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Bob Schieffer tribute: A life of kings

Bob Schieffer ended a 46-year career at CBS News Sunday, and -- characteristically -- handled this landmark with no discernible emotional flourish, no signalling fireworks. He took just about a minute to wrap up.

There was wisdom in this last moment, worth noting: "I tried to remember the news is not about the newscaster but about those who make it." Then, this thank you, as well, as if he were saying goodbye to a tolerant host after a very long dinner: "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 will always will."

ust like that. Over. .

How does someone, anyone, last 46 years in a job, much less this job? Much has been made the last two weeks of David Letterman's thirty-three year run. Schieffer's career actually began fifty-two years ago, when as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he gave a ride to the widow of Lee Harvey Oswald.

What was the secret of Bob Schiefferas success? Consider just a few incontrovertible observations about this career. Schieffer anchored "Face the Nation" longer than anyone, far and away longer (24 years) -- and leaves this program as Sunday morning's most attended watering hole, for news commentary and interviews. He worked as an anchor for "Evening News" on the weekends and weekdays, notably as placeholder -- bad word but accurate word -- between Dan Rather's forced exit in 2004 and Katie Couric's hyper-promoted arrival in 2006. In a year and a half, Schieffer added viewers and threatened to take the broadcast to first place. The threat evaporated the minute he left.

Some possibly controvertible observations now: Schieffer was the second most gifted anchorman in CBS News history, although Ed Bradley could have challenged him for that lofty position. What does "gifted" mean in this context? An ability to look into a camera and present information in the most forthright and unvarnished manner possible, while consecrating that which is said with a sense that it also has the added benefit of being TRUE.

This wasn't as easy as Schieffer made it look. A few things had to happen, all at once. First, unwavering eye-to-camera contact.

Not always easy when seven million pair of eyes are looking back.

Second, clarity. A newspaper reporter at the outset of his career, Schieffer learned that the noun always came first. Sentences should be short. They should be declarative -- and never contain the word "declarative."

Third is where the magic comes in. Something in the anchorpersonas manner -- posture, eyes, voice, presentation -- needs to seal the deal. Viewers not only must understand what they have heard, but must nod internally to themselves when they hear it. CBSas greatest anchor was Walter Cronkite, who not only had these gifts but invented them.

Here are other secrets of Schieffer's longevity. He stayed out of the New York swirl of who was up, who was down, who was out... CBS News in the 80s was the Kremlin, and to be part of this Kremlin was to be marked as either someone within a favored circle, or or someone to be excluded from the circle. Cronkite loyalists as a matter of course were among the latter during the '80s..

CBS's Washington bureau, where Schieffer was based, had a different orientation, or as Schieffer once told me,aI've never worked in the office, so I never got involved in office politics. Washington [TV journalism] is so different than New York. Everyone up [there] tends to talk about television, and in Washington the government is such an overwhelming presence that you tend to talk about the government. Also, the [CBS] bosses are some place else, and that's always good."

Schieffer had once wanted to become Cronkiteas replacement, but later witnessed a spurned presumed heir apparent stumble out of a bar, denouncing the fates and the fools who had passed him over. In that moment (as Schieffer has written) he quickly moved past that ambition.

So, we've established that Schieffer is a good anchor and stayed away from the bosses. But that doesn't begin to explain what else he brought to this operation. In style, Schieffer on the air was and is much like Schieffer off the air: There's a certain balm he brought to broadcasts but also to newsroom. His role at "Evening News" after Dan Rather's ouster in the wake of the so-called "Memogate" was an obvious example of that: "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 said after taking over. "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, said at the time: "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."

From a political standpoint, it helped that Schieffer was a friend of President George W. Bush ()Schieffer's brother was a co-owner of the Texas Rangers with the president). But I would submit: No one ever knew this, and based on Schieffer's reporting and on-air demeanor, no one ever could. He treated this president as he would and did any other: As an interview subject.

Ten years later, hindsight and foresight match up pretty well: Many thought then that Schieffer should have remained anchor of "Evening News," many do now Katie Couric's appointment was engineered by CBS chief Leslie Moonves who believed "star power" would elevate the program, but Moonves' instinct -- usually sound -- foundered this time.

Would Schieffer have wanted to stay? Probably not. He had a serious health scare (cancer) and age (he was 68 at the time) meant that his tenure would have ended sooner than later, leaving the broadcast with no obvious successor. Characteristically, Schieffer knew that better than anyone, and removed himself back to Washington, where he instead took "Face the Nation" from a half hour to an hour, and from there to a ratings leadership position.

In sum, the secrets to Bob's success: Be a reporter first, an anchor second. Ask questions, listen to the answers (you just may learn something, and even better, have a followup question).

Never mistake the newscaster for the news.

Never venture into the weeds of corporate intrigue ,where the only escape route is past the gaping jaws of crocodiles.

As moderator, be fair. Have opinions -- certainly -- but label them as opinions.

Don't imagine the grass is a deeper and richer shade of green elsewhere. Green is green.

Do all this, and much more, and forty-six years later, this legacy remains: The last of a group of CBS reporters and anchors who made this the most important and powerful TV news organization in the world, over a period of decades.

Even more important, a reputation remains, for unimpeachable fairness and professionalism, at the very highest levels of this profession, proving --as Mencken once so memorably said -- that journalism really is the life of kings.


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