The ‘Face’—And Soul—Of John Dickerson
How the new Face the Nation host gently boils politicians like unsuspecting frogs.
Journalists, especially political journalists, are a famously cynical breed. Considering that much of their job consists of chronicling the nasty bits of human behavior, it’s hardly common for members of this skeptical tribe to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
It’s especially rare for the state-of-the-art Washington reporter, circa 2015—a fashionably disbelieving clique, pickled in the juices of poisonous partisanship, and ever-demanding of evidence—to publicly take that leap of faith and embrace the divine.
CBS News political director John Dickerson, the new host of Face the Nation, the network’s 60-year-old Sunday public affairs program, is a notable exception in this regard.
“I believe in Jesus Christ,” Dickerson declared recently to an audience of college students shortly after being named the successor to Face’s grand old man, Bob Schieffer. “I believe that Jesus Christ existed, and that He died for my sins. And I believe that what He said in the Gospels is a model for the way I should try to lead my life, and that I will always fall short of that, and therefore need Him to redeem me.”
Like most political reporters, a political animal himself, Dickerson, 47, might have been playing to the crowd; he made his profession of faith during a Q&A with conservative Christian academic Marvin Olasky at Patrick Henry College, an institution of higher learning in Purcellville, Va., 50 miles outside Washington, whose “core curriculum,” according to its website, “center[s] all truth on the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
But Dickerson wasn’t necessarily pandering. He is, by most accounts, “a genuinely soulful guy,” as his friend, former Slate editor-in-chief David Plotz, describes him—the opposite of the sort of Machiavellian, sharp-elbowed careerist that one associates with the cliché of success in the cutthroat television news biz.
Current New York Times reporter and Slate alum Emily Bazelon—who, with Plotz, continues to join Dickerson every Thursday afternoon, as they have for the past decade, to record Slate’s popular “Political Gabfest” podcast (“We’re the Three Musketeers,” she jokes)—says: “What stands out most about John is his generosity of spirit. He’s a deeply kind person, more than most people, and that translates into his professional life.”
He is also, apparently, a virtuosic guitarist and singer, with an impressively encyclopedic command of the Bob Dylan catalogue.
Reports of Dickerson’s near-saintliness are so numerous and uniform that they recall the Korean War buddies’ trancelike praise of the hypnotized assassin in The Manchurian Candidate: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
Still, Dickerson’s religiosity clearly informs his life and work.
“The most important connection I can see between my faith and my work is that in the progress of my day I try to be restrained and mindful of every person’s humanity and of the overwhelming challenge of pride,” Dickerson, the married father of a young son and daughter, wrote in an email in which he fielded a few questions from The Daily Beast.
“That applies to work life and outside of work life. The other way in which faith helps is in reminding me that momentary disappointments and failures should be seen in the light of a far longer stretch of time.”
Yet he is also a deceptively tough interrogator, having honed a technique—known inside the Beltway as “Dickersonian”—in which he calmly, methodically, incises a politician’s carefully constructed façade until the mask falls away, revealing the scaly reptile beneath.
Plotz puts it another way: “He just keeps asking more questions and more questions, and will Socratically draw out somebody’s positions until you realize, oh wait, this makes no sense or contradicts some ridiculous statement that was said five minutes ago. And then you realize, oh my God! That guy just hanged himself! But not because of John. He’s very gentle. It’s like boiling the frog.”
There are at least two noteworthy examples of Dickersonian frog-boiling. The first involves George W. Bush, whose presidency he covered for Time magazine.
During an April 2004 White House news conference, at the height of the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dickerson asked Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers: “In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you’d made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You’ve looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?”
The normally swaggering Bush’s eyes suddenly flashed with terror. “I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it,” he complained, and then hemmed and hawed in an embarrassingly unpresidential verbal paroxysm, exposing a troubling incapacity for self-analysis.
The other Dickersonian example occurred during a February 2008 conference call with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s top campaign aides, who had just released the hyperbolic “3 a.m.” TV commercial implying that Barack Obama was too callow to cope with a foreign policy crisis, and that as a result the nation’s adorable sleeping children would not be safe.
“What foreign policy moment would you point to in Hillary’s career where she’s been tested by crisis?” asked Dickerson, who had moved from Time to become Slate’s chief political correspondent. According to an account in the Hotline political tip sheet, his simple query was greeted with so lengthy a silence that “you could’ve knit a sweater in the time it took the usually verbose team of Mark Penn, Howard Wolfson and Lee Feinstein, Clinton’s national security director, to find a cogent answer. And what they came up with was weak—that she’s been endorsed by many high-ranking members of the uniformed military.”
Born and raised in the wealthy Washington enclaves of McLean, Va., and Georgetown, D.C., an alumnus of the elite Sidwell Friends School and the University of Virginia, Dickerson is a spawn of the Beltway Establishment. He’s a member not only of the Lucky Sperm Club—his father, C. Wyatt Dickerson, was in his time a wealthy international businessman, Washington socialite, and supremely well-connected access-broker—but also of the Lucky Egg Club.
John’s late mother was groundbreaking television star Nancy Dickerson, the first newswoman to thrive on network television (including on CBS) and the Diane Sawyer of her day. His excellent 2006 book about his mom, On Her Trail, describes his surreal upbringing with his four siblings at Merrywood, a 47-acre McLean estate overlooking the Potomac River, with a 36-room mansion staffed by servants, where Jacqueline Bouvier and Gore Vidal, long before Wyatt Dickerson bought it in 1964, had also spent their childhoods.
Dickerson’s often-inattentive parents were the premiere power couple of the nation’s capital, and an endless parade of Washington A-listers—including President-elect Ronald Reagan, right before he took the oath of office—trooped through their front hall to glittering parties where senators and cabinet officials talked business over stiff drinks.
It was young John’s job to man the door and chirp to arriving dinner guests, “Welcome to Merrywood!” before being dispatched upstairs. These days, perhaps as a result of his life among the swells, Dickerson is decidedly not a social moth.
“I think he operates very easily within the Washington Establishment, but he also has a healthy distance from it,” says former Obama White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who befriended Dickerson 15 years ago when both were covering the 2000 presidential campaign for Time. “John’s not somebody who needs to go to parties or needs to socialize in Washington. He feels connected to it, but he’s also very happy at home with his family or just alone with a book.”
Dickerson has maintained his prolific output of political columns for Slate, and recently launched his own “Whistle Stop” podcast on key moments in presidential campaign history, even as he travels to caucus and primary states for his fulltime job at CBS.
So far, with two episodes of Face under his belt and a third one airing in most media markets at 10:30 this morning (today’s focus will be the racially motivated massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina), Dickerson has yet to hit his frog-boiling stride.
But in the early outings, he has shown himself to be well-informed and meticulously prepared—and unfailingly polite, going out of his way last Sunday to apologize to freshly minted Republican presidential candidate Senator Lindsey Graham for interrupting one of his filibusters.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the blond-haired, blue-eyed Dickerson—admittedly, on the surface at least, the whitest of white men—has a warm, inviting smile and anchorman looks.
“My hope,” he emailed, “is to stick to the news, help people understand it, ask the questions they want answered and press lawmakers enough that they will answer those questions in a way that informs people—which should also make news.”