ifill did any better in moderating the vice-presidential debates, but hey, how hard is it to stare wide-eyed in disbelief at Sarah Palin?)
If Schieffer has any hope of transcending his image in his final moments on television—and of delivering a debate remotely worthy of this year’s epic political drama—he’ll have to shed his aw-schucks demeanor and steal some style tips from his nemesis. Numbers or not, Couric has proven herself to be the only anchor that mattered this election season, by fearlessly courting conflict with tough, relentless questions.
Lehrer’s lame requests for the candidates to combat each other, and Brokaw’s failure to force McCain and Obama to stay on point, made a mockery of their journalistic credentials. It’s time for Schieffer to step up and face the nation, at last, and be the debate moderator the nation needs. That means no chuckling.