Bob Schieffer, one of the legendary figures of network television news whose career spans 50 years and nine presidents, will retire this summer, he announced Wednesday evening.
Schieffer, 78, announced his decision during a symposium named in his honor at Texas Christian University, his alma mater.
"Because that was where it all started for me, I wanted this to be the place, and I wanted you all to be the first to know that this summer I'm going to retire," he said. "It's been a great adventure. You know, I'm one of the luckiest people in the world because as a little boy, as a young reporter, I always wanted to be a journalist, and I got to do that. And not many people get to do that, and I couldn't have asked for a better life or something that was more fun and more fulfilling."
Yes, there will be plenty of time to celebrate this remarkable career, and no time like the present to begin. Here's a Newsday story I wrote on Schieffer when he started at the "CBS Evening News" in 2005 -- a period of calm and in fact genuine audience growth just before Katie Couric joined. Schieffer has in fact worked at most of the CBS News broadcasts, certainly not all. He's not a "magazine" guy, per se, so "60 Minutes" wasn't an option. He wasn't a New Yorker, but a Beltway partisan, which tended to limit his presence later in his illustrious career there. But read this and see if you don't agree: There's an almost wistful sense of what might have been...what if Schieffer had been the anchor of "Evening News," or at least anchor after Dan Rather's long and very successful run began to ebb by the end of the '80s?
This piece was published almost exactly ten years ago to the day, and -- as a sidenote -- Bob told me at the time, he'll "likely retire in two years..."
All's quiet on the set of "The CBS Evening News," or the so-called "Fishbowl," on a recent day, and the only big fish in sight is Bob Schieffer. He is sitting behind the expansive desk atop an elevated platform - yes, the anchor desk - that seems slightly too expansive for the current occupant, like some bespoke suit where the tailor forgot to take up the sleeves.
Trimly built, with neatly groomed gray hair and gentle folds of skin on his 68-year-old face that convey that anchorly avuncular quality, Schieffer is awaiting his turn to interview two Washington bureaucrats. They have just produced a devastating report on America's intelligence agencies and there's a network conga line to interview them.
Schieffer will conduct his part of the inquisition by satellite hookup, but ahead of him is NBC's David Gregory who bores in with a withering intensity. Finally, it's Bob's turn, and his questions have the impact of a down pillow. What does this report mean? ... How could it happen? ... Is it really all that bad? - Good questions, to be sure, but what is unique is that they are offered in a genuine spirit of inquiry.
Schieffer didn't seem to have a clue what "it" means any more than the 7 or so million viewers of "Evening News" who will be watching a few hours hence. Indeed, he does a wonderful impression of someone who seems to share their bias about anchor big shots - that they're know-it-alls who think they're larger than the news they cover.
And this may also be one reason why Schieffer's "Evening News" tenure - one month old Saturday - is such a resounding success so far. Measuring this success in numbers is pointless because college hoops have pre-preempted the show a few times over the past few weeks.
The best yardstick is the broadcast itself - calm, measured, thoughtful and inquisitive - which is a mirror of the anchorman himself. Consider that NBC News had the better part of two years to build a transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams.
CBS didn't even have two months, and the average viewer (or newspaper critic) would be hard-pressed to say which of these transitions was the more adroit. Schieffer, says Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," "is exactly what is needed at this moment at CBS News, which is stability and viability. And the fact is, he's the old school [and] from my point of view, that's also what we need because CBS News has been through a certain number of trials in the last several months, and he puts a reassuring substance back on the mother church." Trials, indeed. So-called "Memogate" forced Dan Rather out of a job he held for 24 years, and decimated CBS News morale.
Then, CBS chief Leslie Moonves began to openly mull radical surgery at "Evening News," which bred even more instability, and the boss suddenly found himself a lighting rod. Industry sources say Moonves then sought counsel from some insiders about how to quell the unrest.
Appoint Schieffer, they said. "I saw my first job, No. 1, to just get everyone back into a good humor, if that's possible, and to believing in ourselves again," Schieffer says. "This [Memogate] was just one story that went wrong, and not every story went wrong, and most of the people here had absolutely nothing to do with it." Byron Pitts, who has reported from Baghdad over the past three weeks, says,
"Everyone was heartbroken by the scandal, [and] for many of us, Bob has been a breath of fresh air because he is someone with impeccable credentials. You didn't feel that the institution was turning its back on journalism by putting someone like Bob in place [and] that's comforting for people like myself." In just four weeks,
Schieffer (who continues to anchor "Face the Nation" from Washington on Sundays) has stamped his own brand of glasnost on "The Evening News." As part of an effort to build a team of standout correspondents, he tells reporters to "talk to me [on the air] the way you talk to me in the newsroom."
He moved into Rather's old office overlooking the Fishbowl, and promptly removed the shutters on the windows that had made Dan's inner sanctum a forbidding and mysterious place.
Most of all, the Schieffer era means asking questions. "[Walter] Cronkite would come up with questions that no one would have anticipated - we used to call them 'Walter Wants' - and it would never fail that at 6:15, he'd turn around [to someone] and say, 'How long's Greenland?' or 'How much oil is there in the world?'
"I keep telling our [reporters], I'm not telling you how to do the story, but I'm calling you because I want to know something." There are, of course, questions for Schieffer, too. How long will this tenure last?
He says he will likely retire in two years, perhaps to resume work on a book about the relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, which was set aside when the new job began. He also does a wonderful impression of someone in no hurry to leave. "I'm having," he says, "the time of my life right now."